Mental Illness in ‘Capriccio: A Novel’

Recently, a reader asked me if mental illness had influenced the characters in my novel, ‘Capriccio’. Until she brought it to my attention I hadn’t realised  just how much the suffering in this story was brought about by the frailties of each character’s mind.image62

Sylvia (Grace in the novel) had attempted suicide three times before she finally succeeded.  It is conjectured she would have been diagnosed as bipolar or manic depressive, were she alive today. Back in the sixties, however, she was regarded as ‘highly strung’, and prescribed heavy drugs towards the end of her life. As a teenager, after her first attempt at suicide, she was given electro-convulsive therapy, then a relatively new and more brutal treatment for mental illness.  The circumstances of her life described in the novel contributed to her major depression and eventual death.

DRAWING of Assia by David Wevill
Portrait of Assia Wevill by David Wevill

Assia (Esther in the novel) is a more complex case; she would likely be pigeonholed today as having a ‘personality disorder’. Narcissistic yet overly generous, mischievous yet guilt-ridden, grandiose yet shy, she was a deeply misunderstood woman, who attracted trouble simply because of her outstanding beauty, and haughty  mannerisms. Deep down she remained a frightened child for most of her life; the memories of fleeing from Nazi Germany with her family as a child, never left her.

Courtesy Google images

As for Ted (Larry),  he was a victim of the times, when artists and writers adopted their own moral and social standards. Prolific and creative, his output of verse, drama, prose and children’s stories was immense.  He found it impossible to live a conservative life, chained to the domesticity of hearth and home. Yet during the six years of his marriage to Sylvia, he was a devoted father and a faithful husband.  In my portrayal of him, I have tried to be impartial, showing his sometimes cruel treatment of both Assia and Sylvia without judgement. I hope I have also shown the artistic constraints which, while not excuses for his behaviour, partly explains it.

Research has shown that often, creativity and mental illness go together. This is evident in all three characters, although Ted didn’t have a mental illness as such. Sylvia was a highly gifted poet, and paid a heavy price for her gift. Assia also was a talented artist and translator, but is rarely remembered as such. Towards the end of her short life she suffered major depression, as a reaction to her straightened circumstances, and Ted’s ultimate rejection of both her, and their daughter..

Courtesy Google images

2 Comments Add yours

  1. kit149n says:

    This novel shows a sensitive understanding of 3 characters’ inner turmoil, without judging them. Gives insights into the true story and the impact of mental illness.


  2. Thank you. I wanted to present each character’s dilemma realistically, and also impartially. We need more understanding and less judgement of mental illness in our society, both then and now. The poems which Hughes wrote about his relationship with Assia are published in his recent ‘Collected Poems’ as a sequence of twenty poems called ‘Capriccio’. They are freely available in that volume. However copyright issues prevented me from including them in ‘Capriccio: a Novel’.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s