Reviews: ‘Ted Hughes: the Unauthorised Life’

I found the following review of  Jonathan Bate’s Ted Hughes: the Unauthorised Life, both challenging and insightful. Read this excerpt of  Dr Ann Skea’s article, and my response, below. For the full review, see Ann Skea’s website at

Telling Tales: Ann Skea’s Review of Jonathan Bate’s Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life 

(quoted with permission from Dr Skea)

In his ‘Deposition’ chapter, Bate lays out his own rule for tackling the biography which Ted always said should never be written. “The cardinal rule is this: the work and how it came into being is what it is worth writing about, what is to be respected. The life is invoked in order to illuminate the work; the biographical impulse must be at one with the literary-critical”.

At the end of an extract and paraphrasing of my transcripts of two interviews with Ted conducted by Claudia Wright at the Adelaide Festival in 1976, Bate bluntly states: “after the interview they slept together”. Where did this come from? It is certainly no part of the interviews I transcribed and he could not have been told it by Claudia, who died in 2005. So, was it a Festival rumour, like the one he says circulated about an affair between Ted and Jennifer Rankin, and which he later accepts as a fact?

Which brings me to another aspect of Bate’s book. In his ‘Deposition’ he writes that: “women play a huge part in the story of his [Ted’s] metamorphosis of life into art. It has accordingly been necessary to include a good deal of sensitive biographical material, but this material is presented in service to the poetry”. Fair enough! The women interviewed by Bate were clearly independent, intelligent, had minds of their own and could make their own decisions. But one should perhaps ask how much their memories are coloured by events and emotions, or by other personal reasons. To report their comments and the contents of Ted’s manuscripts where they appear is one thing: to report the comments of others about them is hearsay and gossip. And to include Erica Jong’s typically sensational and exaggerated fantasies after her one brief meeting with Ted is gratuitous and distasteful. Similarly, to devote four pages to a précis of Emma Tenant’s novel adds nothing to our understanding of Ted’s work.

In a defensive Endnote, as if he might be accused of some nefarious purpose in writing this book, Bate claims that one of his principal aims “is to explicate, celebrate and immortalise the writings of Ted Hughes, both published and unpublished, so as to bring him new readers… and thus to further the interests of the Estate”. Since the Estate has, since the publication of the book, pointed out errors and protested at “unsubstantiated claims”, he seems not to have achieved the last of these aims. But what about the first?

©Ann Skea 2015

My Response to Dr Ann Skea

 I thought your review was very fair, and I agree with most of it, although I did find Bate’s prose more stilted than fluent, probably becuse of the amount of paraphrasing he was required to do. You describe the book as a ‘novelised’ biography, whereas to me it read as a non-fiction account of Ted’s life, with a large amount of what seems to be speculation.

However I can’t forgive his dismissive attitude to Assia, calling her ‘a literary hopeful’, and writing 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), and also gave a reading of the translations for the BBC.  As for his take on ‘Capriccio’, 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 your own article ‘The Path of the Sword’.

No doubt there are many more inacuracies, as Carol Hughes has pointed out. His chapter on Hughes at the Adelaide Festival was particualrly prurient regarding Hughes’ (speculated) love life. I don’t have your advantage of having met Olwyn, or Carol, but can imagine how hurtful to them, and to Frieda, this chapter particularly must be.

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 with Assia.




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