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1 October 2015updated 17 Mar 2023 3:29pm

Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath: partners in martyrdom

Jonathan Bate’s unauthorised biography confirms that, no matter how energetic his love life, Hughes’s obsession with Plath never faded.

By Erica Wagner

Towards the end of his biography of Ted Hughes, Jonathan Bate quotes a passage from one of Hughes’s letters, addressed to his lifelong friend Leonard Baskin and his wife, Lisa. “Almost all art is an attempt by somebody unusually badly hit (but almost everybody is badly hit), who is also unusually ill-equipped to defend themselves internally against the wound, to improvise some sort of modus vivendi with their internal haemophilia, etc. In other words, all art is trying to become an anaesthetic and at the same time a healing session drawing up the magical electrics.”

The letter was written in 1984 and closes with the thought that he had “lived quite a lot of my last ten years (at least) somehow unconscious” – a victim of that self-induced anaesthesia. But then Hughes had been, as all the world knows, “unusually badly hit”. His life story is one of early success and blessed reward fatally blighted by tragedy, not once but over and over again.

“Tragedy” is a word used too casually and too often but it is hard to avoid when discussing the life of Ted Hughes. The suicide of his then wife, Sylvia Plath, in 1963 made him not famous but infamous, especially as he struggled to shepherd the work she had left behind into print. In 1969, his lover Assia Wevill killed herself, too, along with their daughter, Shura. These stories – particularly that of Hughes and Plath – have for decades been objects of fascination for a peanut-crunching crowd of people who otherwise wouldn’t concern themselves overmuch with poetry. Yet it is the poetry that lifts what should be merely gossip to a very much higher plane. The blazing gifts of these two writers allow an audience to tell itself (no peanut-crunchers, we!) that prurience might be renamed scholarship. It is our duty to stop and stare.

I’ve done some of that staring myself, though not so extensively as Jonathan Bate has done in his “unauthorised life”. “Magisterial” is generally a code word for “doorstopper” in review-speak and it must be allowed that Bate’s biography is the latter. But a magister is a teacher and Bate is certainly that: knighted just this year for his services to literary scholarship, he is an Oxford University academic and a biographer of Shakespeare and John Clare. (Full disclosure: he was a judge of the Man Booker Prize in 2014 and I was one of the other judges on that panel.) A fellow writer quails at the thought of the quantity of what Bate has sifted in archives at Emory University in Atlanta and at the British Library. The Emory archive alone occupies 92.5 linear feet – two and a quarter tonnes – of paper. Bate reckons that he has read 100,000 pages of manuscript.

But the “unauthorised” on the cover is there for a reason. Hughes’s publisher, Faber & Faber, had made clear after the poet’s death in 1998 that there would never be an “authorised biography” – his feelings towards biographers were not warm, given the way in which he had been assaulted by those who turned his and Plath’s story against him. Bate reprints a letter from Olwyn Hughes, Ted’s sister and literary gatekeeper, to Natasha Spender, in which she praises Spender’s attack on “vampire biographies”. But the publication of an edition of Hughes’s letters in 2007 gave Bate hope that the estate – controlled by Hughes’s widow, Carol – might be up for “a literary life”. To his surprise and delight, Carol agreed to this plan when he proposed it. Bate recalled in the Guardian last year, “I wrote in my notebook that Carol had expressed herself ‘totally happy with my idea of using the life to illuminate the work’.”

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Yet apparently without warning, after Bate had spent four years immersing himself in his task (time in which he discovered a diary that even Ted’s sister didn’t know he had kept; time in which Carol provided him with photocopies of the material at Emory so his travel there could be reduced), the estate withdrew its co-operation. “No reason was given,” Bate wrote. The estate – through a solicitor – replied to Bate’s piece with a letter in the same newspaper, voicing concerns that Bate’s work had become more biographical than literary and claiming, “He repeatedly resisted all requests to see some of his work in progress, as agreed.” Faber cancelled Bate’s contract. The book, which then had to be substantially reworked, moved to HarperCollins and this is what we have before us.

Perhaps all the fuss is not surprising. To write a biography is always a problematic undertaking. As Janet Malcolm has written, the biographer at work “is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewellery and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away”. She writes of the “voyeurism and busybodyism that impel writers and readers of biography alike”, obscured by “an apparatus of scholarship designed to give the enterprise an appearance of banklike blandness and solidity”. All this is from The Silent Woman, her extraordinary examination of the nature of biography, specifically as it relates to Sylvia Plath. There are no clear answers in the question of how life and art intersect. Bate’s account of Hughes is certainly transfixed by the life.

But then there was a lot of life in the man. Over the course of more than 600 pages, the reader is reminded of Hughes’s extraordinary appetites, for art, for nature, for learning, for friendship and for women. He was born in the Calder Valley village of Mytholmroyd in 1930 and, in one sense, his life follows the classic postwar trajectory of a working-class boy made good. In 1941, following in the footsteps of his sister, he won a county scholarship to Mexborough Grammar and he was away; grammar school was, Bate writes, “the intellectual making of him”, as it was for so many others of his generation. Following a spell of national service, a Ministry of Education grant took him to Cambridge, where – after he had graduated and when she was a Fulbright scholar – he had his fateful meeting with Sylvia Plath.

