Title: Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life
Author: Jonathan Bate
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble
I spent what seemed like a long time reading this biography, on and off, for the past few months. Jonathan Bate started researching it with the blessing of the late Ted Hughes’s estate, but, before it could be published, his widow didn’t like the direction it was going and decided to withdraw her support. For that reason, it lacks in-depth quotations from Hughes’s work. Bate published a letter in The Guardian newspaper outlining how this changed his finished work. I really wanted to like this biography, in the same way that I really wanted to like Hughes, but failed.
Bate eschews a linear biography in favor of telling the story in an order that he thinks makes sense as it lines up with literary criticism. What comes across, even amid the more lurid details of Hughes’s life, was the immense respect Bate had for Hughes as a poet. However much criticism this biography has received, Bate obviously admires Hughes’s work and has an excellent understanding of it. What was less apparent was what bearing Hughes’s personal life had on the literary parts of the biography. I understood that Bate wanted to tell the full story as he saw it from all of the primary sources he reviewed, but I never could rid myself of the feeling that I was reading two entirely separate works that had been smashed together. Part of it was literary (the best part, in my opinion), and part of it was very disorganized biography.
Hughes was born in Yorkshire, England, and, despite living in other parts of England for the majority of his adult life, seemed to identify most closely with his working-class roots. I think at one point Bate remarks that Hughes’s Yorkshire accent became thicker the more removed he was from his birthplace. Bate portrays him as a child with a deep interest in the natural world around him, the animals and the landscape, and whose passion for nature manifested itself as an adult in fishing trips and in a deep interest in environmental causes. I would have liked to have read details about the latter particularly, and how his interest in the environment impacted his poetry, but this biography focuses much more on Hughes’s other great passion: women.
There are other, better sources to read about Hughes’s tempestuous marriage to Sylvia Plath. Although I am a big fan of Plath, I don’t have a vendetta against Hughes or feel the need to wipe his name off of her gravestone. I hadn’t read much about Hughes before this, beyond what is written in Plath biographies, but Bate’s account gave me the impression that Hughes was merely an extremely handsome (and knew it), indecisive man who never had a problem getting the attention of women. As Bate tells it, Hughes lived very much in the moment, so while he was telling one woman he wanted to set up a life with her one day, and telling another woman the same thing the next week, he was merely living in the moment and really and truly believed what he said to each woman in the moment he said it. One of the positives of this biography is that Bate avoids judging. He presents the facts and lets the reader decide. He doesn’t pontificate on Hughes’s womanizing or offer opinions on the way Hughes handled Plath’s posthumous literary estate.
The closest literary comparison I could think of was Percy Shelley, a biography of whom I reviewed here. Shelley was talented, devoted to political causes, but was inconstant to the women in his life and often treated them poorly. In a sort of reversal of Hughes’s story, he died young and left the job of editing his work to his also very talented wife, Mary Shelley. I wonder if the distance of time will be kind to Hughes, if in a few generations his poetry will be more widely read and appreciated and his personal life overlooked. I do have a better appreciation of Hughes and his poetry after reading this unauthorized biography, but I couldn’t tell you if there are better Hughes biographies to read first. If nothing else, I learned how to pronounce Hughes’s birthplace, Mytholmroyd, correctly.