Reviewed by Jane Feaver
Jonathan Bate’s new biography of Ted Hughes plunges us into high drama. In a courtroom in Boston in 1986 we find ourselves in the middle of a libel trial. The plaintiff, a former acquaintance of Sylvia Plath, claims that she can be identified, falsely, as a character who, in a recent souped-up film adaptation of The Bell Jar, is portrayed overtly as a lesbian. The trial was prolonged and draining, and must have been doubly galling to Hughes, who, though he had nothing to do with the content of the film or the novel, as executor of his first wife’s estate found himself, through an oversight in the contract, liable for costs. Bate’s introduction, arresting though it may be, presents Hughes in uncharacteristic light, defensive and beleaguered; it serves, by a showman’s sleight of hand, to thrust us into the book’s main argument: that Hughes was never able to recover from his relationship with Plath; that his best work was only released once he had begun to address overtly the psychic wound of her suicide, and to write, following her example, in the confessional mode he had hitherto repressed or eschewed.
The thesis itself is not original; to a great extent, it is self-evident. There can be little doubt that the devastation wreaked by the suicide of a partner would persist until the end of one’s days. In Hughes’s case, the trauma was horrifically compounded by the copy-cat suicide six years later of Assia Wevill, whose end also involved the death of her and Hughes’s four-year-old daughter, Shura. The psychological impact of all this is beyond imagining. However, there was a life afterwards (nearly thirty years of it), and, quite apart from the poems that make up Birthday Letters, there was a body of great and diverse work that belies the notion that this last volume was Hughes’s apotheosis.
Bate, it appears, turns a blind eye to anything that does not obviously fit his thesis. To overlook Moortown Diary (1989), which, in little more than a paragraph he dismisses as “prosaic”, is baffling. These poems, extracted and re-presented with an introduction and deeply involved notes by Hughes ten years after their original appearance, in the collection Moortown (1979) were clearly important to him. They comprise a sequence, which in unflinching detail documents the quotidian, often brutal realities of farming life. Offered in remembrance of Hughes’s farmer father-in-law, Jack Orchard, they strike a broader elegiac note, granting us particular access to a rural experience that refracts a general sense of human embattlement and mourning. The poems are alert to the way in which the flora and fauna of a landscape can conjure ghosts, the way the land itself embodies and prefigures our fate.
With the publication of The Iron Man (1968), Bate acknowledges that Hughes had “firmly established his place as one of the world’s leading children’s authors”, yet his stories and poems for children receive short shrift. Hughes was rare among poets in championing writing for and by children. He didn’t underestimate the reach of a child’s imagination – quite the contrary. The poems in Season Songs, from the same period as those in Moortown, began as poems for children, but, as Hughes remarks, “they grew up”. The joie de vivre of the animal poems in What is the Truth? reveal an utterly different temperament to the poems in, say, Crow.
By ignoring such significant areas of his work, Bate’s critical emphasis appears out of kilter. No doubt it doesn’t help his cause that he was unable to quote as freely as he might have liked. This, at least, would have ensured some pith to the writing. As it is, if one puts aside the tall task of sifting through the vast archive (which is, after all, the bread-and-butter of the literary biographer), there is a marked tendency towards description and speculation. By Bate’s own admission, some of the witnesses he calls are “unreliable”. In an epilogue devoted to ‘The Legacy’, for instance, extraordinary space is given to the contents of a novel of unverified quality by a one-time acquaintance. Modelled, as it appears to be, on the poet’s life and legacy, it is dangled as a piece of titillation, with no other substantial justification for its inclusion. I wonder how many key figures, such as David Wevill, Assia’s husband at the time of Hughes’s affair with her, refused to talk? In the lurid roll-call of women, Hughes’s second wife of almost thirty years, Carol Orchard, is portrayed as a negligible presence. What was her role, we might wonder, in holding together a life and home for her husband and for his children? Bate’s tone in relation to women is generally suspect, the epithets vapid: a publicity director is “blonde and glamorous”, the poet Frances Horowitz “radiantly beautiful and dazzlingly clever”. Erica Jong’s particular reaction to Hughes in the early 1970s is taken conveniently to “stand for the experience of dozens of females, of all ages, who attended his readings”, as if, in our dozens, we make up a curiously distinct species. How did men react, we might ask?
In all this, I must confess, I do have some inside knowledge. Through the 1990s I worked as assistant poetry editor at Faber. In that capacity, it was my great good fortune to have some dealings with, among others, the two men – Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes – who were the twin pillars of the poetry world. Their presence on T.S. Eliot’s list ensured that Faber was still the one place to be published. Every new poet – and there was under Christopher Reid a serious influx of talent – relished, in particular, that association. My dealings were mostly by phone, about book jackets, catalogue copy, proof changes, but occasionally one or other would appear in the office. The excitement and love (I don’t use the word lightly) they each generated in the building was palpable. Ted would enter as if he’d come in off the moor, windswept and burly, a marvellous distraction in the brown, hutch-like run of office life. The manuscript of Tales from Ovid was delivered in a bag that stank of fish, and very soon stank out the office. Birthday Letters arrived by stealth, and I made the mistake of reading one of the first few copies of the typescript on my way to work, on top of the 68 bus. Almost immediately I felt exposed. Poem after poem, this turned out to be a first-hand account of the development, vicissitudes and complexities of a relationship about which for the most part Hughes had been deeply, publicly, reticent. Holding those pages in a public place was like being planted with the crown jewels or a stash of hard drugs.
Though several of the poems in fact had already been published (slipped relatively unnoticed into the 1994 edition of New Selected Poems), this volume with its cumulative and narrative power was published unlike any other book of poetry before. It was rushed out, under embargo, and made front-page news: “Revealed: the most tragic literary love story of our time”. The immediate and critical reception of the poems had far more to do with the high drama of revelation, access to the red-hot source, than with the poetry itself. Hughes had finally had his say, and delivered, perhaps inadvertently, the one book that would ensure the myth was well and truly stoked.
But for those thousands of people who had any personal dealings with him, as his extraordinary letters attest (those selected and published by Christopher Reid are the tip of an iceberg), Hughes was a man characterised not by his relationship to Plath, but by his blazing intelligence, his warmth, generosity, candour and humour. It is this man who is curiously absent from the pages of Bate’s book.
I can understand now why Eliot before him, and why Hughes himself, was so against the biographer’s distorting glass. A biography can only ever be partial; it can only be as capacious, as sensitive, as the biographer who takes on the job. There must be benefits to be had in collecting information about a subject within living memory, but there are great problems too: agendas and egos to be negotiated; and those who put themselves forward are not necessarily the voices of most relevance or authority.
I would urge anyone who hasn’t read Hughes (and Bate does an invidious thing in implying that Hughes’s declining reputation is in need of his assistance) to hunt out the poems and letters. Alice Oswald’s introduction and selection, A Ted Hughes Bestiary, published only last year, takes a very different tack through the poems. Marked by a generosity of engagement and understanding, one poet to another, it creates a freewheeling narrative that is at once revelatory and celebratory, demonstrating that the real legacy of a great writer is the life in the work.
Jonathan Bate, Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life, Collins, £30, ISBN 9780008118228.
Jane Feaver is a novelist and short-story writer. Her latest novel is An Inventory of Heaven (Corsair, 2012).