Stephanie Johnson reviews Sir Jonathan Bate’s biography of Ted Hughes, a forensic account of his doomed marriage to poet Sylvia Plath.
There are people who still blame Ted Hughes for the suicide of his wife Sylvia Plath, who famously gassed herself soon after he left her. Their two small children, Frieda and Nicholas, were in their cots in another room. This sorry tale is often the only fact people retain about the poets particularly since New Zealander Christine Jeffs’ 2003 film Sylvia, starring Gwyneth Paltrow in the title role with Daniel Craig as Ted Hughes. As is often the case with tragic lives of poets and artists, it’s the scandal that survives, rather than the work.
Sir Jonathan Bate is Professor of English Literature at Oxford and prior to this book was known widely as a Shakespearian scholar. Originally he intended the work to be a literary biography authorised by Hughes’s second wife Carol. Carol withdrew her support, ostensibly because Bate was slow to provide her with draft chapters. In a Radio New Zealand interview with Lyn Freeman last year, Bate mentioned also that Hughes’s daughter Frieda and his sister and literary executor Olwyn had memories that conflicted with Carol’s, so this could have been further reason for her withdrawal. Once unauthorised, the book was rejected by Hughes’s publishers Faber and Faber but picked up by Harper Collins and is selling worldwide under that imprint. Bate remarked in the same interview that after word spread that the book had lost Carol’s support he was approached by various of Ted’s friends, family members and ex-lovers, happier to talk to him now that he had a freer rein. It will be interesting to see if sales figures approach those of Ted’s last book the best-selling Birthday Letters, all poems for and about Sylvia, published in 1998 shortly before his death from cancer.
Carol Hughes’s impatience stemmed from the five years it took Bate to trawl the archives of Hughes’s unpublished work, one lodged in the US and the other at the British Library. Bate believes that no other writer has left an archive of such immensity – journals, letters and poems. His discoveries are not without controversy, particularly his contention that Plath had an affair with poet and critic Al Alvarez, a close friend of Ted’s. A letter of Plath’s survives where she describes putting her foot over Alvarez’s penis as he answered the phone, so that he would be decently dressed. Since publication, this paltry detail has developed enough gravitas to be debated in the Guardian.
Every biographer has an angle on the life they examine. In his introduction Bates announces that ‘the argument of this biography will be that Ted Hughes’s poetic self was constantly torn between a mythic or symbolic and an elegiac or confessional tendency, between Coleridgian vision and Wordsworthian authenticity.’ As the biography progresses it becomes clear that Bate blames the disastrous marriage for this tearing; that if Ted had not suffered the catastrophe of Sylvia’s suicide then he may well have developed as a poet to write more confessional, personal verse and abandon his nature-inspired work, some of which became progressively more ridiculous through the seventies and eighties especially after he was made Laureate. Bate’s contention is that Hughes’s deep wound prevented him from fully examining his own heart. After describing Plath’s funeral he writes of Hughes: ‘His confessional voice would be silenced, or at least heavily disguised, for a full decade.’
Syliva and Ted met as Cambridge students at a party in February 1956, held to launch a literary magazine. There were two ‘Swedish-looking’ girls there, as Ted later told a friend. Sylvia with her bright red lipstick and hairband was the one that caught Ted’s eye. Bate believes that ‘…she had come to look for him’, having heard him read and already in awe of him as a poet. Hughes was very handsome, well over six foot, with deep set eyes and a sensual mouth, and a deep gravelly Yorkshire voice that women found attractive. Sylvia was not at all discountenanced that he was there with his current girlfriend. While she danced with Ted he ripped off her hairband and earrings and she bit him so hard that blood streamed down his face. One of Ted’s fascinations was astrology – he was forever casting horoscopes, a hobby he retained throughout his life. Before he’d left for the party his horoscope predicted ‘disastrous expense.’ Bates remarks drily, ‘…for Hughes it took the rest of his life to pay off the cost of that night.’ Ted, caught up in the moment as he made love to Sylvia for the first time, was to think ‘So this is America’.
Their attraction was immediate and passionate. He was a working class lad on a state scholarship to Pembroke College, she was a spoilt American lass with a devoted mother and whose one great tragedy in life so far was the loss of her father. Her undergraduate thesis on Dostoevsky had examined dual identity, a subject that would fascinate her throughout her short career. Her dead father, of German extraction, would become a Nazi in her poetry and would blur and merge with the identity of her husband. Ted was to remark at various stages of his life that through the years of his marriage he hardly wrote anything worthwhile.
