Haunted by the Ghosts of Love
©Eilat Negev, The Guardian Sat 10 Apr 1999 12.27 AEST. First published on Sat 10 Apr 1999 12.27
This is an abridged version of the article by Eilat Negev, which inspired me to write the story of Assia Gutmann Wevill as a work of fiction. Eilat Negev’s and Yehuda Koren’s biography of Assia, ‘Lover of Unreason’ was my source for much of the true story which I turned into the novel, “Capriccio”:
Six years after the suicide of his wife Sylvia Plath, poet Ted Hughes had to confront another tragedy when his mistress killed herself and murdered their daughter. Eilat Negev on the untold story of Assia Wevill and Shura
On the morning of March 25, 1969, Assia Wevill, the common-law wife of poet Ted Hughes, took their four-year-old daughter Shura to play in the park. Preoccupied by a telephone quarrel with Hughes, Wevill returned later to their Clapham flat, set the table for lunch, then abruptly sent her au pair out on an errand.
Wevill then dragged a bed into the kitchen, shut and sealed the door and window, dissolved sleeping tablets in a glass of water and gave the drink to her daughter. Gulping the rest herself, she turned on the gas stove, got into the bed with Shura and cradled the child in her arms. Together, they slipped into death.
In a letter never published before, sent by Hughes, the late poet Laureate, to Assia’s sister, Celia Chaikin, two months after the suicide of his lover and the murder of his child, he agonised over the events which preceded the double tragedy.
“Our life together was so complicated with old ghosts her repeatedly testing me, saying that we’d better separate for good were just like a bad habit, part of our old difficulties, and so when she repeated it on that last day over the phone, it was nothing new, nothing we hadn’t got over dozens of times before,” Hughes wrote. “I feel now my life has gone completely empty. I know if I had only moved – if I had only given her hope in slightly more emphatic words, in that last phone conversation, she would have been OK.
He couldn’t face telephoning Assia’s father, and it was a police officer who notified Dr Lonya Gutman in Toronto. At the funeral in Clapham, a handful gathered in the chapel facing the two coffins. Only the chaplain eulogised them. Hughes couldn’t utter a word.
“Assia was my true wife and the best friend I ever had,” Hughes wrote in his letter. But not in the public memory. For many years, the identity of the woman for whom he had left his wife, was not revealed. When a year after their death, Hughes dedicated his book Crow “in memory of Assia and Shura”, few inquired who they were.
One tragedy in his life is always underlined: the death of the poet Sylvia Plath, his first wife, who gassed herself in February 1963, after six years of marriage. But the impact of the double loss in 1969 of Assia, who was with him for eight turbulent years, and their daughter, was never acknowledged.
As Hughes’ s mistress, Assia felt accused of instigating his wife’s suicide. Assia, who also wrote poetry, believed she was ostracised by many of Hughes’s family and friends and felt her verse was not taken seriously. When she cut her life short, there was an unspoken sense in some circles that she deserved it.
In the 30 years that followed, in the feminist interpretation of the story, Plath became the Martyr and Hughes the Villain. Wevill was written out of history.
Assia’s sister, Celia Chaikin, told Negev: “Assia was strikingly beautiful. This allowed her to be egocentric, stubborn, and always have her way. She was highly strung and didn’t adjust to the new country. In her moody fits, our father had to give her an injection, to calm her down, but she was never suicidal,” insists Chaikin.
On weekends, 16-year-old Assia used to dance in the British soldiers’ club. She was soon wooed by an airforce sergeant, a mechanic named John.“I don’t think she loved him,” says Hannah Shalit, a neighbor and friend of Assia’s during their teens, but John adored her and proposed to her, and she saw him as her passport for England.”
Assia Gutman and John Steel left for London in 1946, and got married. They later emigrated to Canada, from where she sent visas to her family in Israel. “As she was the apple of my father’s eye, we all followed her, much against my will,” says Chaikin.
