Ted Hughes’ widow claims new biography of poet is strewn with ‘damaging and offensive’ errors

Publisher stands by 'scholarly and masterly' work despite the late Poet Laureate's estate finding '18 factual errors or unsupported assertions in just 16 pages'

Ian Johnston
Wednesday 14 October 2015 23:01
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Ted Hughes pictured with his wife, Carol
Ted Hughes pictured with his wife, Carol

The turbulence that accompanied the late Poet Laureate Ted Hughes in life has boiled up again as his widow bitterly attacked an Oxford University academic over a string of “damaging and offensive” errors in his acclaimed biography.

In a stinging denunciation, the Ted Hughes Estate said it had found “18 factual errors or unsupported assertions in just 16 pages” of Professor Jonathan Bate’s book, Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life.

The publisher, HarperCollins, insisted it stood by Professor Bate’s “scholarly and masterly biography”, but added that the author regretted “any minor errors… which are bound to occur” in a book of more than 600 pages.

Just days ago the biography was nominated for a Samuel Johnson Prize with judges saying this “extraordinarily thoughtful account” of one of Britain’s most celebrated poets would “leave no one feeling neutral”.

This proved something of an understatement, given the reaction from Mr Hughes’ widow, Carol, and the estate.

In a statement, estate lawyer Damon Parker said letters had been sent to Professor Bate and HarperCollins “calling on them to apologise for significant errors of fact, as well as damaging and offensive claims, concerning the poet’s widow, Mrs Carol Hughes”.

“We have identified a total of 18 factual errors or unsupported assertions in just 16 pages of the book that pertain directly to Mrs Carol Hughes – some significant, some minor,” Mr Parker wrote.

The “most offensive mistake” was writing that, as Mr Hughes’ body was being returned from London, where he died, to his home in Devon, the accompanying party had stopped “as Ted the gastronome would have wanted, for a good lunch on the way”.

Mrs Hughes wrote: “The idea that [their son] Nicholas and I would be enjoying a ‘good lunch’ while Ted lay dead in the hearse outside is a slur suggesting utter disrespect and one I consider to be in extremely poor taste.”

The statement noted that Professor Bate had written in The Guardian earlier this month that biographers “should only fix in print those things that they have fully corroborated”.

Mrs Hughes, who has not read the whole book, said: “The number of errors found in just a very few pages examined are hard to excuse.”

Professor Bate’s “attempt to describe the scene at Mr Hughes’s deathbed” had been “both intrusive and inaccurate”, the statement said. By writing that his two children were there, but not mentioning the poet’s wife, Professor Bate gave the “false impression that she was absent”.

“In fact, Mrs Carol Hughes had travelled with her husband to the hospital from their Devon home some days earlier, slept in his hospital room for the last two nights of his life and had hardly left his side in those final few days.’’

After the funeral, the biography describes the family going to the private cremation “leaving the mourners in the November rain” and then says Court Green, the Hughes’ Devon home, was “not reopened”.

“This falsely implies an insensitive lack of consideration or hospitality for the mourners. In fact, family and friends were invited to return to the family home for a buffet after the cremation,” the statement said.

Mr Parker said it was important to challenge the errors or they would “become an inaccurate part of official history”.

And he added: “The number of them does incline one to question, at least, what reliance may be placed on the remaining 646 pages.”

Initially, Professor Bate had been writing the biography with the co-operation of Mr Hughes’ estate, receiving permission to quote extensively from his unpublished work.

This was later revoked, with speculation that this was because the book was dealing too much with the poet’s private life and too little with his literary significance.

His wife Sylvia Plath killed herself in 1963.

Six years later, his lover Assia Wevill did the same, also killing their four-year-old daughter Shura.

Responding to the estate’s remarks, HarperCollins said that it “stands by Jonathan Bate’s scholarly and masterly biography of Ted Hughes”.

“Professor Bate has made every effort to corroborate all facts which was made more difficult by the withdrawal of support by the Ted Hughes Estate. [He] regrets any minor errors. Any errors will be corrected in the next printing.’’

Hughes estate: ‘What the book got wrong’

  • The book “wrongly suggests” that Ted Hughes was living in a rented property in London in the final days before his death from cancer, rather than at the family home in Devon.
  • Professor Bate wrote that it was “a mercy that [Ted Hughes] did not have to endure” the death of his son Nicholas in 2009 as it would have “destroyed him”. The estate accused Professor Bate of “breathtaking presumption”.
  • The book said the Prince of Wales told a memorial service in Westminster Abbey that Hughes was the “incarnation of England”. The Prince did not speak at the ceremony.
  • Professor Bate wrote that a “curiously lopsided” collection of Hughes’ letters was published in 2007, with Carol Hughes guiding the principles of selection”. In fact, the editor  acknowledged that Mrs Hughes gave him “unimpaired editorial freedom”.

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