Book Review

The Silent Woman by Janet Malcolm

stunning essay on the ethics and impossibilities of biography

I bought The Silent Woman from a hip Brooklyn bookshop that had a shrine to Janet Malcolm on the main wall. At the till, the proprietor told me a gushing anecdote about the time Malcolm replied to an email he sent her. I liked his excitement.

I’d recently read The Journalist and the Murderer and – Malcolm being a New York-based writer – I thought this lovely Vintage edition of this 1994 book (adapted from a 1993 New Yorker article) would be an appropriate treat to buy myself. I was not disappointed.

Much like everyone who’s not boring and into poetry (we do exist), I’ve long held Sylvia Plath in high regard and her dull, conservative, one-time husband (and later Poet Laureate), Ted Hughes in contempt.

It is a matter of record that Hughes cheated on Plath and abandoned her with their children, and this was probably a factor in Plath’s psychological decline and subsequent suicide. Blame is irrefutably pointed at Hughes – the standard opinion (mine) goes – because of the later death of the woman he left Plath for, Assia Wevill, who – like Plath – gassed herself to death using an oven. Unlike Plath, though, she also killed the child she’d had with Hughes. Heavy stuff.

Suicide and gas and ovens and adultery and success and poetry and murder.

The lives and deaths of Hughes and Plath are famous and compelling for all the obvious reasons. Sex and death, innit: gossip and betrayal. The narrative that Plath was the innocent victim of an awful man is the one we know, compounded by that infamous gravestone and – now that he’s dead – the fact that no one who’s worth reading cares for Ted Hughes’ poetry. Maybe I’m wrong on Hughes: feel free to (in the comments) point me to a collection that’ll grip me.

Ted Hughes and his sister Olwyn did themselves no reputational favours by maintaining control of the Plath estate for as long as they did: though excerpts from letters and journals were published prior to the early nineties and select biographers were given access (and quotation rights) to the full archive, what was omitted – or what Hughes tried to have omitted – is often significant.

Janet Malcolm entered the Plath-Hughes fray officially: she was in regular, direct, communication with Olwyn and had full permission to quote whatever she wanted. The Silent Woman, though, isn’t a simple biography of Plath and Hughes, it is instead a beautiful, elaborate, neat, exploration of the couple’s appearances in memoir and biography, as well as the ethics and validity of biography itself. It’s fucking great.

Janet Malcolm is a similar age to what Plath would have been had she lived (and not subsequently died), as too is a writer called Anne Stevenson, who published a derided – but “authorised” – biography of Plath in 1989. It was this book, Bitter Fame, that dragged Malcolm into Plath studies: Stevenson was a couple of years ahead of Malcolm when she was at university, and Malcolm maintained that vague interest in her peers’ work that is quite natural to many of us.

Anne Stevenson wrote the first biography of Sylvia Plath that was approved by the Plath Estate, so of course Malcolm read it. And what she found opened up a long, detailed and literarily fruitful exploration of how death and fame affect legacy and how the content and context of a writer’s work give a false sense of personal connection to certain readers. Sylvia Plath was not “Sylvia Plath” until she died, though – by many accounts included here – she was on her way to becoming her.

What worried me when I started reading The Silent Woman was its technical out-of-dateness. Malcolm writes about how Hughes has never written about his relationship with Plath, because this book was written and published before Hughes’ 1998 masterpiece, Birthday Letters and also before the 2000 publication of Plath’s unexpurged Journals.

This out-of-dateness, though, doesn’t matter, because The Silent Woman isn’t about two people’s lives, it is about biography as form; it is about the compromises made between the biographer and the people alive to speak with; it is about rumour and mythologies and mythologising; it is about the ethics of writing about others and the way it is easy to slip into patterns of salaciousness because, to be blunt, salaciousness is fucking fun.

There are lots of bizarre old people described and interviewed (including a hilarious discussion of Plath’s downstairs neighbour who wrote about Hughes having a bongo drum-fuelled party on the night of Plath’s funeral in the flat where she died, which turned out to be complete fabrication and nearly got him sued), and Malcolm writes evocative descriptions as well as insightful analysis.

This is a triumph of a non-fiction book, of great value to people interested in ethics and life writing as much (maybe more) than those interested in Plath’s life and works.

I loved it. Definitely gonna read more Malcolm soon!


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