Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life
by Jonathan Bate.
Harper, 2015.
Hardcover, 672 pages, $40.

Every biography has a backstory involving how a biographer turns to a certain subject, what other biographies have been written, what sources are new or used differently. Jonathan Bate set out to write an authorized biography of Ted Hughes, poet laureate, winner of most of the important poetry prizes, and still best known as Sylvia Plath’s husband and the man who left her for another woman. Except for Anne Stevenson’s authorized biography of Plath—and some kind words for Diana Middlebrook and Andrew Wilson, who have published truncated biographical narratives—Bate adopts the attitude Janet Malcolm demonstrated in The Silent Women, which derogates the Plath biographers as an unsavory gang who have traduced Ted Hughes, treating him as one of the primary contributors to a great poet’s suicide.

Bate does not divulge in his biography that his original plan was to take on-side Ted Hughes’s widow, Carol Orchard, promising her that he would write a “literary biography,” code in the trade for hewing closely to the subject’s work and treating the life only as it directly impinges on the work. Initially, the widow, wary of biographers, acceded to Bate’s proposal. But then, as her lawyer later made clear in a published letter, she became concerned when the biographer began to stray beyond his remit. All of the complicated eroticism of Hughes’s life, the lovers (at least two at a time), and the unfortunate results of his affairs, would come into play—although the lawyer, for obvious reasons, did not spell out exactly how Bate had gone off-side.

Confronted with such repudiation, some biographers give up the game. Bate, however, was elated, announcing to the press that he had been freed and would take maximum advantage of fair use to write a biography without the cover-up of widow’s weeds. His comments outside his biography do not make it inside, because his book is a curious amalgam of authorized and unauthorized. Before his excommunication, Bate was able to get wonderful material out of Olywn Hughes, Ted’s sister, making common cause with her against the scurvy Plath biographers. And he stands up for Hughes, for example defending his subject’s right to change the order of poems in Plath’s great work, Ariel, because, Bate reasons, she often changed the order of poems before publication. But it does not seem to occur to him that the decision was Plath’s to make—not one inherited by an estranged husband who destroyed some of her work and censored others.

Full disclosure of this biography’s provenance would have demanded acknowledgment of a signal failing: As in the previous biography of Hughes by Elaine Feinstein, Carol Orchard Hughes hardly makes an appearance. She is mentioned often enough, but as a place marker. What she thought, during two decades of marriage to Hughes, about his work, his life, his lovers (one of whom Hughes rushed to directly after marrying Orchard) is still a mystery. What Hughes confided in her is also beyond Bate’s ken. In short, the subtitle of his book ought to be “The Deauthorised Life.”

Even when Bate is at his most enlightening, one wonders where he got his information. He has some wonderful pages about Shirley, the woman Hughes was seeing before he met Plath. Shirley is crucial, obviously, because Hughes’s life might have taken a very different direction if he had stayed with this attractive woman. But Shirley is not given a last name, and you will search in vain in Bate’s notes for clues as to how he developed his story about this “beautiful and clever” undergraduate reading English at Oxford’s Newnham College.

Bate’s account of the first meeting between Hughes and Plath, when she was studying at Cambridge, is the best by far, going well beyond what Hughes and Plath wrote about it. Hughes, it turns out, knew about Plath before he met her, and it is Bate’s contention that the party at which the couple met was a setup. Hughes wanted to have his dramatic moment with her—taking her earrings and headband as tokens she would have to reclaim, making her the pursuer of a man who wanted to be pursued. But what to make of what Plath’s friend told her—that Hughes was the “biggest seducer in Cambridge.” True? Bate does not even hazard a comment. He is similarly silent on what actually happened to Plath during her stay in Benidorm, Spain. Did Hughes try to strangle her? Like other biographers, Bate refers to Plath’s cryptic journal, part of which was mutilated with only one sentence remaining: “The hurt going in, clean as a razor, and the dark blood welling.” Bate uses the word “allegedly” when referring to Plath’s claim to a friend that Hughes almost choked her, although Plath had told another woman before her marriage to Hughes that she knew he was dangerous, but that she could handle him. In such cases, Bate seeks no pattern of behavior—leaving that pursuit, I suppose, to the unscrupulous Plath biographers. Of course what makes this more troubling is that crucial evidence—such as Plath’s journals—was in Hughes’s hands for so many years before it was published.

Students of the Plath/Hughes wars will want to know how Bate treats Assia Wevill, the woman for whom Hughes left Plath. Wevill was even more outspoken than Plath about Hughes’s violence, alleging that he had raped her. And yet, like Sylvia, she came back for more, attracted to Hughes’s Heathcliff persona and also haunted by the indelible mark Sylvia Plath left on Hughes and herself. Bate never quite says so, but I think Wevill was trying to redeem herself, to show that she was not just the other woman, but the love of Ted Hughes’s life. But he did not cooperate with Wevill’s desires and even accused her of spying on him. She reached a breaking point and gassed herself and their daughter, Shura. Hughes, who ignored the danger signs—as he later admitted—comes off no better in Bate than in Feinstein or in the Plath biographies when it comes to assessing his astonishing inability to empathize with Wevill’s plight.

Although plenty of pages are given over to discussions of Hughes’s work, it has to be admitted—as Hughes himself sometimes did—that his best work was behind him by the time Plath died. Bate has to admit the “uncomfortable truth … that … Sylvia’s poetry had been getting better and better while Ted’s had remained more or less the same.” Hughes did creditable work as translator, adapter, and children’s book author, and then astounded readers with the 1998 publication of Birthday Letters, his version of what went wrong in his marriage to Plath. Because Hughes had left off publishing Birthday Letters for so long, some readers assumed it was his belated apologia. In fact the book had been a work in progress for several decades, like the dreams he never stopped having about her. Bate does not render a clear-cut verdict on Birthday Letters, as he does for other works. I will supply one: It took Hughes over thirty years to write the kind of poetry Plath was able to realize in six months, and Hughes’s work is inferior to hers.

Bate makes no claim to having written a definitive biography. “There will be many biographies,” he concedes, but he has told “as much as is currently permissible.” In the Hughes archive at Emory University, there is a trunk that cannot be opened until 2023. Does it contain Plath’s so-called lost journals, perhaps even the one Hughes said he destroyed? Did Hughes write even more than what is disclosed in Birthday Letters? Will all be revealed? Or will Hughes stymie that full accounting that has frustrated every biographer—including the industrious and shrewd Jonathan Bate?  

Carl Rollyson is the author of American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath