Monday, 9 May 2016

Ted Hughes: An Unauthorised Life - Jonathan Bate


When Bate's book came out at the end of 2015 I thought, here it is at last - a comprehensive, authoritative, objective analysis of Hughes's life and work.  I thought it was an odds-on favourite for the big literary prizes.  It didn't go on to win.  I now know why.

Bate brings very little that's new to the table.  This is understandable, given that Hughes lived all his professional life in the media glare, his grim personal life far outweighing his literary output, save where, at the beginning and end of his career, the two were the same.

Bate began the work as an authorised life, with the full support of the notoriously controlling Hughes Estate. He fell from favour when he started throwing in more extra-marital lovers.  He comes across as somewhat petulant, therefore, when discussing the two women who, until just after the book came out, controlled the Estate.  Hughes's sister Olwyn, who died earlier this year, is treated harshly.  Bate is by no means the first writer on Hughes or Plath to do so, but Olwyn was sister and agent and even publisher (through the Rainbow Press) and was thus the last surviving participant in the process.  Bate makes one very unsavoury inference which, without the proof that can never be produced, is unpardonable.  Hughes's second wife Carol is understandably offended by those who dwell on the scurrilous side of the great man's activities and she is not a poet,  Bate's solution is to ignore her more or less entirely.  His assessment of her character boils down to young, uneducated, irrelevant - yet she was Hughes's wife for the thick end of thirty years.  She ran his home and raised his children.  She should be treated better than this by any objective biographer.

Considering the poetry Bate is naturally on confident ground - he is, after all, Professor of English Literature at Oxford.  I didn't see that many original insights, though.  Hughes might have been inspired by Wordsworth and Yeats but he ploughed his own poetic furrow and I felt that Bate rather overplayed the parallels.  On Robert Graves and The White Goddess, which Hughes later took forward in his own Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, Bate really came into his own, treating the now old-fashioned and eccentric theory with fairness and thoroughness because however off-beam it might seem to us, this was a concept deeply held.

I was irked and frustrated that there is no discussion of the early plays for radio, which after all paid the bills during the period most people are interested in - the Plath years.  It doesn't bother me so much but anyone who wants to know more about Hughes's writing for children (other than The Iron Man) will be equally frustrated.

Is The Unauthorised Life worth reading?  Yes - absolutely.  Is it definitive or even a significant advance towards a definitive understand of Hughes's life or work?  Not, not at all.

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