In an astonishing feat of literary detection, one of the most provocative critics of our time and the author of In the Freud Archives and The Purloined Clinic offers an elegantly reasoned meditation on the art of biography. In The Silent Woman, Janet Malcolm examines the biographies of Sylvia Plath to create a book not about Plath's life but about her afterlife: how her estranged husband, the poet Ted Hughes, as executor of her estate, tried to serve two masters--Plath's art and his own need for privacy; and how it fell to his sister, Olwyn Hughes, as literary agent for the estate, to protect him by limiting access to Plath's work. Even as Malcolm brings her skepticism to bear on the claims of biography to present the truth about a life, a portrait of Sylvia Plath emerges that gives us a sense of "knowing" this tragic poet in a way we have never known her before. And she dispels forever the innocence with which most of us have approached the reading of any biography.
The prevailing theory in my class about this one is that Ms. Malcolm was er... interested in Mr. Hughes.
However, in her defense, Malcolm does right away give the reader a clue that this book won't be a typical biography. Rather than start her book at the beginning of Plath's life, supplying the reader with historical details as to where and when Plath was born, Malcolm immediately kicks off the book by discussing Hughes's introduction to Plath's posthumous publications and launches from there into a discussion of the troubles in their marriage. Clearly this is going to be no ordinary biography, Malcolm seems to be saying.
The Silent Woman focuses a great deal on past biographies of Plath, with a particular interest in Bitter Fame, a biography written by Anne Stevenson, a former classmate of Malcolm's. Malcolm is at turns supportive and dismissive of this biography. Talking about it brings her to the topic of Olwyn Hughes, sister of Ted, and how much Ms. Hughes had a hand in dictating what could or could not be a part of that biography. A long section of the book includes a great number of details about Malcolm meeting with Stevenson on multiple occasions to discuss her experiences in writing Bitter Fame. I'm not sure that we learn very much about Plath through all this, although we do learn more about Ms. Hughes, Stevenson, and Malcolm herself.
As mentioned earlier, Malcolm is given often to contemplating on the art of biography writing. She rightly points out the problems inherent in writing a biography of a deceased person, reflecting on how much of what a biographer has to go on is hearsay from people in the deceased's social circle, who may or may not have known the subject well or may have vested interest in presenting themselves in a specific light. To that end, she is critical and wary of what some of Plath's friends have to say about her last days. She is more willing to entertain the idea of Plath as a less-than-perfect person with a great deal more problems that are let on by what she refers to as the "Plath myth" or the "Plath legend" (i.e., a sainted woman who is wronged by her husband, thus causing her to commit suicide). While she is more than likely right that Plath has become an idealized victim, Malcolm is almost too kind to the Hugheses. Again, she quite correctly points out how little the public can know of what truly happened in the marriage between Ted and Sylvia and how unfair it is for Hughes to be constantly vilified , but she seems to swing in the opposite direction of painting Ted Hughes as the saint and the victim. She is slightly less sympathetic in her portrayal of the controlling Olwyn Hughes, but she still seems to be willing to give a lot of benefit to Olwyn's unverified portraits of Plath as an aggressor.
Other parts of the book sidebar into critiques of Plath's poetry, occasionally using the poetry as a means to look at a specific event or person in Plath's life. Malcolm appears to suggest that Plath's poetry is inferior to Hughes's and that her shocking death launched her into a greater limelight than her work would have otherwise enjoyed, which seems a rather unknowable - and therefore quite unfair - thing to ponder.
Overall, I'm a bit perplexed by what to make of this book. Sure, I did come away knowing some more things about Plath - and the Hugheses - than I did before reading it. But I also learned far more about Plath's biographers and subjective opinions about her and her family than I gleaned actual facts. Perhaps that was Malcolm's end goal all along - to point out just how deceptive the art of biography writing is. This book did provide plenty of food for thought and did offer various alternative theories and ways of looking at things, although it ultimately failed to make me less "Team Sylvia" - if anything, for all Malcolm's attempts to paint the Hugheses in a better light, I walked away feeling less sympathetic towards them than before reading this book.
Sidenote: Malcolm falls slightly on the side of