“Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life”

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.

I’m re-drafting my novel, ‘Capriccio’, to ensure it doesn’t insult or do damage to anyone’s reputation, and that it’s as true a reflection as possible of the life I imagine he lived wirh Assia.
 © Dina Davis
Reid, Christopher (ed), Letters of Ted Hughes, Faber & Faber 2007
Feinstein, Elaine,  Ted Hughes The Life of a Poet, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2001

See also Website : http://ann.skea.com


  1. Why didn’t he want to? Have you been able to answer this question in your novel? Was it the era when male chauvinism was more acceptable than today? Parental attitudes?


    • Not really chauvinism; more that throughout his life he mourned and still loved his dead wife Sylvia, so had no room in his heart for Assia. I hope I’ve shown that in ‘Capriccio’.


  2. The “Capriccio” sequence appears to be the least understood of Hughes’ poems. Good luck with your project. I’m looking forward to reading the finished work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The first private collection of ‘Capriccio’, was printed as a rare book, and was priced way over most readers’budget.
      A few of the poems were scattered through Hughes’s ‘New Selected Poems’. ‘Capriccio’ wasn’t published again in entirety
      until 2006, in Hughes’s ‘Collected Poems’. Even there, the small sequence of twenty poems is well-hidden.
      It’s as if Hughes never wanted to acknowledgehis affair with Assia, which is the subject of these twenty poems.


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