Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life
By Jonathan Bate
RRP – $49.99 hb
Reviewed by Anne Henderson
A HAUNTED LIFE
In the 2015 movie A Walk in The Woods, the character who is travel writer Bill Bryson says, “Books – they’re like TV for smart people.” So true. And only a book for smart people could reveal the depths of character or recreate authentically the life of former poet laureate, Yorkshire born Ted Hughes – as Jonathan Bate has achieved in his splendid Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life. It is big (566 pp), compelling and lush with complex and intimate details of a life lived to the full at the expense of both the subject and his immediate family and associates.
No movie or TV documentary could capture the immense hunger and tragedy, greed and voracity, along with the exuberance of characters, activity, language, myth and spirit that Ted Hughes’ life encompassed. As well, from the time of the suicide of his first wife, the poet and author Sylvia Plath, his was a life haunted by her presence.
In keeping with the controversial history of the Plath-Hughes partnership and Ted Hughes’ own life, Jonathan Bate’s biography has not been forthcoming without its own dramas. In her February 2016 piece for the New York Review of Books, author and Plath/Hughes scholar Janet Malcolm lambasts Bate for his clever, but willful, revelations of some of Hughes’ nastier characteristics. For Malcolm, this is all about Bate wanting to “cut Hughes down to size and does so, interestingly, by blowing him up into a kind of extra-large sex maniac”. Well maybe – or maybe Bate just wanted an honest account of the Hughes personality.
Previously unavailable archives from the Ted Hughes estate were sold to the British Library for £500,000 by Hughes’ widow Carol, and eventually opened to the public in 2010. There was also a large collection of manuscripts sold by Hughes to Emory University in Atlanta and a collection of selected letters available from 2007, which Bate describes as “revealing [Hughes] as perhaps the greatest English literary correspondent since John Keats”.
Having a fascination with Hughes from his youth (“I shall never forget the experience of hearing him read Crow at a little gallery in Cambridge when I was an undergraduate”), Bate made contact with Carol Hughes and was given the go-ahead to research and publish a literary biography of this famous (and somewhat infamous) English poet. There was, for some time, generous co-operation with the family – including Ted Hughes’ possessive sister Olwyn who had also been his literary agent and occasional publisher.
Bate initially spent four years of extensive research and requested another year from his publisher in order to finish the book. He read Hughes’ more than 100 books, the memoirs of friends and associates, the works of poets that referenced Hughes’ world, interviews and exchanges with those still alive who had known him and the extensive archives, and discovered much that those who had been closest to him had never known. Too much it seems for Carol Hughes who held the copyright – although not it seems for Ted’s sister Olwyn who had her own take on her brother’s life and had jealously viewed women such as Sylvia as intruders.
So often, the guardians of the archives belonging to their publicly known relatives or associates have bare knowledge of the detail to be found in them, the hidden away scribblings, the letters and the intimate moments such documents can chart. These minders have not taken the hours/months/years of time to read the contents as researchers will.
In Bate’s years spent reading the Hughes archives, he discovered that the distinguished poet was an insatiable diarist and recorder of his days. As Bate wrote in an article for The Guardian on 3 April 2014:
It wasn’t organised and systematic like Plath’s but, piecing together thousands of pages of memorandum books, loose leaves and pocket notebooks in the British Library, it became clear that this was an almost complete record of [Hughes’] inner life amounting to nearly a quarter of a million words. Fascinatingly, the journal and the Birthday Letters project proceeded in tandem through the years. Sometimes you can’t even be sure whether a piece of writing is a journal entry or the draft of a poem about Hughes’ life with Plath and its legacy.
In 2014, Bate’s extensive digging had somehow become known to Carol Hughes, who suddenly dropped her co-operation with the Bate biography. No reasons were given but, clearly, Bate was given to understand that he had strayed beyond the “literary” account to more of a “biographical” one in the drafts (most of which the family had not read) of the Ted Hughes’ story.
The result was a successful action by the “estate” which left Bate unable to publish large amounts of Hughes’ writings. Bate would be limited to only brief quotations from Hughes’ published works. Ironically, the resulting biography is all the better for it – far crisper for the average reader and certainly more riveting.
Bate has crafted into public knowledge a very public and private man, all done without the weight of the literary criticism expected if lines could have been lengthily quoted. Without the full use of the vastly poetic voice of Hughes, Bate has fashioned a literary sculpture of Hughes and his huge life experience by combining an appreciation of the poet/writer’s works, his voluminous memoranda and the memoirs and memories of those who knew him. It is an intellectual potboiler like no other.
There is no doubt that the five years Bate spent absorbing Hughes has put him in touch with the soul of the famous poet and writer, alongside adventurous (even gluttonous and rough sex) womaniser, unfaithful and also loving husband, caring father, hobby farmer, aging fishing addict and friend of the Queen Mother and Prince of Wales – among other attributes. Bate’s account is non-judgmental of any who appear. Even the “harridan” feminists who pursued Hughes over Sylvia Plath’s suicide in the 1970s and 1980s can be seen to have a case.
Poet and novelist Sylvia Plath haunts the biography as she did the man.
Bate reveals that Hughes began his Birthday Letters shortly after Plath’s suicide in February 1963. These writings would eventually become what Bate argues was an attempt at atonement, a secret writing down of Hughes’ pain and regret, his moments of inspiration around his loved ones and the burden he carried from his appetite for freedom and unqualified desires.
