March 31, 2014

Carol Hughes withdraws material from consideration for new Ted Hughes biography


Ted Hughes (AP)

Ted Hughes (AP)

Jonathan Bate, an Oxford professor at work on a biography of poet Ted Hughes, lost a crucial resource recently when Hughes’ widow withdrew her support of the project — four years after first granting it.

Eleanor Dickinson of Cambridge News reports that Carol Hughes, who married the poet in 1970 — seven years after the suicide of his first wife, Sylvia Plath — and remained with him until his passing in 1998, has told Bate that he is no longer authorized to use Hughes’ “journals, diaries and unpublished poems.” In addition to these materials, Carol Hughes has asked that Bate return photocopies he made from an unnamed American archive.

But as Richard Brooks of the Sunday Times wrote (subscription only) writes, “While the book was not to be an authorized biography, Carol Hughes had given her blessing.” She had also offered “blanket permission” to photocopy materials from the Hughes archive, which the British Library purchased for £500,000 in 2008. Bate has been at work on the biography for four years.

Brooks reports that “Bate suspects that [Carole Hughes] was concerned by revelations about her late husband’s private life …” And indeed, according to Dickinson’s Cambridge News report, “Bate is said to have uncovered new material about Hughes’s tempestuous relationship with Sylvia …”

Estate resistance is no novelty in the Plath-Hughes canon. Before Hughes himself passed away, he restricted access to Plath’s journals and drafts. He burned her final diary; “it was just sad,” he remarked in his 1995 Paris Review interview. Anthologists have also had trouble reprinting Plath’s work in the past, in large part due to the price. (Most recently, this affected Rita Dove‘s Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry.) Frieda Hughes, daughter of Ted Hughes and Plath, did not allow her mother’s poetry to be used in the 2003 film Sylvia.

This is the right of the family as they choose, of course, and this is not the place to argue about one’s obligation to literary criticism versus one’s obligation to an author’s loved ones. Carol Hughes’ decision is surprising, rather, because it followed four years of supposed support, if not outright authorization.


Emma Aylor is a former Melville House intern.