Note: originally published in the Dublin Review of Books, Autumn 2007
A Lover of Unreason: The Life and Tragic Death of Assia Wevill, by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev, Robson Books, 320 pp, ISBN: 978-186105974
In Fay Weldon’s short story “In the Great War (II)”, the protagonist, Ellen, kills herself and her daughter after being blamed by her lover for his wife’s suicide. But the unnamed narrator is haunted by a voice that whispers: “Write me, write me, not them.” The words are uttered by Ellen, a thin disguise of the real woman (and Weldon’s friend) Assia Gutmann Wevill, whose affair with Ted Hughes was the catalyst – angrier critics would say the direct cause – of the suicide of his wife, Sylvia Plath.
“Write me, write me, not them.” Somehow the mystery and allure of this fatal triangle has ensured that a woman whose life would not normally be considered biographical material remains of interest to readers. Koren and Negev have risen admirably to the gauntlet thrown down by the fictional Ellen on behalf of her real-life counterpart: Assia Wevill, damned as a succuba, a home-wrecker, Ted Hughes’s “Lilith of abortions”. They have good source material.
As seductive, ruthless and desirable as he (yet far more vulnerable), Wevill lived on and off with Hughes after Plath’s suicide, bore him a daughter, Shura, and inspired much of his finest work of the late sixties, notably the sequence of poems he published as Crow. But then tragedy ensued. Six years after the relationship began Assia Wevill died in an anonymous flat in London, aged only forty-two. Like Sylvia Plath, her death was by her own hand; unlike her, she took her four-year-old daughter with her.
The writer and critic Al Alvarez, long a champion of Plath’s work and no friend of the mistress who displaced her, claimed that Assia Wevill killed herself and her daughter in a petty game of oneupmanship against Plath, with whom she was obsessed. Eilat Negev and Yehuda Koren, who spent fifteen years researching her life after encountering a poem by fellow Israeli Yehuda Amichai entitled “The Death of Assia G.”, deny that this was the case.
While they do not minimise her selfish streak – in a conversation with her boss, reporting Plath’s death, she says: “Why should I feel guilty? It was nothing to do with me” – Negev and Koren portray the slow, inexorable despair that enveloped this vivacious, intelligent, self-absorbed woman as her Gordian entanglement with Ted Hughes slowly strangled the life out of her. Even diehard Plath supporters would be hard-pressed not to feel sympathy for Assia after reading this sympathetic but fair account of her ordeal. Not to mention disliking Hughes even more than they do already.
Without the ability to exorcise her demons through poetry as Plath did, she wrote of herself in her journals towards the end as of a woman trapped: “I was endowed with too many minor qualities, but with neither the will nor the huge intelligence to bring them a life of their own.” A harsh self-assessment by any standards, a million miles away from the picture of the bewitching woman who ensnared Ted Hughes with an orange silk dress, a command of four languages and what he called her “filthy erotic mystery”. Like many women before her feted as muses only to fall off the pedestal, women like Lizzie Siddal and Marie-Thérèse Walter, Assia Wevill was beginning by then to comprehend the finite nature of her assumed role: in seducing and winning the poet she adored, she had set the terms for her own destruction. It was a truly Faustian bargain.
The emergence of muse-biography has been a phenomenon of note in recent years. In the past, literary biographies tended to focus on those who wrote literature, just as biographies of artists concentrated on the art. However, in the past few years, lives have been published of individuals such as Caroline Blackwood Lowell, Laura Riding and Iseult Gonne, more famed for their associations with famous male writers (Robert Lowell, Robert Graves and Yeats respectively) than for their own accomplishments. For the biographer and reader, these characters exist to illuminate the true writer’s creative process by their own Beatrice-like elusiveness. Francine Prose, author of Lives of the Muses, calls it an “abrupt and shocking retraction of that [given] promise”. Assia Wevill, by virtue of her beauty, her admiration of literature and her personal charisma, was a stereotype of the muse. It was her tragedy that she fell so deeply under Hughes’s spell that she was in no position to retract any promise from him. By then he would not have cared.
