A Review of “Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life” by Jonathan Bate
Harper Collins ISBN:978 0 06 236243 8 (US$40.00). Fourth Estate, 978 0 7322 9970 5 (AUD$49.99); hardback 662 pages
Dr Ann Skea writes in her review of this book: (Telling Tales, ©Ann Skea 2015) ‘In spite of the claims that this is a comprehensive biography, there is much that is left out or barely touched on in this book. Ted’s fishing did not “stand in for sex”, as Bate would have it.’
Although Dr Skea describes this weighty tome as a ‘novelised’ biography, to me it reads as a non-fiction account of Ted’s life, with a large amount of what seems to be speculation. Bate’s attitude to Assia is dismissive. He calls her ‘a literary hopeful’, and writes that ‘Ted assisted her with the translations’ for his ‘Modern Poetry in Translation’. In fact, Assia did all the translating from Hebrew to English for the poetry of Yehuda Amichai (Ted had no Hebrew). .
No doubt there are many inaccuracies in this biography, as Carol Hughes, the executor of Ted Hughes’ estate, and his widow, has pointed out. It is unsurprising that she withdrew permission for Bate to publish with Faber & Faber, and to quote from Ted’s manuscripts. I found the chapter on Hughes’s conduct at the Adelaide Festival unnecessarily prurient, in Bate’s description of Hughes’ s (speculated) love life.
As for Bate’s review of Ted Hughes’s ‘Capriccio’, the sequence of poems he wrote about Assia Wevill, it adds nothing new, and refers to the sequence as “seeking to hold together obscure mythographic and sometimes cabbalistic mumbo-jumbo.” I find this an insulting appraisal, lacking in the insight shown in Ann Skea’s scholarly article, ‘The Path of the Sword’.
Ted’s own ‘Letters’ edited by Christopher Reid, are a much better picture of the man than this so-called ‘unauthorised’ biography. Elaine Feinstein’s ’The Life of Ted Hughes’ is as comprehensive as Bate’s, but more respectful, and far more insightful about Hughes’ poetry.