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  



DAFFODILS – A poisonous flower, a harbinger of Spring, a Poet’s Muse? Below are two takes on these flowers, from Ted Hughes, where they symbolise his lost love, to Helen O’Neill, who has written a Biography of the Daffodil.


We piled their frailty lights on a carpenter’s bench,
Distributed leaves among the dozens –
Buckling blade-leaves, limber, groping for air, zinc-silvered –
Propped their raw butts in bucket water,
Their oval, meaty butts,
And sold them, sevenpence a bunch –

Wind-wounds, spasms from the dark earth,
With their odourless metals,
A flamy purification of the deep grave’s stony cold
As if ice had a breath –

We sold them, to wither.
The crop thickened faster than we could thin it.
Finally, we were overwhelmed
And we lost our wedding-present scissors.

Every March since they have lifted again
Out of the same bulbs, the same
Baby-cries from the thaw,
Ballerinas too early for music, shiverers
In the draughty wings of the year.
On that same groundswell of memory, fluttering
They return to forget you stooping there
Behind the rainy curtains of a dark April,
Snipping their stems.

But somewhere your scissors remember. Wherever they are.
Here somewhere, blades wide open,
April by April
Sinking deeper
Through the sod – an anchor, a cross of rust.

-Ted Hughes, Birthday Letters

Writer Helen O’Neill on Daffodils, Notebooks and Inspiration

I’ve always loved flowers but daffodils are special. I grew up in southern England where they blaze across the landscape every spring so they have been part of my life for as long as I can remember.  Daffodils took on a different meaning after I became ill some years ago and found myself plunged into a deep personal winter. To keep my spirits up friends and family kept sending me daffodils in different forms – in cards, photographs and sweet little pins. As I recovered I began to realise that not only is the daffodil one of the world’s most powerful flowers – this bloom has raised millions for medical research – but that it has a truly remarkable story to tell.
Narcissus Poeticus, one of Helen O’Neill’s favourite daffodils. Photo taken at her mother’s garden in England

Ted Hughes and the Muse



Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath

In his his introduction to ‘Poetry in the Making’, the then Poet Laureate of Britain had the following words of advice for those of us whose passion is Writing, be it poetry, prose, fiction, non-fiction, or something in between:

Do you relate to these words?

‘You write interestingly only about the things that genuinely interest you. This is an infallible rule.. in writing, you have to be able to distinguish between those things about which you are merely curious –things you heard about last week or read about yesterday- and things which are a deep part of your life… So you say, ‘What part of my life would I die to be separated from?’ –Ted Hughes, Poetry in the Making ‘It is occasionally possible, just for brief moments, to find the words that will unlock the doors of all those many mansions in the head and express something – perhaps not much, just something – of the crush of information that presses in on us from the way a crow flies over and the way a man walks and the look of a street and from what we did one day a dozen years ago. Words that will express something of the deep complexity that makes us precisely the way we are.’-Ted Hughes

Dina Davis
Randwick Writers’ Group 📚
0418 115748

Assia the Artist

Assia in Mandalay, Burma, circa 1960. Image reproduced from 'Lover of Unreason', by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev
Assia in Mandalay, Burma, circa 1960. Image reproduced from ‘Lover of Unreason’, by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev

Few people know that Assia Gutmann Wevill was an accomplished artist in her own right. She painted brightly coloured miniatures of birds, fish, and flowers, and gave them to friends. She also drew the illustrations for many of Ted Hughes’s works. Sadly these have not survived

As well as her talents in the visual arts, Assia was a gifted translator. Her collaborative work with the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai was published to acclaim.  Assia was a poet in her own right, but sadly was never published in her life time.

Reproduced from 'Lover of Unreason', p.224, Koren and Negev
Reproduced from ‘Lover of Unreason’, p.224, Koren and Negev
Painting by Assia, Burma, 1960 (Courtesy David Wevill). Reproduced from 'Lover of Unreason' by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev.
Painting by Assia, Burma, 1960
(Courtesy David Wevill).
Reproduced from ‘Lover of Unreason’ by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev.