The trajectory of this book follows their lives together, a partnership that continued beyond her death in 1963. It was not simply that Hughes was the keeper of the flame; Bate, through his archival research, is able to trace just how far back Hughes’s writings about Plath went. He shows, too, that Birthday Letters, the 1998 collection addressed to Hughes’s late wife, was but the tip of the iceberg. (I was involved in the poems’ first appearance, in the Times, where I was then the literary editor.) It is not just that a trickle of those poems had appeared elsewhere, long before Birthday Letters caused a sensation, but that the material in the British Library (“thousands of pages”, Bate writes) offers a complex view of Hughes’s attempts to resolve the way in which he would tell his and Sylvia’s story. Bate tracks Hughes’s obsession with his late wife back and forth through the poet’s life, as he was vilified by feminists and dragged through the courts – the book begins with a deposition that Hughes gave in Boston in 1986 when a woman called Jane Anderson sued over what she felt was a defamatory depiction of herself in the film of The Bell Jar.

Certainly there is scholarship in this book: Bate brings his deep understanding not only of Shakespeare but also his feeling for the natural world and how it connects to the world of literature when he discusses Hughes’s 1992 opus Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being. The book was ridiculed when it appeared. Bate resurrects it, arguing that it was ahead of its time in engaging with the religious and biographical elements of Shakespeare’s work. Yet the focus remains on Hughes’s life: “The spectacle of Hughes reading Shakespeare is less interesting than that of Shakespeare reading Hughes.” The book-length poem Gaudete (1977) is a hypnotic account of the mystical path taken by one Rev Nicholas Lumb; “a sexed-up Lawrentian Under Milk Wood with an epigraph of the Parzival myth”, as Bate puts it. Moving on, he homes in on the book’s epilogue, which more closely fits the “elegiac” autobiographical road along which he directs the reader.

Throughout, Bate has little sympathy with Hughes’s interest in matters of the ­occult, although this way of thinking seems to have driven both his work and his life. It seems glib to refer to his “sometimes bonkers ideas about astrology and the occult” and to use terms such as “mumbo-jumbo” in referring to traditions that fascinated Hughes. Yet Bate is very good on the troublesome Crow (1970): “The poems are always grasping towards some dark mystery of the inner life: the creative tension out of which they are born is the incompatibility between the speaker’s ostensible mentality and what Hughes calls ‘the hidden thing’ which fleetingly escapes.”

But the dark mystery recedes behind the busybodyism that Malcolm put her finger on (and I am complicit, having written about Hughes and Plath). There is no getting away from how Hughes’s powerful sexual magnetism got him into a lot of hot water. I met him only once, briefly, towards the end of his life, but I can attest to his extraordinary charisma. As Olwyn told Bate, “Ted’s problem, when it came to women, was that he didn’t want to hurt anybody and ended up hurting everybody.” The account of Hughes’s sex life can obscure as much as it illuminates the work, as Hughes goes from bed to bed. Bate dissects Hughes’s poem “Last Letter” – published in the New Statesman in 2010 – which revealed that Hughes had spent the night with another woman, Susan Alliston, on the night of his wife’s death. So he had been unfaithful to Plath with Assia Wevill; he was unfaithful to Assia Wevill, too, even while Plath was still alive. “His infidelity to others,” Bate writes, “was a form of fidelity to [Plath].” Or not.

Just occasionally, there is something almost a little envious in some of Bate’s writing about Hughes’s love life, as he follows him running from one woman to another. “After the end of his first marriage, never again would he let a woman possess the whole of him. Never again would he allow himself to be fully caged.” This assumes that the reader will agree that marriage necessitates possession; that marriage is, perforce, a cage. It seems to me that thinking in these binary terms is simplistic and diminishing. Did Hughes see it this way? Does Bate? It’s not quite clear. He appears to be uncritical of the startling “draft constitution” that Hughes presented to Assia Wevill, giving conditions for the continuance of their relationship (no cooking for Ted “except! in emergencies”); when Olwyn’s husband, Richard Thomas, presented her with what seems to have been similar demands, they are evidence of Thomas’s perfidy.

There is no way to know what this book would have been like if the co-operation of the Hughes estate had been secured. Bate’s use of Hughes’s words is now necessarily more limited than it would have been; it’s a good idea to read the biography with the Collected Poems by your side. Sometimes it seems as if Bate’s exhaustive detail (“Then he ate some foul food at the airport Lyons café and took a bus to Clapham . . .”) replaces colourful quotation that had to be excised. And the presence of Carol Hughes is recessive. She feels almost invisible and one wonders, too, if that is the result of Bate’s dealings with the estate.

The book’s conclusion is that Hughes’s obsession with Plath never faded. “He loved her until the day he died,” Bate writes on the final page. Are you surprised to read this? I was not. And yet the journey to get there is a long one. In 1965 Hughes wrote to the poet Richard Murphy just as Ariel was published, thanks to Hughes’s efforts: “What an insane chance, to have private family struggles turned into bestselling literature of despair and martyrdom, probably a permanent cultural treasure.” He was not wrong and this book is another monument to the martyrdom of both Hughes and Plath.

Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life” by Jonathan Bate is published by William Collins (662pp, £30)

Erica Wagner’s “Ariel’s Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of ‘Birthday Letters’” is published by Faber & Faber

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This article appears in the 30 Sep 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide