In Testaments Betrayed, Milan Kundera says: ‘Biographers know nothing about the intimate sex lives of their own wives, but they think they know all about Stendhal’s or Faulkner’s.’ In The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Janet Malcolm says: ‘The transgressive nature of biography is rarely acknowledged, but it is the only explanation for biography’s status as a popular genre.’ She also shrewdly remarks on the ‘mantle of judiciousness’ that biographers are forced to deploy.
Jonathan Bate informs us that over a period of five years he has read and taken notes on nearly 100,000 pages of Ted Hughes manuscripts. He piously tells us at the end of his ‘Prologue’ that ‘the cardinal rule is this: the work and how it came into being is what is worth writing about, what is to be respected. The life is invoked in order to illuminate the work…’ His biography is scurrilous. It is also badly written, insensitive to the poetry, analytically inspissated, unerringly mistaken in its judgments, and incompetently narrated. At its heart is Ted Hughes the sexual sadist.
At one stage, Bate had the cooperation and confidence of the Hughes estate — an arrangement whose collapse he never discusses. Initially, this meant he had the advantage of seeing the unrestricted sections of Hughes’s intermittent journal as well as unpublished drafts. The fallout makes itself felt only in his subtitle, ‘The Unauthorised Life’, which, he pretends, refers to the unconventional way Hughes lived his life. But it is also present in the acknowledgement he makes to Richard Hooper, the lawyer responsible for changes to copyright law in 2014. Crucially, too, Bate has seen the notes kept by Nathaniel Tarn, a poet and psychoanalyst, notes which record his conversations with Assia Wevill and her husband David at the time of her affair with Hughes.
With Ian Fleming, we know about the bloodied towels and the sound of whipping. Here the evidence is far flimsier. Lives commonly begin with the birth of the subject. This one begins in 1986 with the libel action brought against Hughes by Jane Anderson. She felt traduced by her alleged portrayal as a lesbian in The Bell Jar. In court she claimed that Plath’s ire and malice had been aroused by Plath’s confession, 30 years previously, on 4 June 1956, that she, Sylvia, was ‘very much in love’ with ‘a very sadistic man’. Anderson did not advise Plath to drop the relationship. So why would Plath’s anger be provoked by her own confession? It doesn’t make sense. It makes sense, though, if Anderson wanted to force Hughes and his lawyers to settle quickly — as they did — for reasons of discretion.
Cynically, Bate flags this spurious testimony on page 6, surrounding it with a mass of irrelevance and disingenuous protestation. There are three other pieces of ‘evidence’. When Plath and Hughes first met, drunk at a party in Cambridge, he kissed her and she bit him on the cheek, drawing blood. Then there is an undisclosed ‘friend’ who reported that Hughes tried to strangle Sylvia in Benidorm on their honeymoon. Even Bate says this is ‘unverifiable’ and the source ‘not entirely reliable’. Which doesn’t stop him using the incident later to misread Plath’s contentious poem ‘The Rabbit Catcher’.
The third piece of ‘evidence’ is an illicit encounter in a hotel between Hughes and Assia Wevill: ‘This time his lovemaking was “so violent and animal” that he ruptured her.’ (The phrase ‘rapture and ruptures’ occurs later in Bate’s biography.) You wonder what this might mean. It sounds as if Assia is in danger of being hospitalised. Yet she phoned her husband David ‘and told him she was going to see Ted off at the station’. Not completely incapacitated then. So does ‘rupture’ mean a tear, a bit of bleeding in the vagina? The situation doesn’t end there: ‘David Wevill headed for Waterloo with a knife, turned back, went home and took 18 sleeping pills… She woke him up, told him that Ted had raped her and called an ambulance so that he could have his stomach pumped in hospital.’ Doesn’t this sound like a remorseful wife, fearing her husband’s possible demise, telling him that she wasn’t unfaithful but coerced — raped and hurt? These alternative readings are not raised by Bate.
