Ted Hughes’ widow criticises ‘offensive’ biography

Carol Hughes says unauthorised biography by Jonathan Bate, shortlisted for Samuel Johnson prize, contains ‘significant errors’

Ted Hughes’s widow has attacked a new unauthorised biography of the late poet laureate, saying it contains factual errors and “damaging and offensive claims”, days after the work was nominated for the Samuel Johnson prize.

In a letter to the book’s author, Jonathan Bate, who is a professor of English literature at Oxford University, and to its publisher HarperCollins, a solicitor for the Hughes estate said Hughes’ widow, Carol, found the mistakes offensive and disrespectful to her husband’s memory.

The claims come three days after Bate’s book Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life was nominated for the £20,000 Samuel Johnson non-fiction prize.

“The number of errors found in just a very few pages examined from this book are hard to excuse, since any serious biographer has an obligation to check his facts and to ensure, as the author affirms in his recent Guardian article, that he should only fix in print those things that have been fully corroborated,” Hughes said.

Her representatives 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”.

They 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 added: “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.”

The estate has demanded an apology for what it called “significant errors of fact, as well as damaging and offensive claims”. It is also seeking retractions and an undertaking that the alleged mistakes will be amended.

The work has been at the centre of controversy since it emerged that the estate had withdrawn its cooperation in March last year. In an article for the Guardian two days later, Bate wrote that no reason had been given and that he understood that Carol Hughes, who controls her husband’s estate, had been happy with how he planned to research and present the work.

The estate hit back the following day in a letter from its solicitors, who said that concerns had been expressed that Bate “might be straying from the remit” and that he “repeatedly resisted all requests to see some of his work in progress”.

Both sides have acknowledged that the late poet was against the idea of a biography. However, the estate agreed to cooperate with Bate because he proposed a scholarly study of how Hughes’ life informed his work.

In the latest letter, dated 14 October, Bate was 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.

They said there were numerous inaccuracies in Bate’s account of Hughes’ memorial service at Westminster Abbey, as well as an incorrect claim that mourners at his funeral in Devon were left standing in the rain.

“In fact, family and friends were invited to return to the family home for a buffet after the cremation,” the letter read.

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.”

Carol Hughes has not read the biography, but the alleged errors have been pointed out to her. A spokesperson said HarperCollins “stands by Jonathan Bate’s scholarly and masterly biography of Ted Hughes”. The representative, who also spoke on behalf of Bate, said the author had “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”.

They added: “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.”

• This article was amended on 22 October 2015. An earlier version said in the first paragraph that Carol Hughes had described the biography as being riddled with factual errors. The estate of Ted Hughes asked us to clarify that she did not use those words.


Kevin Rawlinson

The GuardianTramp

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