Ted Hughes’ series of twenty poems, called ‘Capriccio,’ was first published in 1990 in a print run of only fifty. The expensively produced leather-bound volume was inaccessible to most readers, by virtue of its cost ($4000) and rare book status. It was not until after Hughes’ death in 1998, that the series was accessible in its entirety, as a brief section in ‘The Collected Poems of Ted Hughes’ edited by Paul Keegan. (Faber and Faber, 2003). Thus the full sequence of ‘Capriccio’ was virtually lost to Hughes’ readers for many years. Why did Hughes wait almost thirty years after his affair with Assia Wevill to publish these poems? Why did he tell Assia’s biographers, Eilat Negev and Yehuda Koren, that these poems were perhaps ‘not the ones I should have written’? Was this work an apologia for Hughes’ role in the life and death of Assia and Shura, intended to show destiny as the culprit? In these poems, some of which cruelly portray Assia as Lilith the devil-woman, there is little mention of Hughes’ own destructive influences. Hughes appears to argue that he’s biologically predetermined to be Assia’s prey, and that the winds of fate brought them together. The fate she carried sniffed us out, he writes in ‘Dreamers’, the only poem about Assia which is not in ‘Capriccio’. Next to Hughes’ award-winning ‘Birthday Letters’, the autobiographical nature of ‘Capriccio’ went barely noticed for many years. When the poems were […]
Shura (Alexandra Tatiana Elise) Hughes Wevill was the daughter of Ted Hughes and Assia Wevill Excerpt from ‘Pit and Stones’ a chapter in the novel in which Ted, Assia and the children are returning from a house-hunting trip in Manchester. They would never see each other again. Just then the train gave a great jolt. Frieda, who’d been leaning forward, was catapulted into Assia’s lap. Ted braced himself and held on to Nick’s shirt tail. A squeal of brakes followed, and the train groaned to a shuddering stop. From somewhere in another compartment they heard a woman’s scream. Shura began to cry, still clutching the half-eaten cake. Assia held her close with one arm while protecting Frieda with her other. ‘What’s happening?’ she asked the world in general, and Ted in particular. ‘You stay here with the children. I’ll try to find out. And for God’s sake, can’t you stop your daughter snivelling?’ Assia turned her face away, smoothing Shura’s hair tenderly. ‘It’s all right, liebchen. Soon we’ll all be home.’ To Ted she said coldly, ‘You seem to forget that our daughter has just turned four. Just like you ‘forgot’ to come to her birthday party. This trip’s a great deal harder for her than it is for Frieda and Nick.’ © Dina Davis
Lucas Myers, a lifelong friend of Ted Hughes, writes: ‘Sylvia’s rival had been misrepresented. She was a touch too elegant for her own well-being, fundamentally very vulnerable, needed a lot of affection, and could remembe SS boots outside the railway carriage compartment as her family, half Jewish, approached the Swiss border.’ – Lucas Myers, ‘Ah, Youth … Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath at Cambridge and After’ (from ‘Bitter Fame’ by Anne Stevens, Appendix 1). Peter Porter writes of “the cruelty of excising Assia’s true part in the Hughes/Plath heritage, assigning her only the role of marginal temptress, whom we all seem to have allowed to be airbrushed out of literary history.” Porter, an eminent Australian poet, knew Assia well. He writes of her: “She had wit, charm and generosity, and while she could be wilful and self-dramatising, she was also natural and straightforward. [Assia] grew up speaking German, Hebrew and English. She attended an academy for well-off Arab children who identified with the Mandated British. Somehow she acquired a beautifully modulated English voice long before she set foot in Britain.” While answering an advertisement for a London flat placed by Hughes and Plath in a newspaper, the fourth and fatal attraction of her life began. My novel ‘Capriccio’ traces the vicissitudes, joys, and agonies of the love affair between Assia and Ted Hughes. Excerpts from Peter Porter’s Review of ‘Lover of Unreason’ in The Guardian, Saturday, 28 October 2006
At the end of World War II, the composer Richard Strauss, whose final work was an opera titled ‘Capriccio’, wrote: ‘The most terrible period of human history is at an end, the twelve year reign of bestiality, ignorance and anti-culture under the greatest criminals, during which Germany’s 2000 years of cultural evolution met its doom.’Strauss described the government sanctioned anti-semitism as ‘the basest weapon of untalented, lazy mediocrity against a higher intelligence and greater talent.’ Assia Gutmann, whose father was Jewish, was one of the many victims of this period in history. At age six, she and her family were driven out of Berlin by the anti-semitic policies of the Third Reich. Mercifully, their exile saved their lives, but Dr Gutmann’s family perished.
Today is the 46th anniversary of the deaths of Assia Gutmann Wevill, and Shura Hughes Wevill. They both died on 23rd March, 1969. Assia was 41 years old, and her daughter Shura was four. After a fraught phone conversation with her lover, Ted Hughes, Assia took pills, turned on the gas, and lay down to die with her daughter, whom […]
Why did Ted Hughes call one of his poems in the Capriccio sequence ‘Shibboleth’? Perhaps the title is a comment on Assia’s upper-crust British accent, which failed to gain her acceptance Into London’s society. A shibboleth, in biblical times, was a linguistic marker to distinguish the outsider. The last line of Hughes’ poem ‘Shibboleth’ reads ‘lick of the tar brush?’ In my chapter ‘Shibboleth’ Assia’s German accent (Hochdeutch) betrays her origins, leading to an anti-Semitic attack on her by the innkeeper’s wife. In another chapter, Assia muses ‘my differences will never go away’. Image of Assia Wevill from www. Pinterest..com
“Sylvia’s rival had been misrepresented. She was a touch too elegant for her own well-being, fundamentally very vulnerable, needed a lot of affection, and could remembe SS boots outside the railway carriage compartment as her family, half Jewish, approached the Swiss border.” – Lucas Myers, ‘Ah, Youth … Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath at Cambridge and After’ (from ‘Bitter Fame’ […]
Note: this is part of a chapter from my completed manuscript, ‘Capriccio’, a fictional biography of Assia Gutmann Wevill, the woman who came between the poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath Smell of Burning Tel Aviv 1935 – 1946 You wore the sign of lightning to ward off lightning – Ted Hughes, Smell of Burning Assia’s memories refuse to leave her in peace that night. In her mind, she is a child again, back in Berlin, re-living the time when all her safeties had been stripped away. She remembers how, late one cold night, she and her parents and little sister board a train out of Berlin. Vati is carrying two huge suitcases with their most precious possessions. Assia and Celia each clutch their one permitted plaything: Assia a book of Grimm’s fairy tales, Celia a white fluffy rabbit. There’d been a tantrum when Celia’s first choice, an almost life-size teddy bear, was decreed too large to take with her. Assia feels the fear in the air, and hides under the carriage seat […]