‘A Very Sadistic Man’

On page 313 of his biography of Ted Hughes, Jonathan Bate paraphrases a racy passage from the journal Sylvia Plath kept in the last months of her life:

On the day that she found Yeats’s house in Fitzroy Road, she rushed round in a fever of excitement to tell Al [Alvarez]. That evening, she noted in her journal with her usual acerbic wit, they were engaged in a certain activity when the telephone rang. She put her foot over his penis so that, as she phrased it, he was appropriately attired to receive the call.

We assume that Bate is paraphrasing rather than quoting Plath’s entry because of the copyright law prohibiting quotation of unpublished writing without permission of the writer or of his or her estate. As Bate wrote in The Guardian in April 2014, in an angry article entitled “How the Actions of the Ted Hughes Estate Will Change My Biography,” the estate had abruptly withdrawn permission to quote after initially enthusiastically approving “my plan for what I called ‘a literary life.’”

But in fact, the action of the estate was not the reason for Bate’s resort to paraphrase. As readers familiar with the Hughes/Plath legend will realize or have already realized, Bate was paraphrasing words he could not possibly have read since Plath’s last journal was destroyed by Hughes soon after her suicide. (“I did not want her children to have to read it,” Hughes explained when he revealed his act of destruction in the introduction to a volume of Plath’s earlier journals.) What Bate was paraphrasing, he tells us, was Olwyn Hughes’s memory of what she had read in the journal before her brother destroyed it.

Ted Hughes, 1978; photograph by Bill Brandt
Bill Brandt Archive
Ted Hughes, 1978; photograph by Bill Brandt

In the introduction to his book, Bate—who is a professor of English literature at Oxford and the author of numerous books on Shakespeare, along with a biography of John Clare—offers a “cardinal rule” of literary biography: “The work and how it came into being is what is worth writing about, what is to be respected. The life is invoked in order to illuminate the work; the biographical impulse must be at one with the literary-critical.” And: “The task of the literary biographer is not so much to enumerate all the available facts as to select those outer circumstances and transformative moments that shape the inner life in significant ways.” But these fine words—are just fine words. The revelation, if that’s what it is, of sex between Plath and Alvarez (in his autobiographical writings Alvarez indicated that there had never been any) illuminates neither Hughes’s work nor his inner life. It only makes plain, along with his prurience, Bate’s dislike of Alvarez. “At the time of Sylvia’s death, a contemporary noted that Alvarez had a ‘hangdog adoration of T.H.’ and expressed the opinion…

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