This new trend of examining the lives of women like Assia Wevill is partly due to a feminist sensibility for restorative justice: the process of captivating the attention of an artist has been traditionally assigned to women rather than men, arguably to the detriment of their own creative talent. The “woman behind the man” has been traditionally neglected in biography. Paula Backscheider, in her study on the practice of biography, has noted how a feminist approach to documenting a life history would take an individual’s private, quotidian life into account rather than presenting a dry, bullet-point list of achievements between birth and death. As a result of this shift, biographies have emerged now of women like George Yeats, wife of the poet, in belated recognition of the contribution she made towards providing her husband with the raw subconscious material he used to write some of his greatest poems. With the “private life” standard applied, biographies are justifiable even when, as in the case of George Yeats, the subject’s life for the most part contains little to distinguish it from the lives of ordinary people. One dramatic event, such as using automatic writing to distract one’s husband from a particularly tricky muse, is enough to merit a 600-page book.
Related to this, and relevant to the book under review, is the urge to correct the censorious views often held of accomplished women who disturbed the lives of male poets and artists by breaking up their marriages; Michael Schmidt, in his blockbuster Lives of the Poets (1999) is quick to leap to poet and muse Laura Riding’s defence when alluding to the extreme cruelties she inflicted on the poet Robert Graves, his first wife Nancy Nicholson and Schuyler Jackson’s first wife. Riding, he argues, received all this disapproval simply because she was the woman involved in her extramarital triangles, whereas the men involved got off relatively lightly. Furthermore, in his view, this disapproval harmed her reputation as a poet and as a corrective influence on Graves’s poetry. Similar arguments have been made by John Lennon’s official biographer about the treatment of Yoko Ono. This refocus is not confined to women; in the last twenty years there have been four biographies of Wilde’s nemesis Lord Alfred Douglas, examining his rather mediocre poetry in considerable detail in an attempt to rehabilitate him.
Such disapproval has meant that biographies of Plath and Hughes have been largely unfavourable towards Assia Wevill’s role in Hughes’s life, discounting the length of the relationship and its happier periods in favour of a bleaker view. In these renditions, Wevill is at first a manipulative schemer determined to displace Plath, then, after she successfully does so, a pathetic figure lost in her dead rival’s shadow, gaining weight and dyeing her hair as Hughes slips away from her grasp. Koren and Negev, in an understandable effort to produce a more rounded portrayal, sometimes stray too far in the other direction (they straightfacedly assert that Wevill’s fixation on her dead predecessor was perfectly natural – among other things she slept in the bed in the flat where Plath died, and later made notes on Plath’s copy of Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving, some of which were even notes on Plath’s notes.) Their mission is to rescue Wevill from the near silence surrounding the last years of her life and her relationship with Hughes – and they undertake this task with energy and determination.
The writing is not always fluent, but this story is never dull. Assia Wevill’s affair with Hughes supplies more than enough scandal to keep the loftiest of readers hooked. It is not necessary to have read Shakespeare and the Goddess of Being to be engrossed in the saga of Hughes’s convoluted love life, any more than it is necessary to have read The White Goddess to snigger at the aging Robert Graves’s wistful entanglements with a procession of ever younger women. Like the muses Blackwood, Riding, Ono and Andreas-Salomé, Wevill broke up a marriage – and not just any old marriage. She put a messy end to the union of two poets. Her intervention appears to give the lie to the ideal of two creative artists living together. One ego always has to triumph – as a traumatised Hughes himself declared just after Plath’s suicide: “One of us had to die. It was me or her.” Or, as Robert Browning put it, the “shadowy third” of marriage and children came between Hughes and his wife, dictating that she could not compete with the foreignness and sophistication of Assia Wevill, who had all Plath’s intelligence with (on the surface) none of her undesirable baggage.
The book’s publishers have not ignored this “human interest” element. On the hardcover edition, the subtitle describes Wevill as “Ted Hughes’s doomed love”, with Polaroid-style photographs of Hughes and Plath hovering above a picture of Wevill herself. She is leaning her head thoughtfully on her right hand and looking dreamily into the distance as Plath and Hughes regard her like a pair of reproachful angels. She looks beautiful beyond measure, enigmatic, unreachable. The pen she holds hovers in mid-air, writing nothing, the paper blank: a portrait of the muse incarnate. Her authors know well that she has one selling point and they are happy to flog it.
