Claas Kazzer: What is the Truth? Ted Hughes, Childhood, Memories and Stories (Part VI)

It doesn't seem too remote, to also link the "Rain Horse" storyline to an experience Ted had while doing his national service, which he wrote about in a letter to Edna. She recounts that he seemed to be very miserable for most of his time in the army, and on that day, "it seemed to be forever raining." He was

coming back at night from somewhere, and […] describes going across this field and hearing … thick fog and he can't see anything and he can hear the bulls' breath behind him. He walked quicker, so they walked quicker, and he ends up galloping towards the … and throwing himself over the fence![28]

But while this is an amusing anecdote one might recount to entertain a circle of friends or family members, it has none of the deeper human drama which Ted infused the published story "The Rain Horse" with. His audience here are not family or friends, but a wider anonymous readership who, I dare say, are less likely to care for a personal anecdote or relate to it.

As a final example of the transition between biography and fiction, let me return to the story "The Deadfall." Ted's manuscripts and notes give a good insight into the kind struggle that went into the telling of his autobiographical stories. In the foreword to Difficulties of a Bridegroom he states that "The Deadfall" was written in 1993, when he was asked for a contribution to a collection of ghost stories for children: "By chance, an early experience of my own filled the requirements, and I wrote it out, with a few adjustments to what I remember […]."[29] Simple and straightforward, it seems. But Ted's manuscripts tell a slightly different tale. The published version sets out announcing that it will tell the story how the first-person narrator came by a tiny carved ivory fox in one of the strangest incidents in his life. It then goes on, immediately recounting events of his mother seeing ghosts. In Ted's biography, these events happened when the family was living in Mexborough, and the story gives a hint or two to that location (such as St George's Church lying across the street). The next little sub-story is an account of how the narrator and his brother tried to raise the ghost of an 'Ancient Briton' in a strip of forest (Redacre Wood). It is only then, that Ted gets to the main story about a camping incident in Crimsworth Dene during which the narrator found the ivory fox.

The Archives at Emory hold a batch of typescript and manuscript pages of "The Deadfall," with some details of those "few adjustments." That batch makes clear that we should beware of reading entire stories as 'true' autobiographical narrative and careful when linking his first-person narrators to Ted. But the line between autobiography and fiction is very thin, blurry even.

The script begins with Ted telling that his mother often told them about the ghosts she had seen.[30]A later addition, scribbled in a gap, is almost identical to the text of the first paragraph of the published version.

In a second batch he seems to abandon that beginning and suddenly sets out to tell his father's strange story. Yet another page titles the story "My Father's Ghost, a story almost true." Here, Ted begins that his father claimed to have never seen a ghost. Ted then starts over again, changes "a ghost" into "a proper ghost," and continues that his father once saw a ghost of some kind. He tells us that his father spoke about how he saw dead men by the thousands in the Great War, that he lived with them for months[31] – but never a real ghost. He continues that his father nevertheless mentioned seeing a very strange thing which might have been a ghost. Asked by the boy what it was, he would never tell, until one day … Which is, it seems, the point where all previous versions would converge again – on the story about the camping event and the fox carving. But the draft breaks off here.

The manuscript goes on like this for several pages, beginning, breaking off, searching for connections, circling the thread, telling about music, which the father hears inside him, and that he told him how he first heard it. Then Ted comes back to the beginning about the ivory fox and writes that his father gave it to him and only years later told him how he got it. Then Ted goes on telling how the narrator's father and the father’s brother one evening pitched their tent in Crimsworth Dene, just like the narrator and his brother do in the published version of the story.

 

It doesn't matter much whether that "story almost true" really was an experience Ted's father had, or his mother's brothers, or whether Ted was trying to distance himself from a very personal story in the manuscript. He occasionally did, as when he 'hid' stories that he felt needed telling but were very personal, in full view, so to speak, by publishing them in children's books – like "Orpheus" or "A Solstice."

What matters most here, to me, is that the published first-person narrative of "The Deadfall" is a gripping story. It resounds with the intensity and authenticity of childhood experience. As it is, lifted out of the realm of personal anecdotes, it may connect with the desire of many child and adult readers for experiencing something special, something out of the ordinary in their personal lives, such as seeing ghosts, camping out in a forest at night or sharing an exciting tale.

After all, it was stories Ted wanted to get across, not autobiography, which right until the end of his life he was reluctant to share. As much as we may miss him in person, and as much as we may curiously hanker after knowing more of his personal life – he knew that a good story has the power to live on independently and, as it is, take on a life of its very own. After all, wasn't it Ted who said: "Trust the story, not the storyteller?" Or do I misremember?[32]

Notes:

[28] Edna Chilton from an interview with Edna and Joe Chilton, 2 August 2002.

[29] Ted Hughes, "Foreword," Difficulties of a Bridegroom (London: Faber and Faber 1995), ix.

[30] This and the following references are based on Ted Hughes, Box 111-16. "The Deadfall," MS. Ted Hughes papers, Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University.

[31] Incidentally, if this is a true account, it would mean that we should rethink William Hughes’ alleged silence about the war, which is often referred to in books; see also Olwyn’s mention of her asking her father to talk about the war, in the first part of this essay above.

[32] I would like to acknowledge the generous help of (in alphabetical order) Andrew Armitage, Edna and Joe Chilton, Donald Crossley, Olwyn Hughes, Lissa Paul, Frances and Geoff Robinson, Derek Robertshaw, without whom neither my research nor this article would not have been possible.

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About the Author

Claas Kazzer is a German independent scholar formerly associated with the University of Leipzig, Germany. He lives in Leipzig, where he works chiefly as translator and webworker.

His work on Ted Hughes includes "'Earth-Moon': Ted Hughes's Books For Children (And Adults)" (in Moulin (ed.) Ted Hughes: Alternative Horizons) and several essays published on this site. Website: www.claas-kazzer.de.

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