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Book Review: The Unauthorised Life by Jonathan Bate


Ted Hughes, undoubted poet genius, starts life with such verve, talent and enthusiasm that it is hard to bear what is inevitably coming. But as with the story of the Titanic, everyone knows the disaster comes. This biography, thorough and insightful on Ted Hughes’ canon of work, also reveals how Hughes’ life was irrevocably shaped by Plath’s suicide in 1963.

In the early chapters, the energy of the Hughes-Plath union is compelling, and both are so alive you find yourself willing this marriage to succeed. It’s so easy to imagine an alternative, more prosaic kind of outcome: a long literary life lived together, happier children, (perhaps more than two?), Plath becoming as celebrated as Hughes while still alive, both poetic leading lights of the second half of the twentieth century.

But that would be the road less travelled. The Hughes-Plath marriage of six intense, fruitful and passionate years came to an abrupt end when Hughes began an affair with a woman called Assia Wevill. Plath left him, Hughes continued to see Wevill while also relishing his newfound freedom by seemingly hooking up with anyone else who caught his eye, and the rest is appalling, tragic history.

There are so many ifs. Starting with, if only Hughes had managed to grasp the concept of fidelity. He never did, but what price freedom? Plath killed herself by means of a gas oven in 1963 and in 1969 Wevill, to whom Hughes was also unfaithful, took the same exit route, taking their four year old daughter Shura with her.

The pain of these hammer blows vibrates off the page. Hughes seems to cope by never really letting Plath go. Bates details how Hughes is instrumental in bringing Plath’s work to the public, and establishing her posthumously as a leading female poet of her generation. Nevertheless, Plathians never forgave him, holding him responsible for Plath’s death.

This book is many things: a gripping retelling of a tragic love story on a fairly epic scale; an illuminating insight into the work of Hughes; and a chronicle of Hughes’ personal life post-Plath, revealing a life littered with loss and confusion.

Very readable, painstakingly researched despite the ‘unauthorised’ tag (permission was originally given by the Hughes estate, only to be withdrawn four years later). One question is this: at what point, if ever, did Jonathan Bate consider if Hughes had a character flaw or personality disorder at his core that manifested itself in his utter inability to make a decision and stick to it?

This applied to women - he regularly had two or three girls on the go at once and could never decide who to settle down with. The same indecisiveness also applied to where he lived. He oscillated between Yorkshire and Devon, where he had houses, settling in one and then moving back to the other weeks later, dragging his family with him every time. Occasionally Ireland was thrown into the geographical mix. Events like these didn’t happen once, or twice, or even thrice; but repeatedly throughout Hughes’ life post-Plath.

Was this a sign of how unmoored Hughes was without the fierce mooring post of Plath? Or the actions of a man on the run from something he could never shake off? Whatever the reasons, it feels a restless and uncomfortable way to live. As if, post-Plath, he was almost a Shakespearean ghost condemned to wander the earth for the rest of his days.

Written by Mary Alexander

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