It is not, therefore, inappropriate to dwell on Assia Wevill’s beauty. It would be more inappropriate not to mention it since it dictates the course of her life. Negev and Koren are sensible enough to realise this early on, though their descriptions are sometimes reminiscent of the language of a teen magazine: words like “stunning” and “fantastic” litter the page, seeming to follow Assia as she walks. To some extent this incoherence is justified. As well as the many photographs, there is ample eyewitness testimony to the effect that Assia’s beauty could reduce thinking men to dribbling idiots. One of Hughes’s friends described her as a “magnificent, feral animal”, repeating the word “feral” to the point where it begins to sound rather more sleazy than admiring. A woman friend speaks of an urge to stop Assia in the street and grasp her sleeve – a feeling reminiscent of that expressed by an old woman who met Iseult Gonne on the street: “I fell on my knees, she was so beautiful.” One of the muse’s necessary qualities was a transcending beauty – the “arrogant loveliness” spoken of by Yeats, a loveliness, he hints in a poem, that trumps his wife’s real, tangible presence. That was the presence in Hughes’s mind that enraged Plath so much – burning all his papers until she found the one piece that spelled the word “Assia”.
And so, being beautiful, from youth Assia Gutmann learned the same lessons as her beautiful forebears: that there were always ways around doing things she did not wish to do. She was born in Berlin in the dying days of the Weimar Republic, and after her parents fled the persecution of Nazi Germany for Tel Aviv she grew up indulged by her father, who tolerated her frequent tantrums. These fits of rage recurred throughout her life when she did not get what she wanted: on one occasion when her first husband told her they were leaving England, where they lived at the time, she swallowed fifty aspirins; on another she goaded a different husband into kissing a colleague and then, according to her biographers, flew into a jealous rage at his actions, screaming out the window. Her three husbands all remember her volatile temperament, but they also recall how she beguiled them not only physically but mentally. One of the many men she was involved with speaks of a camping trip where they sat by the fire all night, “talking, talking, talking”.
But wherever she was at a given time, Assia was rarely content. Like many of her fellow muses, she had an element of rootlessless about her, the sense of being self-made, of having no past. Laura Riding fought to be recognised as an equal by Allen Tate and the Fugitive poets in spite of her humble, Polish-Jewish, working class origins. Like Assia, she spoke with a cut-glass accent and was often mistaken for an Englishwoman, even though she was born and raised in New York. In Assia Wevill’s case, her command of English and accompanying accent were bequests of a finishing school she attended in Tel Aviv, which filled her with notions of the life of a lady and no practical skill of any kind. This was followed by a year studying literature in Canada before she became bored and dropped out. A friend of hers commented: “In the past, someone like Assia – with an artistic temperament but no specific talent to express it – could become a muse as a way of self-fulfilment. She would have managed better in the nineteenth century, with Shelley and Browning and Keats.”
After she left Palestine in 1947, never to return, she spent the next decade variously in London, then Vancouver, then back to London again, marrying one British man and two Canadians, each one shortly after his predecessor. Four times, once with each of her three husbands and once with Hughes, she visited Germany, the country of her birth. Each time, her Israeli biographers describe the acute discomfort she felt when faced with Germany’s Nazi past. One retired German colonel, infatuated with her, gave her a present of the Iron Cross he won during World War II; her then husband, poet David Wevill, recalls her throwing it out the window of her train as violently as she could. In her last trip there with Hughes, she wrote to Yehuda Amichai in Hebrew script: “Me, half German? No, no, no. Suddenly Germany disgusts me.” That said, she was not above exploiting her early flight from Nazi Germany for dramatic impact, fascinating Ted Hughes and charming his friend Lucas Myers, who claimed that her life was dominated by the memory of SS boots at the door. In effect she both rejected and courted this heritage. (Plath, of German-Austrian extraction, infuriated the critic George Steiner with her appropriation of the sufferings at Dachau to describe her private experiences.) Germany was another link between the two women.
