Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Wednesday 2 April 2014

Ted Hughes and the not-so-official biography

The Guardian Article
Even for those of us who never studied Ted Hughes, we must all, surely, be familiar with his name, and probably with one or two details of his life.

Ted Hughes was Poet Laureate from 1984 until his death in 1998. He was also famously married to the American poet Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide in 1963.

I first read his poems when I was in my teens. His nature poems were on the curriculum. I imagine they still are, and if not, they ought to be.

Ted Hughes was, from time to time, a controversial figure, and, even long after his death a new controversy has emerged.

I’ve now read two articles concerning his latest biography, one in the Sunday Times and another in the Guardian, and I am baffled.

Professor Jonathan Bate of Oxford University began researching a new biography of Ted Hughes in 2010. He was given full access to Hughes’s journals, diaries and unpublished poems to complete the work.

So far, so good.

Hughes’s archive was sold to the British Library in 2008 for half a million pounds.

And here’s my problem.

The British Library is a national institution, it is the national library and it is publicly funded by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Hughes’s archive was bought with public money. However, and this is where I have a problem, it is apparently common practice for a writer's estate to continue to control the copyright on an archive. Basically, as far as I can tell, The British Library, or any institution, only pays to house, store and maintain the archive on an estate’s behalf, while having no power to control its use. The British Library only owns the physical archive not the intellectual property.

After nearly four years working on his book, which, although he had permission to use the material, is not an authorised biography, Professor Bate has now had that permission rescinded by Ted Hughes’s widow.

Clearly whatever form of contract Bate had to use the material did not include a clause that denied the estate's right to withdraw it's permission at any point.

Carol Hughes is within her rights to do this. And I would not argue with the rights of any widow to do as she sees fit with her husband’s memory.

I do question why she would give permission in the first instance only to take it back four years down the line. I do question why she would waste Bate’s time. She knows his standing in the academic community. What has changed?

Professor Bate has been left with four years of work that is hugely compromised since he cannot now quote any of the material he has seen. Neither can he ‘unsee’ it. His original book deal with Faber has been cancelled.

As I understand it from the Guardian article, Jonathan Bate still plans to produce a book and is in talks with Harper Collins. I hope the book is a success, but I feel that he has been cheated. More than that, I feel that the academic community has been cheated. I feel that we have all been cheated.

And this is not the first time Carol Hughes has taken this action. Mark Wormald, an English don at Cambridge had permission rescinded to quote from Hughes’s fishing diaries for his book about the poet.

Ted Hughes was a great poet who left a huge legacy. His life informed his work, and he left a considerable archive.

I know a lot of writers and artists, and they are very various in their practices. Of course, I don’t know anyone of Hughes’s calibre, but I think the principle applies.

Some creators keep everything. Some keep nothing. Some compartmentalise, some do not. I know an artist who simply doesn’t want anything to be seen except for finished work and destroys every sketch and every note once an exhibition is ready. She will leave no archive. That is her intention, her choice and her right.

I’m a very open, very private person.

I realise what a contradiction that is. I expose myself almost daily in my blog, talking freely about whatever’s on my mind, but I also regularly purge. There are things that I have written down and subsequently burned or deleted from my computer. They have never and will never see the light of day. I clear my internet history every day and defrag regularly.

I doubt anyone will ever want my archive, but if they ever do, they can have it, because my secrets will die with me.

The husband keeps everything. That’s his choice.

Here’s the thing, though. I know that the husband keeps everything, and, knowing that, I’d have to ask myself the question whether I’d be willing to sell his archive, lock stock and smoking barrels to any institution or for that matter to any individual, ever, without knowing what might be in that archive. And how could I possibly know without turning every leaf? The fact is, I couldn’t know.

I strongly suspect Carol Hughes doesn’t know what’s in Ted Hughes’s archive, either. She took a risk, a half a million pound risk. But, and it’s the but I was worried about at the start of this post... But, she had insurance.

These articles have left us all wondering what Jonathan Bate found out that Carol Hughes doesn’t want the World to know about her husband. 

It’s a great pity. It’s a great pity, because it leaves me feeling rather sad and sorry for Carol Hughes. If there is something, whatever it is, she now has to face the pain it will no doubt cause her. She might have been better off letting sleeping dogs lie, except that she took the money, and left it to strangers to turn every leaf. 

I’m not sure any amount of money would be worth finding out something new and difficult about the man I loved so long after he was already in his grave.

1 comment:

  1. It is even worse for Ted Hughes' memory than it seems. There will have been drafts, notes, discussions, &c. before permission was withdrawn. Even if the people who have actually read the quotations honour the spirit as well as the letter, one or more interpretations of things in the archive will almost inevitably escape the box and - without the actual quotations being in the public record - whisper their way toward horrid extremes.