The Invisible Woman

 “The invisible woman: A Review of ‘Lover of Unreason’ by Eilat Negev and Yehuda Koren, by Peter Porter. Reprinted from The Guardian Oct 2006

The title of this all-encompassing biography of Assia Wevill, ‘Lover of Unreason’,  refers to Assia’s self-chosen epitaph, with she wanted engraved on her tombstone.  It perhaps reflects her descent into depression and self-castigation towards the end of her life. This thoroughly researched work of non-fiction was written by two Israeli journalists, EIlat Negev, and Yehuda Koren. I am happy to say these authors have supported ‘Capriccio: A Novel”, with constant encouragement. One of their many messages of support, ‘How I wish we’d had the freedom of fiction’, reassured me that I could create the thoughts, conversations, and journal entries, without detracting from the essential truth of Assia’s story. I’m reprinting this review here in acknowledgement of the role ‘Lover of Unreason’ has played in the writing of my novel. Koren and Negev’s biography has been my bible of facts, the scaffolding on which I’ve created the inner lives of Assia, Ted and Sylvia. The review reprinted from The Guardian, f (Saturday 28 October 2006). follows:

 Peter Porter writes:

Assia Wevill was airbrushed from the Hughes/Plath heritage. My name occurs a number of times in this biography of Assia Wevill, but whatever my ego might have hoped for or resented, reading the full story has only revived an acute horror at what happened more than 40 years ago. The two Israeli authors are not stylists – their tone is that of a black-edged issue of Hello! – but they have assembled in great detail the life of a remarkable woman whom many of us knew and loved but whom we all seem to have allowed to be airbrushed out of literary history. For me to have waited till the main actors are dead to lay at the door of Ted Hughes and the literary establishment the cruelty of excising Assia’s true part in the Hughes/Plath heritage, assigning her only the role of marginal temptress, may seem a cowardly act.

Portrait of Assia Wevill by David Wevill

My excuse is the lack, up to now, of any written record to support my conviction that a common front was declared against her soon after her death. In the name of a greater legend she had to be kept in the background. When Hughes became Assia’s lover and left Sylvia Plath in 1962, her eclipse was set in motion. While she was not a poet of genius, as Plath was, she was more than just a beautiful woman who set her cap at a celebrated poet. She had wit, charm and generosity, and while she could be wilful and self-dramatising, she was also natural and straightforward – never in my eyes the “femme fatale”. The book’s title is from her self-composed epitaph: “Here lies a lover of unreason, and an exile.”

There is another epitaph: “Assia was my true wife and the best friend I ever had” – this from a letter of Hughes’s written after her suicide in 1969. But any connection with her was suppressed by him at the inquest and, more damagingly, she appears either sidelined in his writing or demonised, as in this poem from Hughes’s  “Birthday Letters”:

from DREAMERS

‘We didn’t find her
-she found us 
Her German the dark undercurrent
In her Kensington jeweller’s elocution
Warily you cultivated her,
Her Jewishness, her many-blooded beauty
Who was this Lilith of abortions
Touching the hair of your children With tiger-painted nails?
She sat there in her soot-wet mascara, In flame-orange silks, in gold bracelets,
Slightly filthy with erotic mystery –
A German Russian Israeli with the gaze of a demon
Between curtains of black Mongolian hair.’

 – Ted Hughes

The ‘Birthday Letters’ are addressed to Plath; Assia is their subject only in this quoted poem. That Hughes should use one suicidal woman to excuse himself to another is extraordinary, but more so is the contrast between this denunciation and the passionate life he shared with her from 1962 until her death. Time did not bring reconciliation or empathy.

Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev have traced her surviving papers and diaries, held chiefly by her sister in Canada, and have interviewed some of those who knew her in Israel, Canada and England. Nothing that puts Hughes in a poor light is not supported by his own words. Assia’s most scarifying observations are directed at herself; their agony is a via dolorosa of love’s exchanges with revulsion.

Assia Gutmann was born in Berlin in 1927. Her father, Dr Lonya Gutmann, was a Russian Jew married to a Lutheran nurse. He removed the family to Palestine in the 30s, recognising that, even with an Aryan wife, he would have no future in Germany. Neither he nor Assia had much sense of Jewish identity or interest in Jewish culture – and even less in what was to be the new Jewish state. They were lovers of European high culture – the great novelists, poets and composers whose names recur in her correspondence. She grew up speaking German, Hebrew and English. Dr Gutmann was a bon viveur – Palestine/Israel was exile to him. Assia didn’t attend any Jewish school, but rather 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.

In “Dreamers” Hughes declares “her speech Harrod’s”. I found it more melodious than affected: perhaps Australian class worries are different. The Gutmann family strategy was to get out of Palestine.

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