Sam Leith

Ted Hughes’s estate squares up to poet’s unauthorised biographer

Ted Hughes's estate squares up to poet's unauthorised biographer
Text settings

The row over Jonathan Bate’s unauthorised Life of Ted Hughes is hotting up. Professor Bate originally embarked on the book with the blessing of the Hughes estate, but that blessing – along with permission to quote from the poet’s writings – was withdrawn.

Now the Hughes estate has issued a press release claiming to have identified a number of errors in the book – 18 in an 16 page sample – and requesting that the book be corrected and an apology made to Carol Hughes.

You can read it below.

The estate say that they have not yet had a response from Professor Bate or his publishers. I’ve emailed him for comment and will update this post as and when I hear back.

Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 16.28.24Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 16.28.58Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 16.34.06UPDATE:

I have now received a response from his publishers HarperCollins:

'In response to the recent statement from Carol Hughes, widow of the late Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, HarperCollins has issued the following statement:

HarperCollins stands by Jonathan Bate's scholarly and masterly biography of Ted Hughes. Professor Bate has made every effort to corroborate all facts used in the book which was made more difficult by the withdrawal of support for the project by the Ted Hughes Estate. Professor Bate regrets any minor errors that may have been made which are bound to occur in a book of over 600 pages that draws upon such voluminous and diverse source material. Professor Bate's book has been written in good faith and facts verified by multiple sources including family members and close friends. Any errors found will of course be corrected in the next printing.'


The Hughes Estate/Jonathan Bate row continues.

On 16 October I had this, in apparent response to a defamatory comment I was disappointed not to have received:

Statement from HarperCollins

We are disappointed that the Ted Hughes estate have continued to issue defamatory comments about Professor Sir Jonathan Bate's biography of Ted Hughes

Professor Sir Jonathan Bate's book is a work of first rate scholarship and has been impeccably researched over the course of five years. He is the first scholar to have made full use of the voluminous Ted Hughes archives placed in the British Library, and the papers sold to Emory University, Atlanta. In addition to his detailed knowledge of the written sources (both published and unpublished), his book has been written with the close cooperation of Olwyn (Ted Hughes's sister) and Frieda (Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath's daughter. In reply to the specific accusation of  'factual inaccuracy and tasteless speculation' around the book's description of the death of Ted Hughes and the likely emotional response of Ted Hughes to the death of his son, Nicholas, the book narrates the recollection of Ted's sister, Olwyn.

As the title makes clear Professor Sir Jonathan Bate's book is an 'unauthorised' biography and as such did not have the cooperation of the Ted Hughes estate or Carol Hughes and instead relied on the equally credible sources of Ted's sister, daughter and close friends. Whilst their recollections may be different from those of Carol Hughes that does not in any way lessen their veracity.

We reiterate our steadfast support of both Professor Jonathan Bate and his book.

This afternoon came the Hughes Estate’s response:

Statement from the Ted Hughes Estate issued on Monday 19 October

For Immediate Release 

The Ted Hughes Estate is issuing this comment in response to the latest statement from HarperCollins, just received, on the Estate ’s letter of complaint to the publishers of Wednesday 14 October . In that letter, the Estate had sought a retraction, correction and apology for 15 errors of fact and three unsubstantiated assertions identified in 16 pages of Jonathan Bate ’s new biography of the poet.

The Estate had been prepared to wait a little longer for the requested apology and corrections but it is now clear from HC's latest extraordinary statement that these will not be forthcoming, so it seems the appropriate time to make what it’s hoped will be the Estate’s final comment on these matters, for now at least.


On HarperCollins’ public statements of support for the Jonathan Bate book:

Harper Collins say, in their latest press statement, that: “Jonathan Bate's book is a work of first rate scholarship and has been impeccably researched”.

 In their earlier statement on 14 October, they said: “Professor Bate has made every effort to corroborate all facts used in the book”.

The second of these statements is clearly incorrect. The author did not seek any comment from the widow of the poet, Mrs Carol Hughes, on any of these specific matters, even on those issues relating most closely to her, and those which seem so unlikely that they surely required confirmation or denial from the person most closely involved.

None of the 15 factual errors identified by the Ted Hughes Estate in 16 pages of the book have been challenged by the publisher or author. Rather, HarperCollins suggested in their first statement thatminor errors are "bound to occur" given the length of the book, at more than 600 pages.

The Estate welcomes the comment by HarperCollins that the author "regrets any minor errors that may have been made", but he still has not acknowledged that errors of fact have been made.

The Estate believes it is now time for the author to acknowledge that his account about the journey from London back to Devon with the body of the late Mr Hughes in October 1998 is totally false. He wrote:The body was returned to Devon, the accompanying party stopping, as Ted the gastronome would have wanted, for a good lunch on the way.

Only Carol Hughes and her stepson, Nicholas, now also deceased, made that journey, at night, following the hearse. The cortege stopped only very briefly. No meal was consumed.

The Estate also hopes that the author will now acknowledge another major factual error, the failure

to mention the presence of the poet’s wife, Mrs Carol Hughes, at his hospital bedside, or even in the room, in his account of her husband’s last hours of life. The Estate believes it is unacceptable to argue, as HarperCollins do in their latest statement, that the book narrates the recollection of Ted's sister, Olwyn” concerning the author’s description of Mr Hughes’s final hours.

Why did the author not think it worthwhile to check with Mrs Hughes that such an unlikely and hurtful version of events was correct before printing it, if he really believes – as he wrote in the Guardian on 3 October – that:

“Biographers should only fix in print those things that they have fully corroborated” ?

