Thu, Jan 07, 2016 - Page 11 News List

Book review: ‘Sympathetic but unsparing’

Jonathan Bate’s biography of Ted Hughes paints an incredibly human portrait of the late poet’s life — including his attempts to evade threats by feminists

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

Ted Hughes: The Unauthorized Life, by Jonathan Bate.

His letters have been compared to those of Keats, his love-life has attracted more interest even than Byron’s, and his poetic reputation in the UK of his day was only equaled by Philip Larkin’s. History, though, is likely to remember Ted Hughes (1930 – 1998) as passionate about two things — poetry and women. He approached them both with a virility that some consider near-violent. His poetic language strained under his efforts to evoke nature’s primal brutality, and he often took as his subjects animals who treated their prey with manifest savagery. As for women, many fell for him at first sight, and he was more than willing to return the favor.

Jonathan Bate’s long book is called an The Unauthorized Life. The background to this is that initially it was assumed there would be no biographies on the grounds of Hughes’s understandable fear of the form, though Elaine Feinstein published one in 2001. But then, around five years ago, Bate approached Hughes’s widow with the idea of a book that would illuminate the poetry by reference to the life, and was astonished when she agreed, and even proceeded to provide him with photocopies of documents lodged in the US. So Bate, a professor of English at Oxford, worked away feverishly on the massive Hughes archives held by the British Library and Emory University in Atlanta.

Then suddenly, the Estate withdrew its cooperation, citing Bate’s refusal to show them his work in progress. Bate had to leave his original publisher, Faber, and find another. He was also refused permission to make quotations from Hughes’s unpublished work and so was forced to paraphrase what he describes as the extraordinary riches of Hughes’s journals deposited in the British Library. He says he fervently hopes they will one day be published in full.

Publication Notes

Ted Hughes:The Unauthorized Life

By Jonathan Bate

662 pages

William Collins

Hardback: UK


What everyone knows about Ted Hughes is that his first wife, the US poet Sylvia Plath, killed herself, seemingly as a result of his infidelities. Many books hostile to Hughes have been published on this relationship alone, and for many years Plath’s grave in Yorkshire, UK, was defaced, with the name “Hughes” repeatedly chipped out of the gravestone. Militant feminists effectively accused him of the murder of someone they believed was the US’s finest female poet since Emily Dickinson, and Hughes often had to cancel US poetry readings because of threats of disruption by the feminist lobby.

Jonathan Bate’s book can be seen as an attempt to redress the balance. For one thing, he’s more interested in Hughes’s poetry than Plath’s. In addition, he sees himself as writing Hughes’s life seen as a whole, and keeps the years he spent with Plath in proportion. (He accuses Feinstein of devoting 125 pages to their seven years together, but only 110 to the 35 years of Hughes’s life after her death).

But Bate also sees Hughes as having suffered terribly from Plath’s death, not to mention the subsequent suicide, also by use of a domestic gas oven, of Assia Wevill, the woman he effectively left Plath for. Bate makes out that Hughes continued to love Plath “until the day he died”, though his second marriage, to Carol Orchard, the daughter of a neighbor in rural Devon, UK, is implicitly portrayed as having been his salvation. When his and Plath’s son Nicholas kills himself in Alaska in 2009, Bate comments that, if Hughes had lived to learn about it, it would have been “the one thing that would have destroyed him”.

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