Assia studied literature at the University of Vancouver. She fell in love with another student, Richard Lipsey, now a respected economist. She divorced John and married Richard. She was already writing poetry. In one poem, Winter-End, Hertfordshire, its darkness and imagery anticipating the poetry of both Plath and Hughes, she mourned a man buried in a pauper’s graveyard: “And four black feet deep with/ Summer’s rotting rooks/ like Thomas Head’s and my time’s/ Unlamented, springless, passed.”
In 1956, she met a young Canadian poet, David Wevill – at 19, 10 years her junior – on a ship to London. They had an affair and Assia divorced Lipsey and married Wevill in 1960.
A year later, in August 1961, after Sylvia and Ted Hughes bought Court Green house in Devon, they advertised to sublet their small London flat in Chalcot Square, Primrose Hill. Ted and Sylvia befriended the Wevills and subsequently invited them to Court Green. On that Devon weekend in May 1962, the fatal affair was ignited.
Plath sensed an erotic tension between her husband and the exotic wife of the young poet. Plath couldn’t bear the anxiety, and the Wevills had to cut short their stay.
“Assia’s feelings towards David had already cooled,” her sister says. “She was very insecure, afraid to stay single, so in all her three marriages, she already had the next husband in line. It ended when she met Ted. She was utterly obsessed with him, the great love of her life, and had eyes for no one since.”
Hughes also fell in love with Assia at first sight, moved by her account of a strange dream she had the previous night. “The dreamer in her/ Had fallen in love with me and she did not know it./ That moment the dreamer in me/ Fell in love with her and I knew it,” he wrote in Dreamers, the only poem describing Assia in his last, bestselling book, Birthday Letters, which was published nine months before his death last year. The poem described Assia’s first visit: “She sat there, in her soot-wet mascara,/ In flame-orange silks, in gold bracelets,/ Slighty filthy with erotic mystery -/ A German/Russian Israeli with the gaze of a demon / Between curtains of black Mongolian hair.”
Hughes, 31, was attracted to the complexity, past and “many blooded beauty” of the 34-year-old. Her German roots, shared with Plath, whose father was German, fascinated and repelled him. He was sympathetic to Assia’s sense of persecution as a Jew: he had always been interested in Hebrew and in Jewish mysticism and history. In Folktale, published in his Capriccio sequence, he described Assia as a magnificent leopard from Ein-Gedi, which stalks for prey by the Dead Sea.
The dramatic, sexy Assia was a serious threat to the nervous Plath, who was juggling the burden of two babies, her crumbling marriage, and her writing agonies. Plath knew that her husband had started to see Assia regularly, when he was in London recording poetry programmes for BBC radio. Assia, who was working as an advertising copywriter, telephoned him in Devon and, on one occasion, when the amorous talk was over, Plath furiously pulled the wires out of the wall. She burned letters and poems of his, and in September 1962, threw him out of the house, and informed Wevill about his wife’s adultery. Some time later, Plath took her two small children and moved back to London, to Fitzroy Road, round the corner from Chalcot Square where they had lived as happy newlyweds.
“Ted Hughes was always a phantom to me, a demon, because of my sister’s attraction to him, and its tragic consequences,” says Chaikin. “He was a womaniser, and they all fell at his feet. Sylvia, in her paranoid jealousy, made life unbearable for him, and drove him into the arms of my sister.”
Elisabeth Compton, a friend from Devon, remembered that after Plath’s death Hughes moved immediately into her flat, so that the children, Frieda, three, and Nicholas, one, were not uprooted, and with Assia’s help, took care of them there. Later, they moved together to Court Green. In an interview Hughes gave me in 1996, just after he had been diagnosed with the cancer that was to kill him, he talked freely for the first time about Assia. “We tried to escape the shadow, live as if we started anew,” he said.