By this time he had already written what is perhaps his most famous poem The Thought Fox, which is about inspiration. It came from a dream he had one night while he was trying to finish an essay for his major in English Literature. He dreamed that while he was hunched over his desk he was visited by a human-like creature with the head of a fox. It was burned and bleeding from its human hands, one of which it laid on the unfinished essay. ‘Stop this – you are destroying us,’ it said. Ted, who took a great deal of notice of dreams, horoscopes and ghosts, immediately gave up literature and took up archaeology and anthropology instead, which he adored. Much of his final year he spent in the University Library. ‘Ted had a lust for free-range intellectual enquiry,’ Bate writes, ‘he told a friend that he got an erection every time he entered the library.’
Ted’s affairs and sexual proclivities are a major theme for Bate. In the 1960’s and ‘70’s the social mores and liberal attitudes to sex we now pretty much take for granted were in their infancy. Ted, already playing the part of the poet with his gravelly voice and head-to-foot black clothes, was at the vanguard. He loved women and women mostly loved him, though his most successful relationships were with those that forbore to put him at the centre of their lives. Sylvia and Assia did make him central and both suffered tragic deaths. Assia was the wife of rising poet David Wevill, both of whom Sylvia and Ted met in 1962. In the six years since that night in Cambridge, Sylvia and Ted and lived and taught in America, returned to England and had two children. They had written together and loved and fought and managed to forgive. Together they had weathered writers’ block, they had spent happy hours with a ouja board conjuring Pan. In their personal narratives they cast themselves as Heathcliff and Cathy; as Lady Chatterly and the gamekeeper. It was all about to change.
For Ted, Assia would have been exotic. She was very beautiful, Jewish, three years older than Ted and eight years older than David, who was her third husband. They were invited to stay with Sylvia and Ted at their house in the country, Court Green, and Assia carried out a plan she had reportedly outlined to a work colleague: she would seduce Ted Hughes. That weekend she got as far as kissing him in the kitchen, which was unfortunately witnessed by Sylvia who was already showing signs of instability. The isolation of country life didn’t suit her and although she adored her two babies, she resented the day to day drudgery of caring for them. After the Wevills left there was a furious row and Ted went to London to be with Assia, who was still living with her husband. They met the next day. ‘Their lovemaking was vigorous’ writes Bate, who gets carried away with the scene, ‘…his lovemaking was so violent and animal that he ruptured her.’
Drama ensued. Assia told her young, bewildered husband that Ted had raped her, he responded by taking eighteen sleeping pills and having to have his stomach pumped, though finding the strength to threaten to kill Ted if he came near his wife again. Ted went back to Sylvia but his heart was not in it. He left again, dividing his time between Assia and a poet, Susan Alliston. ‘On the whole,’ muses Bate, ‘a man does not leave his wife, home and two tiny children unless he has another woman’s bed to go to.’
One of Bate’s most poignant discoveries in Ted’s journals of the time was that he was considering going back to Sylvia but couldn’t figure out ‘how to stay out of the old trap’. He was to maintain that he visited Sylvia almost daily in the last weeks of her life, whereas in a letter to her mother Sylvia described his visits to the London flat she shared with the children as ‘once a week like a kind of apocalyptic Santa Claus.’ Sylvia’s writing was taking off again, the trauma of the separation feeding her muse. On these visits the family would eat together and Ted would read her new work and play with the children. He recorded in his journal that Sylvia would repeatedly ask him if he ‘had faith in her’, which he found disturbing. Bate gives us, painstakingly, the to-ing and fro-ing, no different to the sad final days of any marriage where one or other will enter a fantasy world where all can be forgiven and everything sorted out. Sylvia would make him promise to leave the country; a couple of days later they would talk about moving together to Yorkshire.
At about six in the morning on February 11, 1963, Sylvia took her own life. At that moment Ted was in bed with Sue Alliston. In order to avoid Sylvia’s constant phone calls, he had taken her to the same flat in which he’d first slept with Sylvia, a fact that haunted him. Bate quotes from a letter, ‘I was the only person who could have helped her, and the only person so jaded by her states and demands that I could not recognise when she really needed it.’
Neither, cruelly, did he recognise the danger signs with Assia. For years Ted maintained love affairs with three women at once – Assia, Brenda and Carol, of whom the latter would become his second wife. In late March 1969 Assia committed suicide by the same method Sylvia had used but far more tragically – she took their little daughter with her. Four year-old Shura was not David’s child – she was Ted’s.
Various feminists, most notably Robin Morgan, blamed Hughes for the death of Sylvia. ‘I accuse/Ted Hughes/of…the murder of Sylvia Plath’ wrote Morgan a year later. Had she known about Assia, he would have been doubly loathed. At this distance though few would blame him. Thousands of women are left by their husbands and very few consider it grounds to end their own lives. Ted liked dangerous, exciting women and dangerous, exciting women are very often self-destructive.
Turn the clock back some 45 years though and we see Plath as a feminist cause. Her poem The Jailor, ostensibly about Ted raping her, was included in Morgan’s famous anthology Sisterhood is Powerful. Bate comments, ‘If there was a single moment when Sylvia Plath was transformed from 1950s girl who loved lipstick and baking and Mademoiselle into an icon of the oppressed woman brought to the edge and beyond by domestic drudgery, motherhood and male infidelity, but redeemed by the power of her poetic voice, this was it.’
Somehow, with the deaths of two women and one innocent child on his conscience, Ted went on. He had his surviving children, his friends, the unwavering support of his sister Olwyn and plenty of other women including one Bate describes only as a ‘mysterious woman from South London.’ He published prodigiously and wrote for the theatre. Bate outlines an interminable show he wrote for Peter Brooks in an invented language that incorporated baby talk and lots of screaming. Called Orghast, it was performed in a remote part of Iran in 1971, starting at sunset and finishing at dawn. Although Bate’s description is fairly reverential – ‘the audience was for the most part absorbed but puzzled’ – reading between the lines it is easy to imagine that it would have been entertaining for half an hour so and torture thereafter.
It wasn’t Hughes’s first foray into the footlights. The year before Assia’s death his version of Oedipus was produced at Old Vic with Sir John Gielgud and Irene Worth. In the last scene a spike appears in the middle of the stage and Jocasta kills herself by squatting on this and writhing downwards, ‘a terrifying piece of acting by Irene Worth.’ Meanwhile Oedipus declaims about pestilence and ulcerous agony before ‘a chorus leads him off to a rousing rendition of ‘Yes, we have no bananas.’
The old adage concerning the change of politics in many people as they grow older, from left to right, certainly applies to Hughes. As a young man he was capable of writing angry poems such as The Rat in the Bowler Hat, an attack on the snobbery of public (private) school attitudes. In 1984, when Hughes was in his mid-50s, he was appointed poet Laureate. From then on, as Seamus Heany said in a lecture – he was ‘a favourite in the highest household in the land’ even though his ‘accent and bearing still retained strong traces of his north-country origins.’
It was a position he was to hold until his death in 1998 and one of which he took full advantage. He had great admiration for Mrs Thatcher, her ‘belligerent business sense, her militarism, patriotism and all-round impatience with slackers’ says Bates, and became a friend of Michael Heseltine. In Hughes’s favour, he used his fame as a platform to energetically and tirelessly champion environmental causes.
The years immediately preceding his appointment were difficult – a lengthy court case in America brought against him by a friend of Sylvia’s after the film of The Bell Jar which cost him thousands of pounds but which he eventually won, and two suspicious fires that destroyed Plath’s final journal and many manuscripts. The Laureate offered security, posh company and lots of fishing, which was one of his grand passions. In a particularly fawning passage, Bate writes ‘Ted Hughes aspired to live in the moment. That was why when he told the woman in South London he would come to live with her permanently he meant it. And it is also why he loved writing, fishing and sex, in all of which there is a sense of total absorption, a unity of mind and body, an escape from the shadows of the past and the responsibilities of the future.’
Not many would disagree that it’s difficult to be inspired by the goings on of the royal family. I once spent an evening with Laureate Andrew Motion. It was the day the Queen Mother died and even though Motion is a fervent royalist, he was scratching his head. Hughes was mercilessly pilloried by press and critics for Rain-Charm for the Duchy and Other Laureate Poems published in 1992. Only pre-Laureate Andrew Motion defended him, saying that he thought Hughes the best Poet Laureate since Tennyson. Everyone else was appalled at how bad it was – Hilary Corke thought it was impossible to read any of it ‘without emitting several little girlish shrieks of horror.’ This was the year the Queen named her annus horribilus – the year of the fire in Windsor Castle, Fergie and Andrew’s separation and widely published photographs of Fergie having her toes sucked by the Texan millionaire.
A reader’s enjoyment of this book is entirely contingent on his/her attitude to Ted Hughes. It is an enormous work of almost six hundred pages and gives a clear, fascinating picture of Hughes’s times as much as it does of his life. We might snigger at the worst of his poetry, his womanising and bad theatre, but Bate reminds us that for all that Hughes was a great, romantic figure of the twentieth century. In a sad post-script, Hughes’s beloved only son Nick also took his own life, alone in his house in Alaska at the age of 47. It would have been the fourth suicide in the family circle and the one Hughes would have felt the keenest, if he had lived to know of it.
Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life ($50) is available at Unity Books.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.