Throughout this biography Hughes’s lovemaking is invariably ‘vigorous’ or ‘strenuous’ or ‘forceful’. Perhaps it was. But this doesn’t make Hughes a sadist. I don’t think his sexuality should be judged against more anodyne proceedings in the master bedroom of the Provost’s Lodgings at Worcester College. The list of Hughes’s conquests isn’t that extensive, but it would be strange, I suggest, that a sadist should attract so much love from (a rough count) 14 women, some of them concurrently.
Even principals, especially principals, are unreliable witnesses. After a quarrel with Olwyn Hughes (Ted’s sister), Sylvia Plath wrote to her mother on 1 January 1961. Sylvia was so offended by some of Olwyn’s personal remarks that she and Ted packed and left during the night. She repeats the remarks to Aurelia Plath and makes ‘some unpleasant observations of her own about the relationship between Olwyn and Ted, even, outrageously, suggesting incest’. I am quoting Janet Malcolm. Bate’s account of this letter is occluded and murkier, but its drift is the same. Years ago, Karl Miller told me that he and the novelist Dan Jacobson were driving to Edinburgh and gave a lift to Ted and Olwyn. When they got to Yorkshire, they left the A1 and took to increasingly minor roads, eventually dropping off brother and sister at the start of a grassy lane. As the burly figures disappeared into the mist, shouldering their rucksacks, either Dan or Karl said, ‘I wouldn’t rule it out.’ My point is that a joke isn’t evidence. Neither is Sylvia’s deranged accusation of incest.
Olwyn made Anne Stevenson cut this letter from Bitter Fame, her biography of Sylvia. Janet Malcolm thought it ‘so intemperate and out of control that it would actually create sympathy for Olwyn’. Olwyn was right. Once these things are floated, they have a surprisingly durable spectral presence — a kind of occultatio, the rhetorical device of actually affirming something by denying it. Which is why Bate raises the sadistic poet on page 6. It’s a sales pitch. It must have increased his advance significantly.
As for the poetry, consider something simple, ‘Secretary’:
‘If I should touch her she would shriek and weeping
Crawl off to nurse the terrible wound: all
Day like a starling under the bellies of bulls
She hurries among men, ducking, peeping,
Off in a whirl at the first move of a horn.
At dusk she scuttles down the gauntlet of lust
Like a clockwork mouse. Safe home at last
She mends socks with holes, shirts that are torn,
For father and brother, and a delicate supper cooks:
Goes to bed early, shuts out with the light
Her thirty years, and lies with buttocks tight,
Hiding her lovely eyes until day break.’
I think this is a kind of carpe diem, in the tradition of ‘To His Coy Mistress’. It is tender with regret and saves its yearning appreciation till the last line. Bate thinks it a cruel, misogynistic poem. (His priggish new-man credentials are frequently on show: he deplores a funny, silly, bawdy poem about the Brontës: ‘The Brontës/ Ran over Hebden Moor without panties./ The wind blew on their triple bum/ Till their toes went numb.’)
Bate thinks ‘Secretary’ is a reworking of the typist in her bedsit passively surrendering to the ‘young man carbuncular’ in Eliot’s The Waste Land. It is genuinely difficult to imagine a parallel less apposite. The 30-year-old secretary is nervous, shy, and completely virginal. Eliot’s typist succumbs to the caresses of the young man carbuncular, caresses that are ‘unreproved, if undesired’. In Eliot, intercourse takes place: the young man ‘makes a welcome of indifference’. In the Hughes, there is no possibility of sexual intercourse and every possibility of the woman becoming an old maid. The connection is nugatory — two women who don’t quite share a job description, secretary and typist.
If Jonathan Bate can bungle this so catastrophically, so comprehensively, what hope is there for more complicated poetry? ‘Gaudete’ is ‘troubling in its persistent linking of sex and violence’. ‘Season Songs’ and ‘Moortown’, both incomparably vivid, are dismissed as ‘easy’, as ‘operating on autopilot, writing nature notes instead of penetrating to the forces behind nature and in himself’. You wouldn’t trust Bate to read a limerick. But what can you expect from a critic who dismissed Eliot’s poems in the Sunday Telegraph (31 December 2000) as ‘period pieces’?