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The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

by Janet Malcolm

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425642,797 (3.92)16
Re-issue of Malcolm's revelatory biography of the tumultous union of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, and the critical battle that dogs their legacies.



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Reviewing this book is going to be a tad difficult and not just because it's been quite a few months since I finished reading it. For starters, I was expecting a more or less straightforward biography of Sylvia Plath, perhaps one focusing on the years of her marriage to Ted Hughes given the book's subtitle. So imagine my surprise when I found a book that is anything but that. The Silent Woman is part literary criticism, part musing on the role of the biographer, and part a defense of past biographers as well as supportive look at Ted Hughes and others. That being said, it's hard to judge a book as a biography when it's not really that at all.

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. ( )
  sweetiegherkin | May 20, 2016 |
This is another book that I associate with a particular moment in my life. I read it all in one night, I think, in my dorm room.

The prevailing theory in my class about this one is that Ms. Malcolm was er... interested in Mr. Hughes. ( )
  tercat | Feb 6, 2014 |
I'm a big fan of feminism that can look back on itself and be critical. Malcolm shows that Plath wasn't the faultless victim she was made out to be (because who wants a real person when you can have a symbol?). And Hughes is equally complicated.

Sidenote: Malcolm falls slightly on the side of saying that Plath's Holocaust allusions are problematic. And although I think that's true, listen to her reading of Daddy and Lazy Lazarus. It's so creepy and effective. ( )
  kgib | Mar 31, 2013 |
I remember the excerpt of this book that was in the New Yorker, and I preferred that shorter piece to this memoir about the difficulties of writing biography. ( )
  rkreish | Mar 31, 2013 |
Read it if…
…You’re a fan of Malcolm, Hughes, or Plath, and have read any of their work and/or biographies of any of them. Also, if you enjoy biographies and want to know more about how they’re put together, you might want to check it out.

  savethegreyhounds | Nov 10, 2009 |
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Ted Hughes wrote two versions of his foreword to 'The Journals of Sylvia Plath', a selection of diary entries covering the years between 1950 and 1962.
The biographer at work, indeed, is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewelry and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away. The voyeurism and busybodyism that impel writers and readers of biography alike are obscured by the apparatus of scholarship designed to give the enterprise an appearance of banklike blandless and solidity. The biographer is portrayed almost as a kind of benefactor. He is seen as sacrificing years of his life to his task, tirelessly sitting in archives and libraries and patiently conducting interviews with witnesses. There is no length he will not go to, and the more his book reflects his industry the more the reader believes that he is having an elevating literary experience, rather than simply listening to backstairs gossip and reading other people's mail. The transgressive nature of biography is rarely acknowledged, but it is the only explanation for biography's status as a popular genre. The reader's amazing tolerance (which he would extend to no novel written half as badly as most biographies) makes sense only when seen as a kind of collusion between him and the biographer in an excitedly forbidden undertaking: tiptoeing down the corridor together, to stand in front of the bedroom door and try to peep through the keyhole.
Letters are the great fixative of experience. Time erodes feeling. Time creates indifference. Letters prove to us that we once cared. They are the fossils of feeling. This is why biographers prize them so: they are biography's only conduit to unmediated experience. Everything else the biographer touches is stale, hashed over, told and retold, dubious, unathentic, suspect. Only when he reads a subject's letters does the biographer feel he has come fully into his presence, only when he quotes from the letters does he share with his readers his sense of life retrieved. And he shares something else: the feeling of transgression that comes from reading letters not meant for one's eyes. He allowa the reader to be a voyeur with him, to eavesdrop with him, to rifle desk drawers, to take what doesn't belong to him. The feeling is not entirely pleasurable. The act of snooping carries with it a certain discomfort and unease: one would not like to have this happen to oneself. When we are dead, we want to be remembered on our own terms, not on those of someone who has our most intimate, unconsidered, embarrassing letters in hand and proposes to read out loud from them to the world.
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Re-issue of Malcolm's revelatory biography of the tumultous union of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, and the critical battle that dogs their legacies.

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