There's been a flurry of excitement at the news that Ted Hughes's widow, Carol, is to publish a memoir of their marriage.
For more than 40 years the self-contained Mrs Hughes, who was married to the poet for 28 years, has said nothing about her late husband. Her restraint until now has been admirable, given that the temptation to speak out during that period must at times have been severe. In the years after Sylvia Plath's suicide in 1963, followed in 1969 by that of Hughes's partner Assia Wevill, who took not only her own life but that of their young daughter, Hughes became a bogey, the extremist feminist lobby's Bluebeard. Decades after Plath's death, he was still accused by some from this hysterical persuasion of driving his wife to her grave.
One hopes that when, in 1998, the year of his death, Hughes's poignant poems to Plath, Birthday Letters, were published, those who formed this pitiless jury hung their heads in shame. These poems, and posthumously published letters, showed that far from being a hard-hearted monster, he was a loving husband for most of their time together. As he wrote, in anguish, shortly after Plath's death, "I was the one who could have helped her, and the only one that couldn't see that she really needed it this time. No doubt where the blame lies."
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Last year, Hughes's brother Gerald wrote an affectionate memoir of his brother, in which he too revealed the depth of Hughes's distress. Now, no doubt, Mrs Hughes will illuminate more of what he endured and how he survived. For his admirers, it's cheering to have confirmation that, as his never faltering literary brilliance suggested, he may have been bloodied, but he was not broken. According to Mrs Hughes, despite everything, he had "a very happy and full life".
The question of reputation is of fundamental importance to everyone, whatever their status or job. From time immemorial, courts have been filled with people seeking redress for damage done to their good name, since a slur on one's reputation can have dire consequences, both financial and emotional. Even when proved innocent, a question mark still often hangs over the heads of the accused. Thus, in some quarters, Hughes will forever be considered guilty. No revelations of remorse, no testimonies to his suffering, will remove the stain on his honour. One wonders if these denouncers ever now read his poems, or how they feel when they do. Does their revulsion for the man blind them to his talent?
I suspect it does, to a degree at least. Much as any of us likes to think we can be dispassionate, that we're mature enough to separate the work from its author, be it music or art or books, in reality it is exceedingly hard to do so. For me at least, art is best appreciated when it comes without too much interference between the creator's imagination and one's reception of it. It's not that one prefers to know nothing about an artist, but that certain facts can lodge like a fishbone in your throat, making their work hard to swallow, regardless of how superb.
Imagine, for instance, if your favourite author or musician was convicted as a paedophile. Would it be possible to read their books or listen to their albums in the same way again? Would you even want to? And if you did, you can be fairly sure that gradually they would be harder to track down. As recent history shows, all mention of those deemed socially distasteful seems suddenly to be expunged from the airwaves, the shelves and the e-libraries, much as the Soviets renamed cities and streets according to who was in favour and who had been ousted from power and – they hoped – memory.
In the case of Hughes, most readers never thought he was guilty of anything beyond ill-fortune. So when Carol Hughes's memoir comes out, most of us will be eager to read it, not as exculpation or justification, but because he was one of the 20th century's finest, and most fascinating, poets.