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Silent Woman Paperback – 4 Aug 1995

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Product details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage Books; Reprint edition (4 Aug. 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679751408
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679751403
  • Product Dimensions: 13.3 x 1.5 x 20.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,237,165 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

Sylvia Plath committed suicide in February 1963, and since then her poetry, fiction, and, increasingly, her life, have maintained enormous power over readers' imaginations. Biographies continue to appear with regularity, despite the strong hold the Plath estate has on her work. But because of that hold, each biographer has been forced to accommodate the living (Ted Hughes, who was separated from Plath at the time of her death, and his larger-than-life sister, Olwyn, long the executrix), often at the expense of the dead. In 1989, Anne Stevenson's peculiar hybrid, Bitter Fame, was published, complete with an appendix full of devastating memoirs. It was not your average biography. When Janet Malcolm was first sent the book, she was less drawn to it by the Plath legend than by the fact that she had known Stevenson in the 50s, but she soon became captivated by the book's defeatist subtext. The dead woman's voice and writings seemed to overwhelm Stevenson's tentative narrative; and if that wasn't enough, there was also the none-too-angelic choir of those who had known Plath. "These too, said: "Don't listen to Anne Stevenson. She didn't know Sylvia. I knew Sylvia. Let me tell you about her. Read my correspondence with her. Read my memoir."

Bitter Fame was soon garnering some powerfully bad notices, especially that of A. Alvarez in the New York Review of Books. Alvarez, the author of one of the most influential pieces on Plath, in his study of suicide, The Savage God, had some special, personal cards to deal, as have so many others Plath left behind. Because Malcolm's great theme is treachery--that of the interviewer, the journalist, the teller of just about any tale--the Plath mess seemed a perfect fit, and she decided to become a player, too. In 1991, Malcolm was having lunch with Olwyn Hughes in North London, 28 years to the day on which the poet died.

This is only one of the coincidences in The Silent Woman, a postmodern biography par excellence, which is less about the drama of Plath's life and still controversial death than about their continuing effect on the living. For Malcolm, all cards are wild, each one revealing more complexity, human cravenness, and, above all, brilliantly playful aperçus about human agency and writing's deceptions. I look forward to the dictionary of quotations that foregrounds the elegant "The pleasure of hearing ill of the dead is not a negligible one, but it pales before the pleasure of hearing ill of the living." And then there's: "Memory is notoriously unreliable; when it is intertwined with ill will, it may be monstrously unreliable. The "good" biographer is supposed to be able to discriminate among the testimonies of witnesses and have his antennae out for tendentious distortions, misrememberings and outright lies. It's clear that Malcolm doesn't see herself as a "good" biographer-- she openly declares her allegiance, but is more than capable of changing it and of showing her cards. Or is she? In the end, The Silent Woman, is a stunning inquiry into the possibility of ever really knowing anything save that "the game continues." --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.


‘In this stunning polemic, Malcolm shows that it is not always the subject of a biography who is invaded’ -- The Glasgow Herald --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 31 July 2003
Format: Paperback
Much has been written about the life of Sylvia Plath, to such an extent that her life has become a mixture of poetry, speculation and anecdotal evidence. This book takes the 'saga' of Hughes and Plath as an illustration of the difficulties behind writing a biography. It explores both sides of the argument, from the demonising of Ted Hughes by Plath's friends and fans to the loyal defence the Plath estate (at the time of writing, under the control of Hughes' sister) and especially Ted Hughes. Highly readable as a biography of the genre of biography. Malcom writes sympathetically of the subject, and remembers that in the end, Plath's death was a tragic event that Hughes and their two children suffered. This book is a lighthouse of logical and sensible writing amongst what can sometimes be a struggle to cannonise Plath against the backdrop of her evil 'seducer' and destroyer.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By R. Burdon on 20 Jan. 2013
Format: Hardcover
This is a fascinating and illuminating book, which I first read several years ago in conjunction with Anne Stevenson's revisionist, wholly convincing and corrective biography of Plath, Bitter Fame. In response to some crude misreadings and glaring misrepresentations of Janet Malcolm's book by other reviewers here, two points need emphasising to would-be readers. Firstly, any attentive reading of the book makes it abundantly clear that Malcolm is most certainly not, as has been suggested, anti-Hughes. Secondly, this is not intended to be a biography; rather it is a brilliant and sly meditation upon the pitfalls of arriving at objective biographical "truth". The author's psychologically deft survey of historical texts about the Plath-Hughes story, and her playful unravelling of the nature of partisan opinions from both sides of the divide, yields some very subtle and thought provoking perspectives towards a greater understanding.
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Sandra on 14 Feb. 2006
Format: Paperback
I read this book in two days, it is so absorbing I could hardly put it down. If, like me, you have not read other biographies on SP it is an excellent introduction, combining an informal "gossipy" familiarity with the main characters with beautifully descriptive prose. I am now about to embark on reading some of the other works she describes, she has so enthused me with her subject that I now feel I almost "know" some of these people. A brilliant read.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Roman Clodia TOP 100 REVIEWER on 15 Dec. 2014
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This isn’t a biography of Sylvia Plath but an intelligent probing into the biographical industry that has sprung up around Plath, and the struggles for ownership of the various legends which surround the Plath-Hughes marriage.

From the publishing of Plath’s ‘Letters Home’ by her mother, to Hughes’ controversial editing and destruction of her last journals, and the various memoirs, essays and biographies that have been written from both sides of what has sometimes been constructed as a Plath-Hughes divide, Frame meditates not just on the art of biography but on the impossibility of ever reaching a stable and fixed ‘truth’.

Confessing herself sympathetic to the Hughes, Frame is equally fascinated by Anne Stevenson whose Bitter Fame was broadly castigated when it appeared. She travels to meet many of the writers on Plath to understand their role in the continuous re-forging of the Plath legacy, and throws light on the art of biography itself.

For anyone fascinated by Plath’s life and poetry, or the concept of biography more generally, this is an elegant and absorbing read.
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By Kate Hopkins TOP 1000 REVIEWER on 9 April 2014
Format: Paperback
Janet Malcolm's well-written and fascinating little book is not so much a biography of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes as a thoughtful and often witty meditation on why Plath has proved both a compelling and well-nigh impossible subject for her biographers. Malcolm focuses particularly on the mixed reception of the one really serious biography of Plath to emerge (in contrast to the sensationalist efforts by Paul Alexander, Edward Butscher and Ronald Hayman and the short, slightly bland one by Linda Wagner-Martin), Anne Stevenson's 'Bitter Fame'. Why did the book cause such controversy? Which of the people interviewed in the book were reliable? Why didn't Hughes get involved? Why did Al Alvarez turn so violently against Stevenson? In tracing the genesis of the biography, Malcolm also provides fascinating information on Sylvia's friends, lovers and fallings-out. And her account of what it might have been like for Anne Stevenson to write the biography of Plath, and why it was so gruelling, is certainly worth reading. Occasionally I found Malcolm's tone a little pretentious. I don't see that the fact that Stevenson agreed to co-operate with Olwyn Hughes (who comes across as a decidedly odd if rather appealingly feisty woman) meant that she 'wanted another man in her life' - she simply had to co-operate with Olwyn if she wanted to write an authorised biography. Some of the later remarks about Stevenson, as when Malcolm compares her feelings about a spoiled lasagna to how she felt about her 'spoiled' biography, come across as decidedly melodramatic.Read more ›
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