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 […]

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What is Truth in Fiction?

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 […]

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Vale Olwyn Hughes

Excerpt from the obituary by Jonathan Bate, The Guardian, 5 January 2016: Olwyn Marguerite Hughes, literary agent, born 26 August 1928; died 3 January 2016. Literary agent with a fearsome reputation who was devoted to the work of her brother, Ted Hughes, and the posthumous literary life of his wife Sylvia Plath.  Olwyn Hughes, centre, with her brothers, Ted, right, and Gerald. Photograph:  The Ted Hughes Estate Born in Mytholmroyd, West Yorkshire, Olwyn was the middle child of William, a carpenter, and Edith (nee Farrar); an older brother, Gerald, emigrated to Australia after the second world war. The family’s end of terrace house was cramped, but a happy childhood included picnics at Hardcastle Crags and dips in the rocky pool on Cragg Vale. When Olwyn was 10, the family moved to the mining town of Mexborough, in South Yorkshire, where they took on a newspaper and tobacco shop. Olwyn was at first miserable, but soon began to lose herself in reading books and dabbling with horoscopes and Ouija boards. On just six occasions during visits home, she met the young American woman whom Ted had married after a whirlwind romance in 1956. Their first impressions of each other were wary. Olwyn found Sylvia “poised and controlled, with a hint of reserve or constraint”. Sylvia thought Olwyn was “startlingly beautiful with amber-gold hair and eyes”, but felt that she was “quite selfish and squanders money on herself continually in extravagances of clothes and cigarettes, while […]

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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 http://ann.skea.com/Bate%20Biography.htm 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] […]

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“Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life”

A Review of “Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life” by Jonathan Bate Harper Collins ISBN:978 0 06 236243 8 (US$40.00). Fourth Estate, 978 0 7322 9970 5 (AUD$49.99); hardback 662 pages     Dr Ann Skea  writes in her review of this book: (Telling Tales, ©Ann Skea 2015)  ‘In spite of the claims that this is a comprehensive biography, there is much that is left out or barely touched on in this book. Ted’s fishing did not “stand in for sex”,  as Bate would have it.’ Although Dr Skea describes this weighty tome as a ‘novelised’ biography, to me it reads as a non-fiction account of Ted’s life, with a large amount of what seems to be speculation.  Bate’s attitude to Assia is dismissive. He calls her ‘a literary hopeful’, and writes 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). . No doubt there are many  inaccuracies in this biography, as Carol Hughes, the executor of Ted Hughes’ estate, and his widow,  has pointed out. It is unsurprising that she withdrew permission for Bate to publish with Faber & Faber, and to quote from Ted’s manuscripts. I found the chapter on Hughes’s conduct at the Adelaide Festival unnecessarily prurient, in Bate’s description of Hughes’ s (speculated) love life. As for Bate’s review of Ted Hughes’s ‘Capriccio’, the sequence of poems he […]

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FACT OR FICTION?

 The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes Teresa, writing about Janet Malcolm’s masterly non-fiction biography, ‘The Silent Woman,’ in the Blog ‘Shelf Love’, says: ‘It’s fascinating to consider that in some respects fiction could be more true than nonfiction. Fiction is part of a closed world, all in the author’s mind, and even if the author deliberately leaves options open, that openness is part of the author’s created world. With nonfiction, there really is a truth that happened, but there are so many mediators between that truth and the reading audience. How can one be sure of the truth?’ Janet Malcolm goes on to discuss the near impossibility of truth in biography–or in any nonfiction. Malcolm writes:  In a work of nonfiction we almost never know the truth of what happened. The ideal of unmediated reporting is regularly achieved only in fiction, where the writer faithfully reports on what is going on in his imagination….We must always take the novelist’s and the playwright’s and the poet’s word, just as we are almost always free to doubt the biographer’s or the autobiographer’s or the historian’s or the journalist’s. In imaginative literature we are constrained from considering alternative scenarios—there are none. This is the way it is  But is there a single, whole truth to tell? That’s the question that undergirds The Silent Woman, Malcolm’s book about the Plath legacy.The book is structured as a sort of memoir of Malcolm’s own journey as she […]

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Fact and Fiction Re-visited

Janet Malcolm, in her masterly work on the biographies of Plath, makes an interesting point about fiction having more ‘truth’ than non-fiction. It’s fascinating to consider that in some respects fiction could be more true than nonfiction. Fiction is part of a closed world, all in the author’s mind, and even if the author deliberately leaves options open, that openness is part of the author’s created world. With nonfiction, there really is a truth that happened, but there are so many mediators between that truth and the reading audience, each interpreting the facts differently or choosing which facts to reveal, with some having a stake in how the story is presented and understood. How can one be sure of the truth? What’s Fact, what’s Fiction? In ‘Capriccio’ I use the facts of Assia’s life as  a scaffolding on which to build the deeper truth of emotions, thoughts and conversations, using fiction. For example,  in my chapter entitled ‘Edge’, we know the facts are that Sylvia wrote a letter, and asked for stamps, on the night she took her life. The letter, if it was found, has never been disclosed. My excerpt from that letter is invented, an imagined version of what she might have written on that last day. The fictional letter from Sylvia contains the things Assia might have read about herself. We also know that Assia was shocked to read the vituperative language Sylvia wrote about Assia and David in the […]

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