Kabbalah and the Seventh Heaven

Image courtesy wikipedia

I’ve had the privilege recently of attending a course on the ancient texts of the Kabbalah, presented by Rabbi Dr. Orna Triguboff. These mystical teachings have long been a fascination of mine, particularly after I discovered, while researching  my novel ‘Capriccio’, about  the poet Ted Hughes, that he drew  inspiration and poetic imagery from the texts of Kabbalah.

Our talks with Rabbi Orna range from discussions about angels, to the study of sleep and dreams, which to me was fascinating. We learned that the Kabbalists see sleep as one sixtieth part of death, in which the soul leaves the body to seek salvation, and returns purified on waking. Thus sleep is like a mini-death, in which we shed the dross of the day to be restored through our dreams. What struck me most forcefully was the sheer beauty and lyricism of the language, which even in its English translation has a musical and poetic quality. kabbalah_for_healing

In Rabbi Orna’s own words: The Kabbalah can be understood as the mystical side of Judaism, which began thousands of years ago. Some of the texts, parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls, were lost and only rediscovered in the twentieth century. Jewish mysticism only really became known as Kabbalah in the Eleventh Century. People from other traditions and religions have been inspired by Kabbalah, and understand it in different ways. 

Each week we accolytes sit around a table sipping coffee laced with chocolate, nourishing body and brain with her jewels of wisdom. To take in the meaning of texts over 2000 years old in these little sips is a challenge, but one I welcome with eager anticipation.

I am proud that my own grandfather, who came from Sfad, the centre of Kabbalistic study in israel for many centuries, was a kabbalistic scholar, and left a legacy of writings in Hebrew, Yiddish and English.

Tapestry of Divine Letters. Artist David Friedman,    Selected artworks copyright © David Friedman.

The main text of the Kabbalah is called the Zo’har, which records the mystic’s ascent through the seven sacred halls to reach ‘the Holiest of Holies’ – the seventh and highest hall. This heirarchy of levels or spheres range from the earthly to thespiritual. The phrase ‘In Seventh Heaven’ comes directly from these teachings.

There are overtones of Hinduism and other Eastern Religions throughout these texts. There are also links to the chakras or energy centres in the Sanskrit teachings of yoga.

It is no wonder that the poet Ted Hughes found the study of Kabbalah so compelling, and incorporated so much of its mythology into his poetry, particularly the ‘Capriccio’ sequence. In these poems he addresses his lover  Assia, whose background was Russian-Jewish, as the divine feminine ‘Shekinah’ but also as the dark force, Lilith.

we have been given  by Rabbi Orna have influenced my own sleep patterns, mostly for the better. Before sleep I surrender my spirit to the Infinite, and on waking say a short prayer of gratitude (Modah Ani) for the return of my soul. I sleep deeply and peacefully, knowing my many flaws will be forgiven and healed, and wake with greater respect for the messages of my dreams.

The Kabbalistic Tree of Life, by Artist Richard Quinn


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The torment of Ted Hughes


This review by Mark Ford of ‘Ted Hughes: the Unauthorised Life’ by Jonathan Bates, gives an interesting slant on Bate’s book, and echoes much of the portrayal of Hughes’s remorse in my novel: ‘Capriccio: the Haunting of Sylvia Plath.

 In March 1969 Assia gassed both herself and her four-year-old daughter by Hughes, Shura, in her flat in Clapham. She had grown tired of sharing Hughes with his two women down in Devon, Brenda Hedden (a social worker) and Carol Orchard, a local farmer’s daughter and nurse, who would become his second wife. Hughes did, on occasion, explicitly question the implications of his … behaviour in his private journal, noting, for instance, of this particular erotic triangle: ‘3 beautiful women – all in love, and a separate life of joy visible with each, all possessed – but own soul lost.’ The sorrows of the polygamist … As the errant poet struggled to manage his handily alphabetised commitments to A, B and C, as he referred to them in his journal, Assia battled with the complexities of the situation in which she found herself after Plath’s suicide.


