Assia Wevill – born on May 15th, 1927 – is today remembered as the mysterious, exotic ‘other woman’ who came between Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, and took her own life (and that of her child) just a few years later.
Assia’s father, Lonya Guttman, was a Russian Jew who, against his parents’ wishes, married a German nurse, Lisa Gaedeke, in 1926. They settled in Berlin, where Lonya worked as a doctor. Assia’s birth was followed by that of her sister, Celia, in 1929.
By 1933 – when Hitler was appointed Chancellor – Germany was no longer a safe place for the Guttmans. They left for Italy, where they spent six months, before settling in the British-mandated territory of Palestine.
As a teenager, Assia outraged her neighbours by dating John Steele, a British soldier. Her mother encouraged the romance, in the hope that Assia would marry him and the family could leave for England.
In 1946, Assia, a talented artist, came to London, and studied at Regent Street Polytechnic. She married John Steele in 1947, but was unhappy from the start. When she learned that Steele planned to emigrate to Canada, Assia attempted suicide.
Nonetheless, Assia quickly made new friends there. She divorced Steele in 1949, and after marrying again, to the economist Richard Lipsey, Assia returned to London in 1953.
‘There was something fragile and brittle about her,’ the playwright Pam Gems recalled. ‘She did not seem so much lost, as forever in the wrong place, in the wrong country, with the wrong man.’
By 1956, Assia was in love again – with a Canadian poet, David Wevill. Under his influence, she began writing. ‘There was a poetic spirit in Assia,’ Wevill said, ‘but she was not intentionally a poet or writing poems with a view to publishing them.’
After a prolonged divorce from Lipsey, she married a third time in 1960, and started a career in advertising. Her colleague, novelist William Trevor, described the Wevills as ‘Scott Fitzgerald people, sixties-style.’
A year later, the Wevills rented a London flat from another poetic couple – Ted Hughes and his wife, Sylvia Plath. In 1962, just after Sylvia’s second child was born, the Wevills visited them in Devon.
At first, the two women got along well. But then, something upset Sylvia. Ted, rather improbably, claimed that Assia had dreamed of a pike – which, for him, was richly symbolic – while Assia casually told David that Ted had kissed her.
After returning to London, Assia tracked down a tapestry pattern that Sylvia admired and sent it to her, along with some thread and a letter. Sylvia found the hobby ‘calming’, and both the tapestry and Assia’s note were later found among her personal effects.
Some weeks later, Ted came to London and his affair with Assia began. She still loved David, however, and even after Ted left Sylvia, was reluctant to embark on a new relationship.
"I was endowed with too many minor qualities, but with neither the will or the huge intelligence to bring them a life of their own."In March 1963, Sylvia – now living in London – committed suicide. Assia moved into what she called the ‘death flat’, to take care of Ted’s children. She read Plath’s private journal, and a novel she had begun writing about a faithless, philandering husband.
The critic Erica Wagner has argued that ‘Assia is a figure Plath has drawn from her subconscious, the dark fount of her work.’ In her diaries, Sylvia had frequently referred to her as a ‘bitch’ and a ‘barren woman’.
Assia was shunned by Ted’s family in Yorkshire, and after he took his children back to Devon, she returned to London (and David.) By 1965, however, she and Hughes were reunited, and Assia gave birth to a daughter, Shura.
But after a blissful few months in Ireland, Assia followed Ted to Devon and the old tensions resumed. She left, with Shura, for London.
Assia translated the work of an Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, and adapted Turgenev’s First Love for the screen, even directing a few scenes. Her work in advertising was highly praised, but in 1968, she was fired.
Ted was now involved with two other women, though still house-hunting with Assia. She made a will, and spoke frequently of suicide. ‘I was endowed with too many minor qualities,’ she wrote, ‘but with neither the will or the huge intelligence to bring them a life of their own.’
On March 23rd, 1969, Assia gassed herself and her daughter in their London home. ‘I couldn’t leave little Shura by herself,’ she explained in a note to her father.
For years afterward, Assia’s relationship with Ted was kept secret. He wrote openly about her in his final collection, Birthday Letters (1998.) In 2006, a biography of Assia was published, entitled A Lover of Unreason.
‘The times were against her, as against Sylvia,’ thought novelist Fay Weldon. ‘In those pre-feminist days, women saw their lives in terms of being loved or not loved by a man. It was terrible to be abandoned, death is better than rejection.’