Assia continued to shuttle between her former and new life, and in June 1964, while still married to Wevill, she conceived Hughes’s child. Alexandra Tatiana Eloise was born on March 3, 1965. “Assia sent me a picture of herself with David and the baby, who was nicknamed Shura,” says her sister. “David Wevill gave her his name… he was crazy about Assia, and devastated to lose her to Hughes, his mentor.” They divorced. Today, Professor David Wevill is a professor of English in Austin, Texas.
Dr Gutman came to live near his daughter for almost a year. It seemed a happy-enough household, the three siblings playing together, Shura imitating Frieda, Plath’s daughter, whom she envied and adored. But life with Hughes was far from harmonious. He and Assia quarrelled, with numerous separations and reconciliations. She wanted marriage. He was reluctant.
As he had helped Sylvia Plath in her writing, Hughes did the same for Assia, and encouraged her to translate the work of his friend, the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai. “A pity. we were such a good/ and loving invention./an airplane made from a man and wife/ wings and everything./ We hovered a little above the earth. / We even flew a little,” was one of the love poems Assia selected, reflecting her disillusion.
She wanted to be accepted as equal in Hughes’s circles, but felt rejected as an aspiring artist of no merit. She had fits of paranoia. She became apathetic to everything that used to interest her, even her baby daughter. “She and Ted loved each other passionately, couldn’t live without one another, but Sylvia hung above them like a ghost“, says Chaikin.
Hughes shunned journalists, but spoke of the tragedy that had marked his life in poems [Capriccio] he kept in his desk. In 1995, he published half a dozen that he wrote for Assia, and hid them among the 240 poems in New Selected Poems. He was relieved, he told me, that these painful poems were unnoticed by his readers. He whispered, almost choking with emotion, as we read some of them together: “When her grave opened its ugly mouth/ why didn’t you just fly,/ Why did you kneel down at the grave’s edge/ to be identified/ accused and convicted?” he wrote in The Error. In The Descent, he wrote: “...your own hands, stronger than your choked outcry,/Took your daughter from you. She was stripped from you,/The last raiment/Clinging round your neck, the sole remnant/Between you and the bed/ In the underworld…” “
In a heart-breaking letter written two years before her suicide, an extract of which is reprinted below left, Assia told her sister, “I have been literally suicidal… I hereby appoint you as Shura’s legal guardian.” She bequeathed all her possessions to Shura, packed two trunks with the child’s clothes and toys, and wrote a cheque for $1,200, to cover for the fare to Canada, and initial necessities. “I am clearly ill. The last four years have been a strain simply too hard to bear,” she wrote.
Contrary to rumours that Hughes had ended his relationship with Assia some time before her death, a close friend then living in London, says that on the fatal weekend, the couple was due to travel to Scotland, to seek a future home. The trip north was cancelled, and then came their final quarrel. Tormented, Assia committed the ghastly act on the spur of the moment. The two bodies were discovered by the au pair.
In his letter to Chaikin after Assia’s suicide, Hughes wrote “if only she’d gone away for a week, anywhere, she’d have jolted me out of my apathy and confusion. Little Shura was the most wonderful little girl, full of life. And really beautiful. I’m certain she finally did it in one of those crazy devilish moods… it’s with me every minute of the day and night.” Chaikin maintains “He felt very guilty about the whole thing, as he should be, and told me he would have married Assia, had he known how distressed she was. But it’s easy to say when it’s too late.”
The following year, Hughes married Carol Orchard, the daughter of a friend, a beautiful nurse 20 years his junior. They later toured Israel, Assia’s homeland. He packed Assia’s and Shura’s belongings in crates and shipped them out to her sister in Canada. But the vessel failed to reach its destination and sank with all its cargo.
“I felt that even after her death, she was not left to rest in peace, and nature joined the conspiracy against her, and drowned her last traces,’‘ says Chaikin. Miraculously, the crates resurfaced and were recovered. “After eight months, I finally got them. I saw it as the hand of fate, not wanting the two of them to disappear completely from the face of the earth.”
©Eilat Negev, The Guardian Sat 10 Apr 1999 12.27 AESTFirst published on Sat 10 Apr 1999 12.27