Biographer Jonathan Bate begins “Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life’’ with a deposition that came to trial in Boston, 1987, over plaintiff Jane Anderson’s alleged portrayal in Sylvia Plath’s novel, “The Bell Jar,’’ and the 1979 film adaptation. Hughes, executor of his late wife’s work, was a defendant.
Hughes’s own life has been on trial in the public imagination for 50 years, leading to skewed and contradictory depictions of Plath and Hughes whose lives and work are now forever linked. Hughes promoted Plath’s “Ariel,’’ which skyrocketed in poetic and public interest after her suicide in 1963 while the couple were separated; subsequently he defended himself against scrutiny. Much of “Ted Hughes’’ draws on the poet’s later candor in “Birthday Letters’’ and presumes that Plath’s death (after their briefly explosive literary marriage) was “the turning point [of his] life.”
The fascination with their relationship inevitably dominates, despite all attempts to broaden Hughes’s story: his Yorkshire childhood and coming of age in post-war Britain, publications and forays into experimental theater, his numerous adulterous affairs, his love of fishing. Bate juxtaposes the personal against the writing life, which generated children’s books, poetry, translations, and critical prose — ending with tenure as Britain’s poet laureate until his death in 1998.
Bate’s reputation as John Clare’s and Shakespeare’s biographer may have initially attracted the Hughes family and estate (now controlled by Hughes’s widow, Carol), known for its defensive stance and insistence on privacy. But unlike most other Plath/Hughes biographers, Bate doesn’t clearly fall into a pro-Plath or pro-Hughes camp. Something, perhaps concerns over the possible airing of previously undocumented affairs, caused the estate to pull its support mid-project in 2014; after that, Bate found himself publishing an “unauthorized” version of Hughes’s life, a decision publicized in open letters to The Guardian.
Lacking the personal intimacy of Elaine Feinstein’s 2001 biography, Bate’s book maintains a distanced, scholarly tone through even the darkest material, magnified by his inability to quote freely. Still, he captures the nadirs of a complex emotional life, as in his record of Hughes’s comments after Plath’s funeral (through the account of her friend Jillian Becker):
“[A]t various times Ted said, ‘Everybody hated her.’ (‘I didn’t,’ Jill replied), ‘It was either her or me,’ ‘She made me professional,’ and ‘I told her everything was going to be all right. I said that by summer we’d all be back together at Court Green.’ ’’
The interpretation pivots on shock and grief. For Hughes and those involved with him, personal narratives begin; they end suddenly; they are reinvented. Here and elsewhere, Bate negotiates the space between person and persona.
At times, Bate’s pace slows. The Hughes children, Nicholas and Frieda, usually figure in biographies merely as their widowed father’s charges, cared for by one woman after another; here as adults they receive more attention. Ted visits Frieda after not having seen her for a long while: “ ‘You can ask me anything you like,’ he said . . . The request was so sudden that she did not know where to begin. But she thought of one question: ‘What was my mother like?’ ‘She was just like you,’ her father replied, ‘Even in the way she moved her hands.’ ’’
Hughes’s posthumous presence looms over his son’s 2009 suicide; Nicholas, a fisheries biologist, remembered for “his encyclopaedic command of piscean natural history, his brilliance and creativity and patience and kindness,” lost the “family linchpin” when his father died, “the most important” relationship of his life.
“Ted Hughes’’ and its surrounding controversy raise the question of what constitutes a good biography, a real biography, and the role of memory. Bate comments on the difficulties of writing about someone whose life, so recent, is also so fraught: “How could he not have been ambivalent about the idea of anyone writing his life?”
But Hughes provides fodder in his writing. In “Birthday Letters,’’ his last published poems, he speaks directly to Plath, recalling a memory:
“ . . . the freezing soil . . . symbolically becomes the cold earth of the graveyard in Heptonstall. ‘You are ten years dead. I think it is only a story./Your story. My story.’’
Even in his ambitious critical “Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being,’’ Hughes “was really trying to make sense of his own creative life . . . He is supposed to be writing a book about Shakespeare but he cannot stop writing about Plath.”
The resulting biography leaves one wondering, in a sea of books on Hughes and Plath, how an “authorized” version might have differed, given what this one can and can’t yield about the life of a poet who continues to capture the imagination.
TED HUGHES: The Unauthorised Life
By Jonathan Bate
Harper, 662 pp., illustrated, $40
Valerie Duff is poetry editor at Salamander Magazine and author of “To the New World.” She is the 2015 poetry fellow at The Writers’ Room of Boston and works at Newbury College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.