Assia Wevill : biography
Assia Wevill (May 15, 1927 – March 23, 1969) was a German-born woman who escaped the Nazis, living in Mandate Palestine and later in Britain, where she had a relationship with the English poet Ted Hughes. She killed herself and also her four-year-old daughter Alexandra Tatiana Elise (Shura). Six years earlier, Hughes’s wife Sylvia Plath had also committed suicide. Wevill committed suicide in similar fashion to Plath, by use of a gas oven.
On 23 March 1969, Assia Wevill gassed herself and four-year-old Shura in their London home. She had sealed the kitchen door and window, taken sleeping pills dissolved in a glass of water, and turned on the gas stove. She and Shura were found lying together on a mattress.
Assia Gutmann was the daughter of a Jewish physician of Russian origin, Dr. Lonya Gutmann, and a German Lutheran mother, Elizabetha (née Gaedeke). She spent most of her youth in Tel Aviv. Cited by friends and family as a free-spirited young woman, she would go out to dance at the British soldiers’ club, where she met Sergeant John Steel, who would become her first husband and with whom she moved to London in 1946. They later emigrated to Canada, where she enrolled in the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, and where she was to meet her second husband, Canadian economist Richard Lipsey.
In 1956, on a ship to London, she met the 21-year-old poet David Wevill. They began an affair and Assia divorced Lipsey, marrying Wevill in 1960.
A refugee from Nazi Germany after the beginning of World War II, she was linguistically gifted, and besides working in the advertising industry, was an aspiring poet who published, under her maiden name Assia Gutmann, an English translation of the work of Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai.
In 1961, poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath rented their flat in Chalcot Square, Primrose Hill, London to Assia and David Wevill, and took up residence at North Tawton, Devon. Hughes was immediately struck with Assia, as she was with him. He later wrote:
- We didn’t find her – she found us.
- She sniffed us out.
- She sat there
- Slightly filthy with erotic mystery.
- I saw the dreamer in her
- Had fallen in love with me and she did not know it.
- That moment the dreamer in me
- Fell in love with her, and I soon knew it.Hughes, Ted. ‘Dreamers’. Birthday Letters. Faber & Faber, 1998.
Plath noted their chemistry. Soon after, Ted and Assia began an affair. At the time of Plath’s suicide, Wevill was pregnant with Hughes’ child, but she had an abortion soon after. The actual relationship, who instigated it, and its circumstances have been hotly debated for many years.
Hughes moved her into Court Green (the North Tawton, Devon, home that he had bought with Plath), where Assia helped to care for Hughes’ and Plath’s two children, Frieda and Nicholas. Wevill was reportedly haunted by Plath’s memory; she even began using things that had once belonged to Plath.
In a biography of Assia, Lover of Unreason, the authors maintain that she used Plath's items not out of obsession, but rather for the sake of practicality, as she was maintaining a household for Hughes and his children. On 3 March 1965 at age 37, Wevill gave birth to Alexandra Tatiana Elise, nicknamed "Shura," while still married to David Wevill.
Ostracized by her lover’s friends and family,
and eclipsed by the figure of Plath in public life, she became anxious and suspicious of Hughes's infidelity, which was real enough. He began affairs with Brenda Hedden, a married acquaintance who frequented their home, and Carol Orchard, a nurse twenty years his junior, whom he married in 1970. Wevill's relationship with Hughes was also fraught with complexities, as shown by a collection of his letters to her that have been acquired by Emory University. She was continually distraught at his seeming reluctance to commit to marrying and setting up a home with her while treating her as a "housekeeper". Most of Hughes' friends indicate that while he never publicly claimed Shura as his daughter, his sister Olwyn said that he did believe the child was his.
Ted Hughes’ volume of poetry Crow (1970) was dedicated to the memory of Assia and Shura. His poem "Folktale" deals with his relation to Assia:
- She wanted the silent heraldry
- Of the purple beach by the noble wall.
- He wanted Cabala the ghetto demon
- With its polythene bag full of ashes.
In 1989, Hughes published half a dozen poems he had written for Assia, which were hidden among the 240 poems in New Selected Poems. In "The Error." he wrote:
- When her grave opened its ugly mouth
- why didn’t you just fly,
- Why did you kneel down at the grave’s edge
- to be identified
- accused and convicted?
In "The Descent," he wrote:
- your own hands, stronger than your choked outcry,
- Took your daughter from you. She was stripped from you,
- The last raiment
- Clinging round your neck, the sole remnant
- Between you and the bed
- In the underworld
In the feature film Sylvia, Assia Wevill was portrayed by Amira Casar.