Written out of History

Written out of history
theguardian.comOctober 18



Assia Wevill in 1968
Within a period of six years, Ted Hughes faced the sudden deaths of four people dear to him. In February 1963 his estranged wife, Sylvia Plath, gassed herself in her kitchen following his affair with another woman, Assia Wevill. He was just 32 when he found himself in sole charge of their children, Frieda, who was three, and Nicholas, barely one year old.

Six years later, in March 1969, Wevill killed herself and Shura, their four-year-old daughter. At that time, his mother Edith appeared to be getting on well after an operation on her knee, but Hughes was afraid that the news might affect her recovery. In the following weeks he shunned his parents, and did not visit, phone or write to them. When his father asked Olwyn, Hughes’s sister, what the matter was, she told him but made him vow to keep it a secret. But he could not keep silent and told his wife. Edith suffered a thrombosis, lapsed into a coma and died three days later. Ted was certain that Wevill’s suicide was the final blow.

In a letter to his close friend Lucas Myers, Hughes reflected on his part in the deaths of his wife and lover, confessing that with Plath it was his “insane decisions”, while in Wevill’s case it was his “insane indecisions”. When he granted us a rare interview in London in October 1996, Hughes said Plath’s death “was complicated and inevitable, she had been on that track most of her life. But Wevill’s was avoidable.” Perhaps this was why he tried to erase her from his life.

The press refrained, for some mysterious reason, from reporting the tragedy. The crime columns of the London newspapers that week in March 1969 ran items about the strangling of a wife in her home and the death of a girl who set fire to herself in Paris, but there was no word of the deaths of Assia and Shura Wevill in Clapham Common. Only one local paper, the South London Press, violated what amounted to a hush-up. Even there, the story was at the bottom of page 13, and omitted any hint of an intimate connection between the poet and the deceased.

Throughout his life, Hughes warded off biographers and journalists and asked his friends to refrain from mentioning him in interviews or in their memoirs. When his archive at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, was made available to the public in 2000, it was devoid of Wevill’s presence in his life: none of the numerous letters they exchanged, the notes, drawings or photos, were there.

In the rare instances where he agreed to provide biographical details, Assia and Shura were never mentioned. He claimed that after Plath’s suicide and until his marriage to Carol Orchard in 1970, he raised his children assisted only by members of his family or a local woman who helped with the daily chores – that for all those years, he was looking for a permanent feminine figure but “the right woman failed to materialise”. In fact, Wevill lived with him in what she called Plath’s “ghost house”, 23 Fitzroy Road, London, and then in Ireland and Devon, and mothered his children.

In May 1962, Assia and her third husband, the Canadian poet David Wevill, were invited to spend a weekend with Plath and Hughes, who were then living in the village of North Tawton in Devon. It was on that weekend, as Hughes later wrote in a poem, that “The dreamer in me fell in love with her”. Six weeks passed before he and Wevill met alone for the first time, when he came to London for a meeting at the BBC.

But Plath was quick to discover the budding affair. She ordered him out, and he was happy to comply. The following day he knocked on the Wevill’s door carrying four bottles of champagne. Wevill made no secret of Hughes’ ferocious lovemaking among her office friends. Equally repelled and fascinated, she told Edward Lucie-Smith, “You know, in bed he smells like a butcher.” In the next two months he shuttled between the two women.

In mid-September he and Plath took a holiday in Ireland. On the fourth day he disappeared. His whereabouts have remained a mystery not only to Plath but to subsequent biographers and scholars. However, in our research we discovered that when Hughes embarked on the Irish trip, he already had a ticket to another destination. Ditching Plath in Ireland, he hurried to London to meet Wevill, and the two of them headed south for a 10-day fiesta in Spain. He and Plath had spent their honeymoon there, and she hated the country. For him and Wevill, the trip was a delight, providing them with a creative boost: a film script that they had started writing together.

When he returned home, Hughes had a terrible row with Plath; he refused to give up his mistress and left for London permanently. Two months later, Plath moved to London as well. Hughes and Wevill were no longer making a secret of their affair. They were seen everywhere, so much so that many people mistakenly thought that they were actually living together.

On February 11 1963, Plath ended her life. Two days later, Myers came for a condolence visit and found Wevill resting in Plath’s bed. A month later Hughes and Wevill decided to abort the child that Wevill was carrying.