It is interesting that Assia’s visits to Germany are so tied with each emotional step in her life, especially as her commitment to England, in the last years, became more and more bound up with Hughes’s commitment to her. As that relationship and the hopes contained therein disintegrated, Assia herself, being, like Marilyn Monroe’s self-description, “all superstructure and no foundation”, found that her own psyche began to disintegrate in turn. Having nowhere to go, no past to build on or future to plan, she had nothing to sustain her any further. By 1969, she could then command herself: “Execute yourself and your little self efficiently.”
But in 1962, there was no indication that her life was fated to follow that single-track route. She and her then husband, Canadian poet David Wevill, were renting a flat from the Hugheses, who were living in Devon at the time. The two couples – or as Plath biographer Anne Stevenson snidely described them, “the three poets and Assia” – met on several occasions, the final one of these meetings extending to a weekend in Court Green in Devon. In this section of the biography, Koren and Negev are particularly keen to exonerate their subject as much as possible from the events that followed. However Assia’s claim to her boss just before she left that Friday that she was “going to seduce Ted”, does not cast her in the best light. (The boss in question strikes a rare sensible note in the whole saga when she mutters in reply: “I don’t care what you do, just as long as you come back on Monday in a better mood.”)
At the time, London was in the middle of the swinging sixties and Assia Wevill was riding the crest of the wave. Working at an advertising agency, she met many other writers of stature like Fay Weldon, who became a friend, and William Trevor. She was one of the team who came up with the Mr Kipling “exceedingly good cakes” slogan and later on was responsible for devising one of the most successful (and expensive) ever advertising campaigns for Sea Witch shampoo. Her female manager found her “petty, untrustworthy, devious and manipulative”, liable to take long lunch breaks and unexplained absences. The men she worked with, however, described her as a person of the utmost integrity. Whichever account was true, her inclination towards drama and her flair made advertising as natural a home for her as musedom. Beside the careworn Plath, confined to the house and children, she must have cut a much more dynamic figure.
Visiting the Hugheses in Devon that weekend, she and David appeared to be getting on well with the couple. But if Koren and Negev are to be believed, Plath became jealous of a scene she witnessed between her husband and Assia in the kitchen. Fay Weldon claimed elsewhere that Assia had told her otherwise: apparently she took offence at being requested by Plath to peel potatoes for dinner and flounced out to the garden to chat up Ted as an act of revenge. Whichever story is true, Plath withdrew into herself for the rest of the time they were there and was tense. She drove them to the station in silence and for several weeks nothing further occurred. Assia even went to considerable trouble to obtain a tapestry pattern Plath professed to have liked and posted it to her. The effusive note that went with it seems to imply that there were no hard feelings on Assia’s part and does not, as Koren and Negev observe, contain any mention of Hughes.
Ensuing events are well-documented: the arguments, the disastrous holiday Hughes and Plath had in Ireland (from which, Koren and Negev reveal for the first time, Hughes escaped to sneak Assia off to Spain for a fortnight, not bothering to let Plath know where he was) the separation, the bitterly cold winter of 1962, the writing of Ariel, Sylvia Plath’s body in the kitchen of her flat, blankets under the door to protect her two children, the gas switched on. In spite of this, the affair blossomed, Assia managing to win over many of Plath’s friends by her charm even as she was barely cold in her grave. There was one sour note: according to Elizabeth Sigmund, a friend of Plath’s, Assia asked her if she had a future with Ted. “Look at him,” Elizabeth allegedly replied, “Sylvia’s spirit will always be between you.” However, even though Assia’s biographers accept Sigmund’s account, Janet Malcolm, in her biography of Plath, The Silent Woman, disputes the likelihood of Assia’s making such a remark, putting it down to Sigmund’s partisanship.
