The Writing of Capriccio

Signing my book off into the world. Darwin launch of “Capriccio: A Novel”


I have written three completely different versions of this novel, over fifteen years, each of the three entailing many drafts. The first was called simply ‘Assia’, and was based on what I then knew of her life. Most of my information came from scholarly works on Hughes or Plath, plus a study of Hughes’s poetry.

A newspaper article from the Guardian, ‘Haunted by the Ghosts of Love’, sparked my interest and led to more research in the archives of our State Library in Sydney. Very little was found, but what I sensed was a grave injustice done to this woman, Assia Gutmann Wevill, which had not been recognised in any of the articles I found. Indeed, Assia was viewed only as the ‘scarlet woman’, the Jezebel who seduced Ted Hughes and therefore could be blamed for the death of Sylvia Plath. My ‘Assia’ drew largely on my imagination, a combination of fact and fiction I called ‘faction’.

During the writing of ‘Assia’, a book called ‘Lover of Unreason’ by Eilat Negev and Yehuda Koren, two Israeli journalists, was published. It was a comprehensive biography of Assia Wevill, and was completely factual. At first I was dismayed – others had got there before me, so why go on with my book? After reading Negev’s and Koren’s biography I was hooked on the real life story of this woman, and the injustices she’s suffered. I abandoned my own attempt for many months, thinking it would pale beside the real story.

Encouragement from my writing groups enabled me to pick up the work again, this time calling it ‘The Haunting of Sylvia Plath’. It was a deliberately ambiguous title: was Assia haunted by Sylvia, or was Sylvia the one haunted by this exotic woman who had bewitched her husband? It was an ambitious novel, divided into four distinct parts, each introduced by a quote from Ted Hughes’s ‘Capriccio’. These were a series of twenty poems, each one relating to the poet’s fraught relationship with Assia. The fact that he published ‘Capriccio’ thirty years after Assia’s death, and in a fairly inaccessible form (each hand printed and illustrated copy costing 400 English pounds) tells enough about his reluctance to publicise his adulterous love affair. The poems are vivid, frightening, sometimes vicious, rarely loving. They draw on the ancient Hebrew myths of Lilith and Nehama, highlighting Assia’s Israeli-Russian-German origins. I had found the perfect title for my next and final version of Assia’s story: ‘Capriccio’, meaning in Old Italian ‘hair standing on end’ or ‘at the whim of a mountain goat’.

Aware that titles are exempt from copyright, but not lines of poetry, I contacted Ted Hughes’s publishers, Faber and Faber, for permission to quote a few lines of the ‘Capriccio’ poems to introduce each chapter. My structure at that stage closely followed the trajectory of these poems, so they were integral to my text. I continued writing, this time enlisting the help of a structural editor. She saw the structure as episodic, each chapter ‘like a little gem’, illustrated by a brief excerpt of Hughes’ poetry.

Six months later I received the second shock of my time writing this novel. Not only did Faber absolutely and definitively refuse permission for me to quote even a single line of Hughes’ poetry, but his Estate holders insisted that I change all names of the characters. My novel, as it stood, was unpublishable in its current form. Again I came close to giving up the whole enterprise; indeed I stopped writing ‘Capriccio’ for four years, and began a second novel.

Then one day my damaged ego rose again, and I determined that those fifteen years and over twenty drafts would not go to waste. Knowing that mainstream publishers can take two years before a book is launched into the world, and that I didn’t have two more years to wait, I contacted an old friend whose son ran a graphic design company, and mentored self-publishers if they thought the work was worthy of their name. Thus this current version of ‘Capriccio: a Novel’ was born, sans poetry, and with all names changed. It was a less literary work, but more straightforward, using a chronological structure. This is a tragic love story, told from ‘the other woman’s’ perspective, and will appeal to readers who could relate to both the joy and the pain of an obsessive relationship. The meticulous editing from Cilento’s Leone Sperling, together with Evan Shapiro’s graphic design skills, created the clear, polished finished product you can read today. I am ever grateful to Cilento for the hard work they put into the production of ‘Capriccio: a Novel’.


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1 Comment »

  1. I have read the published version on Kindle and was totally fascinated. I like that the other woman’s story is told. All too often she is dehumaized and debased, It’s interesting to learn the back story. I visited Plath’s grave in Heptonstall in England a couple of years ago.. Ted Hughes and other members of the family are also there, but not next to her. Thankyou for your post.

    Liked by 1 person

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