Magazine article The Spectator

'Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life', by Jonathan Bate - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life', by Jonathan Bate - Review

Article excerpt

Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life Jonathan Bate

William Collins, pp.662, £30, ISBN: 9780008118228

In Testaments Betrayed , Milan Kundera says: 'Biographers know nothing about the intimate sex lives of their own wives, but they think they know all about Stendhal's or Faulkner's.' In The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes , Janet Malcolm says: 'The transgressive nature of biography is rarely acknowledged, but it is the only explanation for biography's status as a popular genre.' She also shrewdly remarks on the 'mantle of judiciousness' that biographers are forced to deploy.

Jonathan Bate informs us that over a period of five years he has read and taken notes on nearly 100,000 pages of Ted Hughes manuscripts. He piously tells us at the end of his 'Prologue' that 'the cardinal rule is this: the work and how it came into being is what is worth writing about, what is to be respected. The life is invoked in order to illuminate the work...' His biography is scurrilous. It is also badly written, insensitive to the poetry, analytically inspissated, unerringly mistaken in its judgments, and incompetently narrated. At its heart is Ted Hughes the sexual sadist.

At one stage, Bate had the cooperation and confidence of the Hughes estate -- an arrangement whose collapse he never discusses. Initially, this meant he had the advantage of seeing the unrestricted sections of Hughes's intermittent journal as well as unpublished drafts. The fallout makes itself felt only in his subtitle, 'The Unauthorised Life', which, he pretends, refers to the unconventional way Hughes lived his life. But it is also present in the acknowledgement he makes to Richard Hooper, the lawyer responsible for changes to copyright law in 2014. Crucially, too, Bate has seen the notes kept by Nathaniel Tarn, a poet and psychoanalyst, notes which record his conversations with Assia Wevill and her husband David at the time of her affair with Hughes.

With Ian Fleming, we know about the bloodied towels and the sound of whipping. Here the evidence is far flimsier. Lives commonly begin with the birth of the subject. This one begins in 1986 with the libel action brought against Hughes by Jane Anderson. She felt traduced by her alleged portrayal as a lesbian in The Bell Jar . In court she claimed that Plath's ire and malice had been aroused by Plath's confession, 30 years previously, on 4 June 1956, that she, Sylvia, was 'very much in love' with 'a very sadistic man'. Anderson did not advise Plath to drop the relationship. So why would Plath's anger be provoked by her own confession? It doesn't make sense. It makes sense, though, if Anderson wanted to force Hughes and his lawyers to settle quickly -- as they did -- for reasons of discretion.

Cynically, Bate flags this spurious testimony on page 6, surrounding it with a mass of irrelevance and disingenuous protestation. There are three other pieces of 'evidence'. When Plath and Hughes first met, drunk at a party in Cambridge, he kissed her and she bit him on the cheek, drawing blood. Then there is an undisclosed 'friend' who reported that Hughes tried to strangle Sylvia in Benidorm on their honeymoon. Even Bate says this is 'unverifiable' and the source 'not entirely reliable'. Which doesn't stop him using the incident later to misread Plath's contentious poem 'The Rabbit Catcher'.

The third piece of 'evidence' is an illicit encounter in a hotel between Hughes and Assia Wevill: 'This time his lovemaking was "so violent and animal" that he ruptured her.' (The phrase 'rapture and ruptures' occurs later in Bate's biography.) You wonder what this might mean. It sounds as if Assia is in danger of being hospitalised. Yet she phoned her husband David 'and told him she was going to see Ted off at the station'. Not completely incapacitated then. So does 'rupture' mean a tear, a bit of bleeding in the vagina? The situation doesn't end there: 'David Wevill headed for Waterloo with a knife, turned back, went home and took 18 sleeping pills. …

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