Predator turned prey

Ted Hughes: the life of a poet

Elaine Feinstein <em>Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 273pp, £20</em>


In 1970, Ted Hughes wrote to his friend and fellow poet Peter Redgrove about the emotional turmoil of the previous few years and his consequent inability to get much writing done. One might think that such turbulence would provide a fertile mulch for poetry but, Hughes insisted, he felt it would be wrong to "cash in my life for poems".

This attitude helps to explain much of the misunderstanding to which he was subjected over many years, and it is at the root of my initial misgivings about this book. There's something inherently distasteful about biographies of recently dead writers. At best, they serve to privilege the life over the work; at worst, they wallow in a kind of necrophiliac prurience (the dead, after all, can't sue - which is odd, considering that there must be plenty of lawyers in hell). Perhaps the greatest danger for a writer's reputation, however, lies not in the disclosure of acts or attitudes that will outrage the bien-pensant literati (which was, for a while, Philip Larkin's fate), but in a sort of artistic grave-robbing: the tendency to plunder the work for its putative biographical content. This is almost always an error; in so far as poets do "cash in" their lives for their art, they do so through an imaginative alchemy, so that one can never be entirely sure where truth ends and fiction begins.

It is greatly to the credit of Elaine Feinstein's book - the first full biography of Hughes - that it deals so equably with the emotional holocaust in which its subject was engulfed. For a generation of feminists in the 1970s, Hughes epitomised patriarchy; to some, he was simply the murderer of Sylvia Plath, his first wife, inasmuch as his affair with the translator Assia Wevill was the precursor to Plath's suicide in 1963. That Wevill herself took her own life six years later - like Plath, she gassed herself, as well as their four-year-old daughter, Shura - confirmed the notion of Hughes as an emotional predator, feeding on vulnerable women and driving them to despair.

Where this book is best, I think, is in examining how that monstrous misperception came about, and in setting out a quite different, more sane, interpretation of events. In large part, this book argues, it was Hughes's fastidiousness in guarding his and his family's privacy that allowed wild interpretations to take root and flourish. Privately, Feinstein relates, Hughes was horrified by the use Plath made of their marital discord in her late, great poems (published posthumously in Ariel), but couldn't fail to recognise the genius in them. Moreover, he did everything necessary to bring them to publication. In Plath's life, Hughes had been her greatest poetic encourager, and he did his utmost to establish her reputation after her death. In a surprising and apt phrase, Feinstein describes Hughes as the "midwife" to Plath's poems. Hughes, typically, compared the job of nurturing Plath's artistic legacy to protecting a fox cub from ravening hounds.

Feinstein does not skate over Hughes's, shall we say, less than enlightened sexual politics, at least in his youth (at Cambridge, he advised a friend on the best way to seduce and subjugate women). But she does put them in the context of the time, when such views were entirely orthodox. And the character that emerges elsewhere is a complex one: calm, imposing and charismatic, almost unfailingly kind and generous, not least to younger poets. Here was the quintessential outsider, someone who shunned literary society, but who became friends with the Queen Mother and ended up as poet laureate. Plath, too, is brought vividly to life in all her flighty vivacity, her ambition, her sexual voracity, her extremes of anxiety and enthusiasm. Crucially, Feinstein manages to portray their contrasting temperaments in a way that denigrates neither.

Where the book does disappoint, perhaps, is in its lack of engagement with Hughes's poetry. For example, Feinstein - herself a highly accomplished poet - mentions the influence of American verse on this most English of poets, but doesn't discuss it further. And, perhaps inevitably, some of the work - especially Birthday Letters - is cited primarily for the light it sheds on Hughes's frame of mind towards the end of his marriage to Plath. More seriously, though, Feinstein appears to have had no co-operation from Hughes's family, though many of his close friends - of whom Feinstein was one - did agree to talk to her. As a result, it is perfunctory in parts to the point of brusqueness, with Hughes's childhood glossed over in the first 20-odd pages.

As a biography, this cannot hope to be more than a first draft of Hughes's life. Overall, however, this is a compassionate, insightful and humane book, written entirely without rancour or malice.

Adam Newey is the New Statesman's poetry editor

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2001 issue of the New Statesman, And now the trouble really begins