Plath is not exonerated from blame either. Koren and Negev make much of her jealous rages when Hughes became friendly with other women – and later during his relationship with Assia, inadvertently demonstrate how justified Plath’s suspicions actually were. They are critical of Plath for not attending a poetry group after the convenor and his friends found her poetry schoolgirlish, implying she was incapable of taking criticism. The fact that the criticism may have been simply wrong – Philip Larkin thought Plath far superior to Hughes as a poet – was not taken into account, nor the possibility that Plath’s non-attendance might have some other cause. It is natural that the mistress’s chroniclers should seek to excoriate the wife – yet Assia herself, who admired Plath’s poetry, admitted in her diary: “She had a million times the talent, 1,000 times the will, 100 times the greed and passion that I have.” She then tormented herself about her own relationship with Hughes, asking herself: “Am I enough for him? AM I ENOUGH FOR HIM?”
The answer was yes, at first. In many ways, Assia probably suited Ted Hughes better than her predecessor; she was less insecure in herself, more accepting of his male friends and more willing to focus on Ted’s career. That is not to say that she was creatively idle; it is to Hughes’s credit that he constantly encouraged and proposed creative collaborations involving her. They once discussed a film script based on Turgenev’s First Love. Like many of Assia’s efforts, only the first page survives. A more fruitful idea of Hughes’s was to propose that she translate the poems of Yehuda Amichai from Hebrew to English, which she later read out on BBC Radio. Assia’s translations stand up to scrutiny and the test of time: one of them featured in a recent collection of love poems compiled by Daisy Goodwin. Assia also worked diligently to promote Hughes’s poems, typing them out on her employer’s headed notepaper and sending them out to various periodicals. Although she sometimes accused him of being over-secretive about his work, he sought her input on many of the poems in Crow, which he was later to dedicate to her memory.
But the most obvious fruit of their relationship was the birth of baby Shura in 1965. (There is some uncertainty about whether Ted Hughes or David Wevill was the father – the authors unquestioningly accept that it was Hughes, and the photographs of Shura side by side with the other Hughes children would seem to support this theory.) After aborting a pregnancy in 1963 due to Plath’s recent death and a desire to avoid scandal, Assia Wevill decided to overcome her horror of motherhood and proceed with the pregnancy. When Shura was almost one Hughes proposed they move to the west of Ireland. There, they achieved Edenic, bucolic bliss; Assia made a surprisingly competent and loving stepmother to Hughes’s two other children. She had hated Ireland when visiting it the year before with David Wevill, claiming that Irish women were plain and the country backward – but love for Hughes changed everything. It was the happiest time of her life: they had little but enjoyed it together with no distractions. This happiness was not to last.
Assia believed Ted’s claim that Sylvia Plath was the ultimate destroyer of their relationship. In her version of events, Plath had pulled a fast one on her by committing suicide: she had transformed herself into the muse while Assia had become what Francine Prose calls the “art wife”, the luckless spouse who was once a muse but is now a drudge who tolerates her husband’s wayward behaviour and organises his life because he is too involved to do so himself. But there were other, external stresses. Hughes’s elderly parents, who lived with him in Devon, needed to be cared for and Hughes had to leave Ireland to minister to them. His mother appears to have had a genius for using illness as a method of manipulating her son – having a heart attack or other health crisis just as Hughes and Assia got a night off in a hotel or made plans, instantly recovering on their return. (Koren and Negev do not note the fortuitous timing even though they admit Hughes’s in-laws tended Plath’s grave and disapproved of Assia Wevill.) In the meantime his father refused to look at or speak to Assia when she prepared his meals and set them down before him. Eventually his hostility forced Assia and her daughter Shura to eat alone, away from the rest of the family. Hughes drew up a list of demands, stipulating that Assia not lie in after 8am, learn a new recipe each week (Assia could not help but be mindful that Plath had been a meticulous housekeeper and cook) and teach the children German. She could not even rearrange the house in Devon to suit herself lest she be seen to be erasing Sylvia’s memory.
Bearing in mind the partiality of the account here, and that Hughes’s biographer Elaine Feinstein has criticised this book for failing to take into account his generosity of spirit, it is still the case that some of Hughes’s actions appear downright sadistic – the list of demands was singled out by every review of this biography. Fay Weldon, who defended the list, claimed that at a party in London Hughes coerced the four-year-old Shura into drinking wine; the little girl danced and danced until she fell over, much to the guests’ amusement. Weldon makes the point that he would never have treated his legitimate children in this way. When tension with Hughes’s parents forced Assia’s exile to London with Shura, he appeared to provide no financial support. During this time, according to a friend, Assia spoke of little but “Shura. Money. Loneliness.” She and Hughes had many rows and Assia complained to the same friend: “It’s them artists that bash in women’s souls, you know.”