Although less jealous and possessive than Plath, Assia had her own moments of despair and fury: in a will she made in April 1968 she left to Hughes only ‘my no doubt welcome absence and my bitter contempt.’  Hughes’s ‘The Error’, from the suite of Assia poems collected in Capriccio (1990), presents her subsequent death as almost a direct consequence of Sylvia’s suicide:

When her grave opened its ugly mouth
Why didn’t you just fly,
Wrap yourself in your hair and make yourself scarce,
Why did you kneel down at the grave’s edge
To be identified
Accused and convicted
By all who held in their hands
Pieces of the gravestone grey granite
As Bate’s tells it, Hughes had no need of others’ vitriol to feel haunted and tormented for the 35 years that followed his first wife’s death. He suffered as much as they could have wanted. And while some may find specious Bate’s theory that Hughes’s serial infidelities were in fact a way of staying faithful to the memory of Plath – an argument that certainly pushes to a new level of sophistication the Cole Porter lyric ‘I’m always true to you darling in my fashion’ – it’s hard not to feel that Hughes never escaped the baffling labyrinth into which his relationship with Plath led him.
Excerpt  from Sorrows of a Polygamist’ by Mark Ford: a Review of Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life by Jonathan Bate  

Birth Day of Assia Wevill 15 May 1927 – 23 March 1969




Assia Wevill, born Assia Esther Gutmann, would have been 89 years old today, had she not taken her own life and that of her daughter Shura in March 1969. She was 41 when she died: 41 years, reflected in the 41 chapters in my novel, ‘Capriccio’, which endeavours to honour her short life.

Who was the real Assia? Was she a seductive siren, wooing Ted Hughes away from his one true wife? Was she a vain, selfish woman determined to establish herself in London’s literary world? Or was she a frightened wanderer through life, excessively generous to her friends, utterly devoted to her daughter, and a loving daughter herself to her charismatic father Lonya?

Her third and truest husband, the poet and academic David Wevill, has said that no-one has truly understood her, for all the fictional and non-fictional portrayals, from the play ‘Doonreagan’ about the months she spent with Ted and their children in Ireland, to the only published biography,’Lover of Unreason’ by Eilat Negev and Yehuda Koren. Her close friend, Nathaniel Tarn, has left diaries and letters to the Stanford University Library, which throw light on Assia’s identity. He describes her as a ‘peasant’, never fully accepted in English society, covering her painful insecurity with an over-polished accent and a dramatic persona. Far from being vain, she was highly self-critical, and would be driven to tears when friends teased her about her undoubted beauty.

What did she think of herself? The scant diary entries that remain show her as thinking she was ‘second-rate’, would never amount to anything, was unworthy of the great poet Ted Hughes’s attention, and could never match up to his first wife Sylvia, whom she both idolised and feared. Yet she was a talented miniaturist, an award-winning copywriter, and a talented translator and linguist. In the words of her own poem, she remains ‘unlamented’:

… To see again and no more/The black northern pond,/ Its autumn spent/

Its eye burning with crippled cedar wings…..

Like Thomas Hood’s and my time’s

Unlamented, spring less, passed.

– Assia Wevill, ‘Winter End, Herfordshire’


Sylvia’s Last Letter


What do you think Sylvia might have written in that last letter?

Sylvia Plath’s last days have been well documented, again and again giving us the same facts in the various non-fiction biographies. We know she wrote a letter just before she died, and asked her downstairs neighbour for stamps.. The letter, if it was found, has never been disclosed. We also know that Assia Wevill, Sylvia’s rival, was shocked to read the vituperative language Sylvia wrote about herself and hr husband David. The journal was subsequently destroyed.

In my fictional recreation of these events, I’ve invented details, dialogue, and writings by the main characters.The following extract excerpt is an imagined version of what she might have written on that last day. The letter contains the things Assia might have read about herself, in the lost journal.

Here’s an extract from my fictional letter:

I cannot bear to write your name; its very sound is a hiss from the tongue of a serpent. You snaked your way into our lives and destroyed all that was once wholesome and fertile, and changed my husband from a god to a devil. Here is the gift you have wished for, freeing him to be yours. But rest assured, he will never love you, or your bastard child, as he’s loved me and our children. With this act I curse you forever. I will always be between you, watching and waiting. The day will come when you and yours will join me in Hell.


What other writers have said about how to create  fiction from fact:

‘When making up detail, you still have a structure to pin it on. The facts are a stimulus to the imagination, so you’re not inventing something in a vacuum. In a way, you’re inventing these things almost like a detective would. You come up with hypothess that would make sense of the facts you’ve got. (e.g. the letter Sylvia wrote just before she died, for which she asked Dr Thomas for a stamp.) There is a wonderful kind of tug between the facts and the fiction.’ ( Emma Donoghue, author of ‘Room’.)

