Scholar Jonathan Bate has been at work on his biography of British poet Ted Hughes for four years. He was surprised to recently learn that the Hughes estate had withdrawn its support of the book.
Hughes was British poet laureate from 1984 until his death in 1998. Much beloved at home, the prolific writer has been less well-regarded by some fans of Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide when she was married to Hughes.
Bate, a Shakespeare scholar, was at work on a biography that would tie together Hughes' life and work. "With an imagination as capacious as that of Hughes, what is there in the life that doesn't feed into the writing?" he told the Guardian. "Hughes was torn between what I call a 'mythic' voice and a 'confessional' one. His poetry is an attempt to write his own life, and Sylvia's, in the form of myth. The raw material is his life."
Bate had enjoyed the cooperation of Hughes' estate, which had given him access to private archives. In them, the biographer had found a previously undiscovered diary from the week before Plath's death and many unpublished poems by Hughes.
Bate, whose 100,000-word manuscript is nearly complete, suddenly learned that he was to return photocopies of privately held documents and would not be allowed to quote from Hughes' archive. The British Museum purchased the archive from Hughes' widow, Carol, in 2008 for more than $800,000 but the estate retains the copyright.
No reasons were offered for this change of heart, but the Oxford University professor suggests that the family may be worried by the prospect of revelations about the poet's private life, according to the Guardian.
The contract for the biography, slated to be published by Faber, has been canceled by mutual agreement. Bate is speaking to another publisher, HarperCollins, and to lawyers who will advise him as to whether exceptions in copyright law will allow him to quote from Hughes' publicly held and published work.
Bate told the Guardian that he cannot be "made to forget the things ... [already] read in private archives."