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Ted Hughes: The Life of a Poet Paperback – 1 Aug 2002
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'This is an admirable book, fond but fair; hard to believe it could be bettered any time soon' (The Times)
'It is a story full of fascination, told with judicious candour' (The Independent)
The first biography of the former Poet Laureate, famous for his marriage to Sylvia Plath, the subject of his bestseller, BIRTHDAY LETTERS, which has sold over 200,000 copies in hardback.See all Product description
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It could possibly be argued that Feinstein allows too much sentiment, from her longstanding friendship with Hughes, to affect what she is willing to write about him, something which comes across especially clearly when she is describing his multiple long-running affairs in the 1970s without mentioning the feelings of his second wife or how his behaviour affected her. Still, unlike in some reviews I have read, I didn't think that Sylvia Plath was unfairly pilloried, but that Feinstein had gone to great trouble to present a clear picture of the complicated relationship between two complex, incredibly talented people, while also showing that Hughes came out of his relationship with Plath almost as damaged as she had been.
Furthermore, Feinstein also points up the great integrity that compelled Hughes to publish Plath's Ariel poems after her death purely because he saw in them the strength of Plath's genius, despite the fact that they presented him in a harsh, unforgiving, and entirely unfair light, and Plath's use of some of their most difficult private moments as material for her work left Hughes feeling profoundly betrayed. Overall, though, Feinstein's biography depicts a man who was dedicated to poetry, and did a lot to promote other talented poets, especially in translation, who had a profound and abiding love for nature, and who did as much as possible to protect his children from the firestorm of publicity that surrounded their mother's death.
Perhaps it is a little too fond and forgiving in places, but then, perhaps this first biography needed to be, if only to counteract the unfairly harsh view of Hughes that has been in the public domain for so long. Feinstein's biography is a timely reminder that there are at least two sides to every story, and that, genius as Hughes was, he was still human, and as vulnerable to hurt, and as fallible, as the rest of us.
All the same, Hughes for much of the book remains a somewhat shadowy figure - there is little in the text that brings alive his charisma, sense of personal warmth and fun, and sheer energy. Although she was a friend of Ted and his sister Olwyn, I think Feinstein may have brought this book out as an unauthorized biography - this might explain the bizarre fact that Ted's second wife Carol hardly gets a mention, that there's very little about his children after the death of their mother and that we get little idea of what Ted was like as a husband or a father. Although Feinstein does talk quite a bit about Hughes's poetry, she concentrates largely on the darker and larger-scale poems: there's little about his marvellous work as a translator (cited by many academics as some of the greatest in the business), about his playful creation myths or his occasional foray into the short story. There's also very little about his professional life, his friendship with other poets (including Charles Tomlinson, Seamus Heaney and Danny Abse) or the reception of his work.
The trouble with this is that the book gets overly focused on Hughes's good looks, and particularly his relationships with women. Women are very much at the fore of the biography, from Ted's meeting with Plath onwards. The section about the Hughes/Plath marriage is so Plath-focussed that I wondered at times if Feinstein would have preferred to be writing a biography of Sylvia Plath. The chapters following Sylvia's suicide are focussed very much around Assia Wevill and her tragic depression and suicide, and in later chapters Feinstein quotes at great length from Hughes's various girlfriends and mistresses. It means that the book begins to seem at times like the story of 'Ted the Rake' rather than 'Ted the poet'.
Feinstein is also not helped by the tendency of some of her interviewees to gush, and her reluctance to tell the reader which interviewees might be telling the more reliable story. Some of the people she talked to about Ted (like his friend Lucas Myers, or Sylvia's friend Suzette Macedo) are ideal interviewees, giving wonderful, vivid accounts of their friendships with Hughes and with Plath). But should Feinstein really have quoted at such length from the rather melodramatic Elizabeth Compton Sigmund (who she herself admits has been cited by others as rather unreliable)? And did we need to have so many details of Ted's affair with Emma Tennant, recounted by Tennant in the most gushing language? I can't help wondering how Ted's widow must have felt on reading how Tennant described Ted thinking that he 'may be a graylag goose' (a bird that remains faithful to his first mate) - Tennant cites it as an excuse for why Ted didn't marry her. (She went on to write a particularly horrible novel about Ted, Sylvia and Assia in which Ted comes across as an arch-villain - this put me off Emma Tennant's work for life.) Ted's other mistress at the time, Jill Barber, gives a much better picture of Ted, but her pleasure at having been the 'mistress of a great man' is almost embarrassing at times - and she seems to have had no worries about what Ted's wife and children were feeling about her affair. All in all, the constant reference to Hughes's love life, and the many descriptions of him as 'Heathcliff-like', 'ruggedly handsome' etc all feed into a rather narrow picture of Hughes as a wild Byronic lover. The warmth and charm of the man, his skills as a parent, his gifts in friendship (I was fortunate enough to know as a child a fellow poet who actually knew Hughes and told me quite a lot about what a pleasant man he was to spend time with) and his sense of humour don't come to the fore enough.
Bearing in mind the sensitivity of Hughes as a topic, Feinstein must have had a difficult time pulling this book together, and she manages admirably in pulling together a lot of the basic facts about Hughes's life and work. But in the midst of all the facts and the anecdotes, Hughes himself never quite comes to life. I'd recommend this book as a basic guide to Hughes's life - but read the poems, and also his wonderful letters to get an idea of the man's true personality.
Hughes comes across as a horror - who never seemed to learn anything much from his experiences with women - and seemed to have a knack for making money not only out of his own rather dubious talent but also out of Plath's - and she was the better poet; a tad less precious and pretentious. He reminds me somewhat of the Woody Allen-type, who gets away with outrageous behaviour - mostly directed at the women in his life - because he's, hey, an artist, right?
I also revisited some of the early poetry a few evenings ago - 'The Hawk In The Rain' - and found it less satisfying than most of, say, Larkin or even Wallace Stevens. Oh, sure, it was fresh and exciting in 1957, just as 'Look Back In Anger' must have been in '56. But, oh, the pure drivel that came later - just like Beckett and Pinter!
I hate to say this, but it's unpleasant contemplating how Plath might have turned out had she lived.
Also - what gets up my nose - is Teddy being sucked up to by the royal family - makes you question their judgement (not for the first time - and I'm no republican, believe me).
A book to be read maybe once and then chucked to your local Oxfam shop.
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