William Nicholson, the British author and screenwriter, wrote, in his reply to my email query re fact/fiction: As you may know I write fiction with real people in it a great deal, and have done since ‘Shadowlands’ dramatised the love life of C.S.Lewis. My own view is that it’s okay to do this so long as: a) you stick to the truth as far as it’s known; and b) where you invent to fill the gaps, you treat the real people generously.

 Hannah Kent, in the author’s note to her brilliant award-winning novel, ‘Burial Rites’ says: ‘Many known & established facts about Agnes’ life have been reproduced in this novel and events have either been drawn directly from the record or are the result of speculation. They are fictional likelihoods.’

 If we substitute ‘Assia’ for ‘Agnes, Kent’s main character, the same might be said about my novel, ‘Capriccio’.



What is Truth in Fiction?

Assia Gutmann Wevill, the subject of my novel, 'Capriccio'image

Assia Gutmann Wevill, the subject of my novel, Capriccio: the Haunting of Sylvia Plath

What do readers look for from historical or biographical fiction? Is it the ‘truth’ in the form of accurately researched facts, or are they seeking  a deeper truth behind those facts? There are facts a-plenty in ‘Capriccio’, the result of ten years’ extensive research of the characters’ lives and works.However,   I have dug deeper into the realm of possibilities to create a story which, although largely following known truths, adds drama and colour to the lives of these real people.

The question of truth in fiction has been constantly in my mind throughout this novel’s long gestation. I first heard of Assia Wevill in the year 2000, when a newspaper article ‘Haunted by the Ghosts of Love’ came to my notice. It was written by Assia’s biographers, Eilat Negev and Yehuda Koren. Something about Assia’s story resonated with me, and for the next few years I read and researched everything I could about her role in the famous story of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.

When Negev and Koren’s biography, ‘Lover of Unreason’, came out in 2006, I was at first devastated to know that others had got there before me, and abandoned all thought of writing my own book about Assia. Then I realised that what I wanted to write was not a ‘straight’ biography, but a re-creation of the lives of Assia, Ted and Sylvia during the turbulent years of their tragic triangle. This is not to say that Negev and Koren gave us only the bare bones of Assia’s story – far from it; they left no stone unturned, and I’m forever in their debt for revealing the many facts which have formed the ‘scafffolding’ for my novel.

As author of historical fiction,  Sulari Gentill, suggests,” bringing a  historical figure to life is often about juxtaposing the contradictions to reveal the small details and allow the reader to see to them as human beings. The “holes” in history, the blank spaces, are  where we spin our tales and create. We fill in those spaces with imaginative hypotheses, with stories that link separate historical facts with a fictional narrative.

By filling in the ‘holes’ left in the documented events of those years 1961 to 1969, using imagination to create dialogue, thoughts, dreams, journal entries and letters by the main characters, I hope to make their story live again.


A is for Assia


Assia Wevill and Shura Hughes Wevill, Devon, England,1967
Assia Wevill and Shura Hughes Wevill, Devon, England,1967

Preamble: In the British Library Manuscript Room, London, I had the privilege of accessing the Ted Hughes’ archive, containing some of his private diary notes and unpublished poems. Throughout his papers, he refers to Assia only as ‘A’, perhaps evidence of his continuing shame for his Adulterous relationship with her. (Jonathan Bate suggests the ‘A’ could be the ‘A’, the mark of the adulteress, Hester Prynne, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, ‘The Scarlet Letter’) . This is an excerpt from my 3500 word essay on the topic. Let me know if you’d like to read more!- Dina


The Capriccio Poems of Ted Hughes

 On a bleak day in March 1969, a woman and her child were found dead from gas inhalation in the kitchen of a shabby flat in Clapham, London. The woman was Assia Gutmann Wevill, the mistress of poet Ted Hughes. She had taken her own life and that of her four-year-old daughter Shura. Six years earlier, on one of the coldest February days in England’s history, another woman was found dead from gas inhalation in the kitchen of a flat in Primrose Hill, London. She was Sylvia Plath, poetess and wife of Ted Hughes. Her two young children were found crying but unharmed in their nursery upstairs, where Sylvia had flung open the windows in spite of the cold, and left bread and milk within reach of her children.

Whereas Sylvia went to some pains to protect her children, Assia took her daughter with her into death. ‘Her only way of outdoing her dead rival was in the manner of her death,’ wrote Al Alvarez, in his memoir ‘Where Did It All Go Right?’ Assia herself wrote in her journal that she couldn’t bear to leave her little daughter to the mercy of a cruel and unforgiving world.