It was plain that as a muse Assia Wevill had outlived her usefulness. While still beautiful, she was sidelined and ignored by Hughes while he pursued other women. Turning a blind eye, unwilling to surrender her musedom, she wrote him frantically touching letters and cards, one of which asked God to help Hughes to forgive her for her pride, while healing “all his bruises and his many wounds … because he is one of your best creations … you spent so much love in creating him”. In 1968 she was as hopelessly infatuated as in 1963 – as the authors note sadly, her love for him was as fresh as a young girl’s, even though she was no longer young. She was forced to feel inadequate and ashamed for simply wanting crumbs from the table and nothing more. That last Christmas Day, she and Shura were left alone in London while the rest of Hughes’s family enjoyed a turkey dinner, as well as Christmas presents from one of Hughes’s other women. One of Plath’s friends finally took pity on Assia and invited her to spend the day with her family.
By early 1969, Assia Wevill had come to the conclusion that continuing life was no longer an option for her. She had tried to free herself from Hughes’s malign, overpowering influence – even trying a dating agency – but to no avail. She had exhausted all avenues, her life, so open with possibilities, had narrowed its focus onto one possibility only, which was now “kaput”. The one thing holding her back was worry about her daughter. She sensed that Shura would not be welcomed and cared for by the Hugheses and would forever be second best; however Assia was troubled with guilt at the thought of murdering her. Koren and Negev handle this issue very sensitively, showing that Assia killed Shura painlessly, and out of misguided love rather than raging selfishness. She was not trying to compete with Plath: she was beyond that by now.
On March 23rd, 1969, Assia Wevill downed some sleeping pills and whiskey, switched on the gas in the oven and lay down on a blanket on the floor, Shura in her arms. By the time her German au pair had returned to the flat, both she and Shura were dead.
Rather unedifyingly, Hughes sought to suppress any accounts of the deaths and even though he had no legal standing, as the biographers point out, he took it upon himself to co-opt her funeral, organising a cremation when she had requested a burial, and keeping the urns by his bed as a method of taunting Assia’s successor when she got out of line. Even so, there is no denying that he was devastated by her death, describing it as “disastrous”. It was probably the last relationship in his life where he enjoyed the company of an intellectual equal who was prepared not to interfere in his territory. Arguably Hughes never reached the heights of Crow, Gaudete and Wodwo again – all works begun when she was in his life – until the publication of Birthday Letters in 1998.
And so ended the life of another muse, forgotten and discarded. Yet this biography proves a genuine revelation for anyone interested in the lives of Plath and Hughes as well as those new to the story. One of its greatest services is the way in which it shows the similarities and differences between Assia the muse and Sylvia the poet – in a sense, neither of them, being women who loved a poet, were able to survive the power of the muse stereotype. Ted Hughes was never just going to be a muse for Sylvia Plath, any more than he was content to receive the undivided attention of his muse Assia Wevill indefinitely. Both women were trapped by Hughes, but also by domesticity and their own temperaments, which appear to have been remarkably similar.
There are a few flaws in the book – the authors have a tendency to take some statements at face value, such as Assia’s unlikely claim that Al Alvarez wished to marry her, and there are also many annoying misprints which a proofreader with half an eye open should have caught. But all in all, this is a sane, compassionate and well-researched account into the life of a forgotten figure which brings Assia Wevill back with all her vividness, arrogance and wit, transforming her into a woman the reader can like and relate to. The authors describe Wevill as a “twentieth-century woman”, but as a muse her appeal is timeless and powerful. For that alone, she deserves her footnote in history, along with the tombstone inscription which Hughes denied her: “Here lies a lover of unreason and an exile.”
Susan Lanigan is a full-time programmer and a writer. She completed a Masters in Writing at NUI Galway in 2003. Since then she has won several prizes for her short stories and was shortlisted for the Hennessy Irish Writing Emerging Writer of the Year award in 2005.