HarperCollins also suggest in their statements that the efforts of the author to corroborate all facts used in the book were made more difficult by the withdrawal of support for the project by the Ted Hughes estate”. That view was reinforced by the author in an interview on the BBC’s Today programme on Friday 16 October.

Yet there was nothing to prevent the author seeking confirmation from the poet’s widow, Mrs Carol Hughes, of the factual points which he has got wrong in his book, and which we have highlighted in the Estate’s statement of 14 October.

The author told the Today programme that he had asked Mrs Hughes if she would still check his book for factual errors in February last year, after the Estate withdrew support for his book, but got no reply. This is not correct.

The author wrote to Mrs Hughes on 5 February 2014, stating: “I imagine that the changed status means that you are also withdrawing your kind offer, made to me personally rather than via Faber, to check my work for factual errors.” That assumption did not seek a reply, and Mrs Hughes at no stage refused to assist in correcting factual errors or checking the book for factual mistakes.

The author also wrote in the same letter: “It goes without saying that I will not go into print or speak to journalists on the subject of the changed status of my work.” While Mrs Hughes was considering whether to reply, she was understandably surprised to find, just a few weeks later, that the author was complaining bitterly in the Sunday Times, the Daily Mail, and other newspapers about the Estate’s decision to withdraw its support for his book, and speculating on what he imagined the reasons to be.

And in June this year, following inaccurate Tweets by the author about aspects of Ted Hughes’s work, Mrs Hughes contacted the author privately to correct these and, after an amicable correspondence, she also offered to help check for any other factual errors. As she wrote on 13 June:

I have not, at any stage, sought, nor would or could seek, to prevent you or any other scholar from studying those public archives and reporting on what is found there, provided such reports are accurate and factually-based, rather than relying on unsubstantiated claims and assertions.”

Referring back to the author’s letter of February last year, she added:

“As you can see, I do remain willing (to help resolve factual queries on the book), and would try to do so again, within reason, if you have any other questions... In my view, it is considerably better to help a respectable author achieve accuracy before publication rather than having to seek to obtain corrections after a book is published.”

Regrettably, this offer was not taken up. The author told the BBC’s Today programme that the offer from Mrs Hughes to check the book’s facts came only “days away” from the book going to the typesetter so it was “just too late” by then.

In fact, the few most hurtful and unsubstantiated claims involving Mrs Hughes which the Estate has highlighted above – the “good lunch” cortege and her alleged absence from her husband’s bedside when he died - could certainly have been emailed to the Estate, or paraphrased, and answered, within 24 hours at most… probably avoiding the need for this unfortunate public correspondence now.

HarperCollins' latest statement says that the author: "did not have the cooperation of the Ted Hughes estate or Carol Hughes and instead relied on the equally credible sources of Ted's sister, daughter and close friends. Whilst their recollections may be different from those of Carol Hughes that does not in any way lessen their veracity".

It is hard to understand how it can be argued that the recollections of those other relatives and "close friends" can be relied on totally for establishing facts about the life and experience of Mrs Hughes, facts in some cases known only to her, or easily checkable by asking her.

The Estate highlighted the most glaring factual errors in our public statement last week, but there are also other errors and inaccuracies in the 16 pages of the book we examined, that should be corrected. A full list was sent to HarperCollins and this includes wrongly suggesting Ted dislocated a hip during a poetry reading (p.385); describing how friends stayed in Ted’s “stone cottage near the sea” when this cottage was actually 30 miles from the coast and not made of stone (pp.363, 367); and naming what appears to be a non-existent village as the birthplace of Mrs Hughes’s father (p.254).

Two further points are relevant: the author claims on P. 609, note 9, of his book, that:  “One of the principal aims of this book is to... bring (Ted Hughes) new readers at a time when knowledge of his work and even his name is rapidly declining and thus to further the interests of his Estate.”

The Estate naturally welcomes the author’s wish to help increase interest in the poet’s work. But there seems no hard evidence for his assertion that knowledge of the poet’s work and name are “rapidly declining”. The poetry of Ted Hughes features on a number of school examination syllabuses here and overseas, and book sales data supplied by the Estate’s publisher, Faber & Faber, suggests quite the contrary: sales are on an upward rising trend and the past three years have been particularly successful ones.

Finally, HarperCollins stress in their latest statement that the author relied for much of his information on Olwyn Hughes, the poet’s sister, now 87. Their statement says: (The) book has been written with the close cooperation of Olwyn Hughes”. Yet Ms Hughes wrote to her brother’s widow, Carol Hughes, on 21 January last year, after the Estate withdrew its support for his book, and said that - having read the three sample chapters which the author had then belatedly circulated - she backed the decision of the Estate and Faber to pull out.

The Estate of Ted Hughes does not wish to prolong an unproductive dialogue with HarperCollins and its author. It is regrettable that, after a week, no apology has been received for the clear errors of fact which we have highlighted.

The response in the publishers’ latest statement is the unfounded claim that the Estate is “issuing defamatory comments” when all we have done, and will continue to do until they are corrected, is to point out the 15 factual errors and three unsubstantiated assertions in the 16 pages of the book brought to Mrs Hughes’s attention to date, and which pertain to her directly.

So: nobody seems to be backing down. More bulletins as circumstances warrant.

Written bySam Leith

Sam Leith is an English author, journalist and literary editor of The Spectator.

Topics in this articleBook Reviewspoetry