The common link in both tragedies was Ted Hughes, in one case the woman’s husband, in the other her lover. What role did their relationship with Hughes play in the deaths of these women? And what can we learn from his poetry of his true feelings about them?


Reviews: ‘Ted Hughes: the Unauthorised Life’

I found the following review of  Jonathan Bate’s Ted Hughes: the Unauthorised Life, both challenging and insightful. Read this excerpt of  Dr Ann Skea’s article, and my response, below. For the full review, see Ann Skea’s website at


Telling Tales: Ann Skea’s Review of Jonathan Bate’s Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life 

(quoted with permission from Dr Skea)

In his ‘Deposition’ chapter, Bate lays out his own rule for tackling the biography which Ted always said should never be written. “The cardinal rule is this: the work and how it came into being is what it is worth writing about, what is to be respected. The life is invoked in order to illuminate the work; the biographical impulse must be at one with the literary-critical”.

At the end of an extract and paraphrasing of my transcripts of two interviews with Ted conducted by Claudia Wright at the Adelaide Festival in 1976, Bate bluntly states: “after the interview they slept together”. Where did this come from? It is certainly no part of the interviews I transcribed and he could not have been told it by Claudia, who died in 2005. So, was it a Festival rumour, like the one he says circulated about an affair between Ted and Jennifer Rankin, and which he later accepts as a fact?

Which brings me to another aspect of Bate’s book. In his ‘Deposition’ he writes that: “women play a huge part in the story of his [Ted’s] metamorphosis of life into art. It has accordingly been necessary to include a good deal of sensitive biographical material, but this material is presented in service to the poetry”. Fair enough! The women interviewed by Bate were clearly independent, intelligent, had minds of their own and could make their own decisions. But one should perhaps ask how much their memories are coloured by events and emotions, or by other personal reasons. To report their comments and the contents of Ted’s manuscripts where they appear is one thing: to report the comments of others about them is hearsay and gossip. And to include Erica Jong’s typically sensational and exaggerated fantasies after her one brief meeting with Ted is gratuitous and distasteful. Similarly, to devote four pages to a précis of Emma Tenant’s novel adds nothing to our understanding of Ted’s work.

In a defensive Endnote, as if he might be accused of some nefarious purpose in writing this book, Bate claims that one of his principal aims “is to explicate, celebrate and immortalise the writings of Ted Hughes, both published and unpublished, so as to bring him new readers… and thus to further the interests of the Estate”. Since the Estate has, since the publication of the book, pointed out errors and protested at “unsubstantiated claims”, he seems not to have achieved the last of these aims. But what about the first?

©Ann Skea 2015

My Response to Dr Ann Skea

 I thought your review was very fair, and I agree with most of it, although I did find Bate’s prose more stilted than fluent, probably becuse of the amount of paraphrasing he was required to do. You describe the book as a ‘novelised’ biography, whereas to me it read as a non-fiction account of Ted’s life, with a large amount of what seems to be speculation.

However I can’t forgive his dismissive attitude to Assia, calling her ‘a literary hopeful’, and writing that ‘Ted assisted her with the translations’ for his ‘Modern Poetry in Translation’. In fact, Assia did all the translating from Hebrew to English for the poetry of Yehuda Amichai (Ted had no Hebrew), and also gave a reading of the translations for the BBC.  As for his take on ‘Capriccio’, it adds nothing new, and refers to the sequence as ‘seeking to hold together obscure mythographic and sometimes cabbalistic mumbo-jumbo.’ I find this an insulting appraisal, lacking in the insight shown in your own article ‘The Path of the Sword’.

No doubt there are many more inacuracies, as Carol Hughes has pointed out. His chapter on Hughes at the Adelaide Festival was particualrly prurient regarding Hughes’ (speculated) love life. I don’t have your advantage of having met Olwyn, or Carol, but can imagine how hurtful to them, and to Frieda, this chapter particularly must be.

Ted’s own letters edited by Christopher Reid are a much better picture of the man than this so-called ‘unauthorised’ biography. Elaine Feinstein’s ’The Life of Ted Hughes’ is as comprehensive as Bate’s, but more respectful, and far more insightful about Hughes’ poetry.

I’m re-drafting my novel, ‘Capriccio’, to ensure it doesn’t insult or do damage to anyone’s reputation, and that it’s as true a reflection as possible of the life I imagine he lived with Assia.