Estate of Ted Hughes lists 'factual errors' in new biography
The long-running dispute between the estate of Ted Hughes and the poet’s widow, Carol, and his latest biographer, Sir Jonathan Bate, has flared up once more with the publication of the new, unauthorised biography. In a press release, a solicitor for the Hughes estate has demanded an apology for what it called “significant errors of fact, as well as damaging and offensive claims”, and is also seeking retractions and an undertaking that the alleged mistakes will be amended. In its intial response the biography’s publisher, HarperCollins, said: “HarperCollins stands by Jonathan Bate’s scholarly and masterly biography of Ted Hughes. Prof Bate has made every effort to corroborate all facts used in the book which was made more difficult by the withdrawal of support for the project by the Ted Hughes estate.
“Prof Bate regrets any minor errors that may have been made which are bound to occur in a book of over 600 pages that draws upon such voluminous and diverse source material. Prof Bate’s book has been written in good faith and facts verified by multiple sources including family members and close friends. Any errors found will of course be corrected in the next printing.”
Last year the estate of Ted Hughes hit back after claims that it had barred Bate from archives, asked that he return photocopies of privately held documents, and withdrawn his right to quote extensively from the poet's work – described by the professor as "an essential aspect of serious scholarship". Bate was unable to continue his planned “literary life” of Hughes after Hughes’s widow, Carol, withdrew her support for the book.
Earlier this week Bate’s book Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life was nominated for the £20,000 Samuel Johnson non-fiction prize. The judges described Bate’s book as “an extraordinarily thoughtful account” and said it would “leave no one feeling neutral”. In this week’s press statement the Ted Hughes estate said they had found “18 factual errors or unsupported assertions in just 16 pages of the book”. They said the “most offensive” was an assertion that, after Hughes’ death in a London hospital in 1998, his body was “returned to Devon, the accompanying party stopping, as Ted the gastronome would have wanted, for a good lunch on the way”. In the press statement the esate said that while Carol and Nicholas Hughes – Ted’s son, who died in 2009 – did travel back to Devon with Ted’s body, they did not stop for food.
“There was no ‘good lunch’ – no meal at all. To suggest otherwise implies serious disrespect by the poet’s wife and son, the latter now also deceased,” the estate’s solicitor wrote. Carol Hughes said: “The idea that 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.”
Bate was also accused of incorrectly claiming the poet laureate went to London Bridge hospital in the later stages of his illness because he was renting a home in the capital. The estate’s solicitor said that Hughes and his wife lived in Devon at the time and went to that hospital on his doctor’s advice.
It added that Bate was “intrusive” in attempting to describe the scene around Hughes’ deathbed. In only mentioning Hughes’ children’s presence at his bedside, Bate was accused of giving the “false impression” that Carol was not there, when she travelled with her husband and “slept in his hospital room for the last two nights of his life, and had hardly left his side in those final few days”.
It also complained that Bate said the death of his son would have been the “one thing that would have destroyed” Ted Hughes. “The presumption of this statement, by someone who did not even know her husband and could have no idea how he would react, is breathtaking,” the letter read. “Of course Mr Hughes would have been devastated by such a tragedy, but it is surely no part of a serious biographer’s role, or within his ability, to speculate on an unknowable reaction to such a terrible event.”
The press statement said Carol Hughes had not read the biography, but the alleged errors had been pointed out to her.
After its iniitial statement, HaperCollins responded fruther a few days later, saying that Bate had written the unauthorised biography with “the close co-operation” of both Ted Hughes’s sister, Olwyn, and Hughes and Sylvia Plath’s daughter Frieda Hughes.
“In reply to the specific accusation of ‘factual inaccuracy and tasteless speculation’ around the book’s description of the death of Ted Hughes and the likely emotional response of Ted Hughes to the death of his son, Nicholas, the book narrates the recollection of Ted’s sister, Olwyn,” said HarperCollins.
“As the title makes clear, Professor Sir Jonathan Bate’s book is an ‘unauthorised’ biography and as such did not have the co-operation of the Ted Hughes estate or Carol Hughes and instead relied on the equally credible sources of Ted’s sister, daughter and close friends. Whilst their recollections may be different from those of Carol Hughes, that does not in any way lessen their veracity.”
In reply, the estate said that it was "regrettable that, after a week, no apology has been received for the clear errors of fact which we have highlighted, although neither publisher nor author has attempted to deny that these were errors, or sought to challenge this with any evidence to the contrary".
It added: “There was nothing to prevent the author seeking confirmation from the poet’s widow, Mrs Carol Hughes, of the factual points which he has got wrong in his book.”
It also alleged that Olwyn Hughes had written to her sister-in-law early last year saying that, having read three sample chapters of the book, she backed the decision of the estate and Faber to withdraw co-operation.