In 1987, a legal case was taken by one of Plath’s university colleagues, Jane Anderson against Avco Embassy Pictures, producers of a movie version of Plath’s partially autobiographical The Bell Jar. Anderson believed she was the basis of the character Joan Gilling in The Bell Jar but had been misrepresented as a lesbian in the movie. The case took Hughes back to the streets of Boston where he and Sylvia had lived. Bate’s book opens with a brief slice of these legal proceedings. The flood of memories made Hughes determined to turn his private writings on his relationship with Plath into a project for publication at some later stage – this would become his epic Birthday Letters, released not long before his death in 1998.
Bate works the Catherine/Heathcliff motif of Wuthering Heights strongly into the story of this Yorkshire moors poet and the New England mother of his children whom he once loved deeply and who became, for a time, his physical and spiritual mentor. No woman, Bate believes, ever reached Hughes’ soul like Sylvia. Her memory hangs over his imagination like Scout Rock hung over Mytholmroyd, the small town of Hughes’ boyhood.
And it was Sylvia, the upper middle class burgeoning poet and fresh spirit of the New World, who pushed the working class Hughes up the social ladder. Hughes was one of the bright young things that made it to the elite Oxbridge post-war world, studying at Cambridge where he met Plath. That Hughes knew Plath had a mentally unstable past and that Plath knew Hughes was what she called “very sadistic” did not stop their marriage. They tied the knot on 16 June 1956, in London. Ted was as smitten as he would ever be, writing of a morning after leaving Sylvia that he felt himself:
“floating/ On air spilling in over the city/Off the Surrey gardens and orchards”. Then he heard “London’s hidden blackbirds and thrushes”. “a million singers”, singing a blessing upon the “sleeping millions”. It was like “a high tide at dawn, the top of the tide,/ Their dawn chorus awash through the whole city”. Meanwhile his totemic birds, the crows, accompanied him at ground level.
As struggling post graduates, it was Sylvia who pushed Ted to enter a poetry competition, shortly after they married, which she had noted but was not ready for herself. Hughes won it and thereafter published his first book of poems – The Hawk in The Rain. Hughes wrote to his older brother in Australia soon after – “marriage is my medium”.
Early love, however, was soon overtaken by domesticity. With the birth of two children – Frieda and Nicholas – Hughes’ affairs would end the marriage. Sylvia produced her best writing in the latter part of this marriage breakdown – pouring out her angst and previewing the plight of educated women in the next few decades. Plath’s confessional work of this time would later awaken Hughes as to what was needed to appeal to the modern reading public.
On the night of Plath’s suicide, after she had phoned Hughes to seek a meeting, he was not with Assia Wevill, for whom he had left Sylvia, but yet another lover Susan Allison. The fact that Hughes had not answered Sylvia’s call would nag him always.
Made into a TV movie, the life of Ted Hughes might be titled “Ted and Sylvia and Assia and Susan and Carol and Brenda and Jill and Jennifer and Emma and Many More Not Named – the Life of a Liberated and Socially Mobile Poet of the Late Twentieth Century”. A few years after Sylvia’s death, Hughes admitted to Brenda Hedden – one of three women he loved at the time (“A, B and C”) “nicely spaced out” between London, North Tawton and Welcombe – that “he no longer wanted to be dependent on one woman; he felt it was weakening and suffocating him”. A journal entry he made crisply summed up his mindset – “3 beautiful women – all in love, and a separate life of joy visible with each, all possessed – but own soul lost.”
A poem Hughes drafted at this time began, “Which bed? Which bride? Which breast’s comfort?” Before he eventually married Carol, seeking some home life stability, he asked Frieda and Nicholas which of Brenda and Carol he should choose – they opted for Carol. They married, almost secretly, on 19 August 1970 – Carol was 22 and Hughes had just turned 40. As he had done with his marriage to Sylvia, Hughes did not tell his family or friends he had married. But this time, he spent the following weeks bedding Brenda Hedden, as if he had made the wrong choice.
Hughes was a great poetic voice for England in the second half of the twentieth century and his work is a serious addition to the canon of English poetry, without doubt. Yet, he could never remove from his mind the personal memory of his life with Sylvia Plath. In time, he would add to that the suicide of his on and off partner Assia Weevil, who also gassed herself, killing their daughter Shura alongside her. Whether memorial or inspiration for his art, Hughes’ writings would turn them into literature.
Without Plath, one wonders how far Hughes might have moved creatively. Plath’s art is recognised for its modern confessional exposure found especially in her later writings – her ability to release her inner spirit in poetic genius. As a contained, domestic, yet creative individual she poured the inspiration this gave her into her work. The years of motherhood had taken over, leaving Plath saddled with a husband – tiring of the domestic – who regarded her as prime carer for their children and had little understanding of her need for independence or support. This was not the partner she had married. Plath became the scream at the status quo, which had caught educated women in the post war years of the twentieth century. Plath got it – and wrote it.
Ted Hughes was a man of his time – those liberated decades for ordinary lives of sex and creative individualism. Sadly, this also means he will be remembered for his personal tragedies – a result of his self-serving lust for the women he craved and supposedly loved.
Increasingly, however, the artist and his/her personal life are hard to separate. Hughes was an assiduous scholar of classic literary modes – “I was exasperated by his huge book on Shakespeare, but I was delighted in his return to form with Tales From Ovid”, writes Bate. Hughes trawled issues of conservation with his earthy love of the English countryside and its creatures; he dabbled in legendary myths and mysticism. He was a saturated intellectual. And we are in his debt. He spoke for the Western world’s times. In this, however, he was also a narcissistic individual who left a trail of remorse.
We are certainly indebted to Jonathan Bates for such a well rounded portrait of this extraordinary man and his world.
Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War – shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards for History