Wevill and her husband, David, agreed to a six-month trial separation, and he went to Spain, while she moved in with Hughes and his children. They spent the summer vacation with Hughes’s parents in Yorkshire. In her diary, Wevill described a family dinner: as she was leaning over the table to give Frieda her food, she and Hughes collided in a kiss.

In September 1963 Hughes returned with his children to Devon, leaving Wevill on her own in the death-flat: he wanted some time to himself and she had serious doubts about his commitment to her. When David returned from Spain, he joined Wevill in Plath’s flat.

The affair continued, but they lowered its profile and invented a secret code for their correspondence. Hughes dispatched daily love letters to Wevill’s home, addressed to F Wall Esq. It was a private joke between the lovers, that Hughes was the fly on the wall at the Wevills’. It is puzzling as to why they went to all this trouble when they could have used Wevill’s office address, as they had done before: was it for the thrill, and the romantic intrigue? Alexandra Tatiana Elise (nicknamed Shura) was born on 3 March 1965. Ten months later, Wevill left David and moved with Ted to Ireland. It was a time of bliss, and Hughes was delighted and relieved that his children had taken to their half-sister.

Hughes was exploding with ideas. He even found the strength to probe into the suicide of his wife and began writing Crow, handing Wevill the drafts to comment on. Later, he dedicated the book to her and Shura. Wevill’s diaries, still in private hands, give a unique account of Hughes at work, “like a great beast, looking over an enormous feast, dazzled and confused by the variety”.

Wevill was a perfect partner: artistically inclined, she wrote some poetry and was a rather skilful painter, but she was not ambitious and had no artistic ego herself. “He’s almost incapable of performing one word wrong,” she wrote admiringly. She said she felt reverence in the company of “one of God’s best creations”.

Together, they were working on a book of Hughes’s poems and her drawings. The theme was A Full House, a pack of cards in which the kings, queens and knaves were biblical, mythological and historical figures.

The poet and translator Michael Hamburger, Hughes’ good friend, remembers another project of Wevill and Hughes: Wevill showed him “miniature paintings in brilliant colours with many animals and plants”. Neither project materialised, and though some of the poems survived none of Wevill’s drawings has.

Originally, they planned to stay in Ireland for five years, but after a few months they had to return to Devon, to tend to Hughes’s ailing mother. His parents were dismayed by their son’s scandalous relationship with the haughty, thrice-married woman: they feared it had ruined his reputation. Hughes’s father determinedly ignored Wevill’s presence. He never spoke to her, refused to sit at the same table and averted his eyes when she put a plate of food in front of him. And in any disagreement between Wevill and his parents, Ted invariably sided with them.

Edith Hughes was moving from one bout of illness to another, and eventually Hughes realised that she would never get better as long as she and Wevill lived under the same roof. He initiated a disengagement plan: Wevill and Shura would return to London and wait there until his mother was strong enough to return to her home in Yorkshire. On odd weekends Wevill and Shura came down to Devon, and he visited them in his trips to London. They continued looking for a house of their own, but Hughes found fault with them all. It dawned on Wevill that being at his side at the time of Plath’s suicide had contaminated her for ever, and that he would never marry her. “I have lived on the dream of living with Ted – and this has gone kaput,” she wrote in her suicide note to her father. “There could never be another man. Never.”

Shura had become the core of Wevill’s existence, and she was quite certain that if left motherless, the four-year-old, pampered child would be a second-class citizen in the Hughes household. She was afraid that Shura was too old to be adopted, and did not wish her to grow up alone as a foster child, an orphan. Her murderous act was thus the outcome of a distorted over-responsibility: “Execute yourself and your little self efficiently,” Wevill had written in her diary three days before.

Soon after her death, Hughes wrote a poem in which he tormented himself about having been destructive towards his nearest and dearest “who were my life”. He never published it. Was it because it contrasted with the account that he wished to leave for posterity? In 1990, he published a volume of 20 poems, Capriccio, which revolved around Wevill. In it, he blamed her for consciously burning herself on Plath’s funeral pyre.

· A Lover of Unreason: The Biography of Assia Wevill by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev. Published by Robson Books, price £20.00. To order a copy for £18.00 with free UK p&p go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0870 836 0875

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.