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Customer Review

on 25 October 2001
Elaine Feinstein, a friend of Ted Hughes, has written what amounts to the first full length biography of the former poet laureate. Readers, especially those with a strong interest in his first wife, Sylvia Plath, will feel, I suspect, rather let down by this book. Feinstein's caution and wish not to offend - Ted's living family, friends, and maybe Ted himself - is evident throughout the book. But more than that, there seems to be little here that readers have not already read before in various sources. Anyone familiar with one or more of the several Plath biographies, or Lucas Myer's recent memoir, 'Crow Steered, Bergs Appeared,' will find the information on Hughes' years in Cambridge, his meeting of Plath and their life together until her death in 1963 completely unsurprising. There are a few 'new' bits of information with regard to Hughes' childhood in Yorkshire but nothing of major interest. There are also some interesting pieces of information regarding his relationship with Assia Wevill and about Assia herself, but again, not much we didn't already know. The relationships he had with Emma Tennant and Jill Barber are better and more thoroughly documented respectively in Tennant's book 'Burnt Diaries' and presumably in Barber's forthcoming memoir. Almost nothing is said about his 2nd wife Carol, or Hughes' children with Plath, seemingly because the biography is unauthorized and Feinstein wishes not to infringe on the personal life of the still living wife and children of her friend Hughes. This restraint for the sake of the living is admirable, but it hardly makes for a well-rounded bio. Indeed, Carol Hughes becomes hardly more than a footnote in her husband's life in this book. In any event, the personal details entailed are not salacious; in fact, I've read quite a few things in Plath bios, on the internet and in the newspapers that are hinted at in this book but never fully explained, or left out altogether, probably because they would be considered too disparaging to the subject. Feinstein is mildly defensive of Hughes when it comes to his personal behaviour in relationships with women, and strikes a balance between that defense and holding Hughes accountable for his actions or non-actions. Feinstein also seems to have a genuine respect and fondness for Hughes, although her use of the first person in some sections in the book throw the reader out of 'biography' and into 'memoir'. I came away with the feeling that biographers should never personally know their subjects, and if personal friends write books about the lives of those friends, the books are more properly called memoirs. The biggest surprise is the fact that Ted's work seems to be discussed hardly at all. Again, since this book is unauthorized I can only assume that Feinstein was unable to get the permission to quote freely from Ted's works. Perhaps I'm wrong, but in any case I was very disappointed at the lack of in-depth discussion of Hughes' work. There are repeated references to Hughes' interest in astrology, hermeticism and neoplatonism, but not much discussion of these influences overall. Basically, I came away from reading this bio no more informed about Ted Hughes than I had been before I read it. For me, Hughes remains a creative, talented, engimatic presence in 20th century literature. I look forward to subsequent biographies that may offer a more psychologically in-depth portrait of the man with a more detailed analysis of his work. Feinstein's book is a general primer for those that want an overview of Hughes' life but not much substance.
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