This is in many ways an excellent biography: compulsively readable, elegantly assembled (future biographers should study Mr. Bate’s method of proceeding thematically rather than strictly chronologically), and sensitive to the many aspects of Hughes’s grand and complicated character. But your final judgment will partly depend on whether you feel that Mr. Bate or the Plath/Hughes myth is master of ceremonies.
...Bate — a distinguished Shakespeare scholar as well as provost of Worcester College in Oxford, England — proudly calls his book 'unauthorized,' implying its intellectual independence. But that word can’t help but suggest those sleazy tell-alls about Hollywood movie stars. In fact, this biography reads like two books: one an intelligent, even donnish work of criticism that connects the poems to the life, the other a sensationalistic anthology of gossip and subdued malice.
If anything is our own business, it is our pathetic native self. Biographers, in their pride, think otherwise. Readers, in their curiosity, encourage them in their impertinence. Surely Hughes’s family, if not his shade, deserve better than Bate’s squalid findings about Hughes’s sex life and priggish theories about his psychology.
What [Bate]'s written, capaciously, arrestingly, is a kind of tragedy. He glances at this word late in the book and distances himself from 'the vulgar sense' of it, but in the case of Hughes the word holds fast: Hamartia, the Aristotelian fatal flaw, is not so far off the mark. In the vulgar sense, tragedy befell others.
The main service that Bate has done is to read this huge mass of material with a scholar’s ability to date and arrange it. His biography is a first report on what lies in wait in the archive. It is, however, a report that has been hindered and constrained.
Lacking the personal intimacy of Elaine Feinstein’s 2001 biography, Bate’s book maintains a distanced, scholarly tone through even the darkest material, magnified by his inability to quote freely. Still, he captures the nadirs of a complex emotional life, as in his record of Hughes’s comments after Plath’s funeral...
In an exculpatory narrative, Jonathan Bate tries to reverse the momentum of literary history, making Plath the wife of Ted Hughes, poet laureate and winner of virtually all the important poetry prizes. This canny biographer succeeds in his aim, but at a terrible cost to his subject. Plath continues to overpower Hughes on every page. Bate is taken prisoner by her myth even as he tries to rectify the distorted narratives of Plath biographers who put her first.
This sense of hesitation between analysis of the writing and emphasis on its biographical implications snags Bate’s scholarship at almost every crucial juncture. The lesson here is that no line, especially from an openly confessional poet, can be totally isolated from the life from which it sprung. Neither can it be analyzed only in terms of that life. The poet’s life and work are two branches derived from a single root, and Bate’s attempt to uncouple them only results in hindered growth.