on 20 January 2013
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.
on 31 July 2003
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.
on 13 July 2015
Janet Malcolm is a brilliant writer, and the first part of this book, in which she debates the difficulties and ethical problems of biography, is superb. I loved very much her discussion about suicide, which is both clever and sympathetic. However, from the second part onward this book becomes both strange and very unpleasant.
First off, I was never entirely clear what the book was aiming to do. It started out as an intellectual and moral discussion of biographical writing, turned into a spirited defense of Anne Stevenson, then veered off and finally petered out in a vague taking issue with anyone whose recollection of the Plath-Hughes marriage are unfavourable to Hughes. I don't personally subscribe to the theory that Hughes is a monster; but two women ostensibly committing suicide over him is a lot, and this Malcolm decidedly appears to want to ignore.
Why is a mystery. She makes an argument that the living deserve pity - but according to her, the dead deserve none. Sylvia Plath and to a smaller extent Assia Wevill haunt the pages like ghosts: they are unacknowledged and ignored. For her own reasons, Malcolm has decided to stand up for the Hugheses, and the only way she knows how is to discredit anyone who wrote against them. In this her venom becomes so bitter as to be almost ridiculous. Compare her treatment of two Plath biographers: Stevenson and Jacqueline Rose.
Stevenson, a contemporary and old schoolfriend of Malcolm, is accorded every sympathy, fussed and fawned over, all of her talents exalted while her weak admission that she let Olwyn Hughes bully her into writing a book she did not believe in is understandingly embraced, soothed, contextualised. Jacqueline Rose, whose fault is to have written a balanced, scholarly, coherent book which Malcolm cannot take apart (repeatedly she acknowledges that her only beef with the book is its un-Hughesian stance), gets the most spiteful treatment imaginable. After relating how Rose, as any reasonable writer should, escaped the Hugheses' intended attacks, Malcolm characterises her as having 'her fur sleek, a few feathers still around her mouth'. It is only petty of a woman who can so brilliantly argue for understanding to sink to this kind of spiteful writing.
Ultimately, Malcolm seems to use this book to work out a few traumas: the difficulty of writing, the passing of her generation, the split consciousness of the America she, Plath and Stevenson all grew up in, and which Plath so brilliantly and tragically embodied. But she did this through confused and ultimately petty means. All she managed to demonstrate is that a few bad books were written about Plath; but that the only book she could not take down a peg is one which disagrees with her own view of the poet makes one think whether the whole enterprise was not born out of a very private, and very hot, rage.
on 14 February 2006
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.
This is a fascinating and very necessary book, both about the art of biography and about the large number of myths that have grown up around the complex, talented and (by many accounts) sometimes delightful and sometimes difficult Sylvia Plath. When Anne Stevenson's excellent biography of Plath (see earlier review) met with a hostile reception (though NOT a universal one; the book had enthusiastic reviews from such great critics as Lorna Sage), Malcolm, who knew Stevenson slightly from college days, was fascinated by why this might be. In attempting to find out, she began to ask herself many questions about the difficulty of constructing a biography, what readers are looking for in one, and in particular about the controversy surrounding Plath and Ted Hughes and the predominantly unsatisfactory biographies of Plath that have come out as a result - part of the problem being that Hughes (understandably) refused to comment on his death wife at all apart from through 'Birthday Letters' and insisted everything went through his sister Olwyn, who hadn't got on with Plath and was furious at the hostile reaction to her brother following Plath's suicide and so was inevitably to some degree biased - while some of Sylvia's friends, such as Clarissa Roche and Elizabeth Compton Sigmund, skewed the story the other way, portraying Plath as a vulnerable saintly figure.
Malcolm has found some very interesting things out both about Plath and about those fascinated with her. I enjoyed her analyses of the different biographies, one of which (by Paul Alexander) seems to have departed from reality altogether at times - though I haven't read it so can't really comment - and of how Sylvia is a particularly difficult subject for a biographer, as she appeared so different depending on her mood and who she was with. Having been rather disturbed by some of the recent press about Ted Hughes and Plath particularly around the new Hughes biography, it was a relief to read an account that didn't depict Hughes as either over-sexed or a thug; indeed, Malcolm makes some very valid points, such as the fact that Sylvia's suicide and the reaction to it have seriously damaged the Hughes family's privacy. She presents a fairer picture of Olwyn Hughes - attacked savagely by the majority these days for the fact she didn't like her sister-in-law - than most, even though it's clear that she must have been mightily trying to Anne Stevenson. And - much though I admire her for her tireless work with drug addicts and for environmental causes - I think it is good that somebody casts a little doubt on the testimony of Elizabeth Compton Sigmund, who for 50 years has been only too happy to tell biographers, film makers and the press her side of the Plath/Hughes story (with much drama), painting Sylvia as the woman who could Do No Wrong and the Hughes family as villains. I'm sure Sylvia Plath could be a wonderful friend (oddly enough, that comes across in the Stevenson biography) and that Sigmund and she were close - but friends who depict their loved ones as wholly perfect are unreliable, and Sigmund's relaying of private conversations and remarks intended just for her to the media has made me uncomfortable - particularly her very unkind remarks about Olwyn Hughes. Malcolm is also rather witty about Clarissa Roche, another firm member of the anti-Hughes camp, who claims that Hughes was a latter-day haruspex. And she draws attention to some important contradictions in Plath's life, particularly over the period when Plath was torn between her American boyfriend Richard Sassoon and her growing attraction to Hughes. All in all this is a very useful meditation on the work of the biographer, and offers the Hughes family some much-needed sympathy, while not in any way damning Plath.
However, there were two things about the book that irritated me profoundly - Malcolm's bitchiness about just about everyone she interviewed (which a reviewer referred to memorably as working 'a la Lynne Barber') and the rather pompous language. The bitchiness made the book rather depressing (interestingly the main person who appeared to escape, for the most part, was Ted Hughes - who refused to be quoted and probably wasn't interviewed by Malcolm). Anne Stevenson is subtly mocked for forgetting to put the white sauce in the lasagna that she bakes Malcolm, and for her apologetic manner. A. Alvarez's quotes about why he didn't want a relationship with Sylvia (apparently size had something to do with it) and his scorn at Ted Hughes's anger at his memoir of Sylvia are quoted in a way that makes Alvarez seem decidedly conceited, and a bit smug. Jacqueline Rose is treated with a mixture of admiration and annoyance, including some very patronizing comments about her appearance. Olwyn, though treated kindly on occasion, is referred to as 'Cerberus' or 'the Sphinx' at other points. (Oddly, Malcolm is kinder to Sigmund and Roche - she seems to have preferred to let the reader decide about them from their quotes.) The most depressing chapter, at the end, is devoted to Plath's batty downstairs neighbour Trevor Thomas and his crumbling house - and it's a real damp squib to end on, as Malcolm relays eccentricity after eccentricity of Thomas's until I felt hit on the head. Even Plath herself doesn't escape, being described as a young woman as looking like a 'vacuous college girl with a smear of lipstick' (actually, she looks rather lovely in early photos, even if the smile is a bit too bright at times). It all leaves one - rather like I feel at the end of reading a Lynn Barber interview though Malcolm is much brighter - with a slightly nasty taste in the mouth.
The pomposity is - thank Heavens - only periodic, but this too annoyed me. Sometimes Malcolm seems to be reading way too much into things. For example, I thought that her statement that Stevenson agreed to write the Plath biography because 'she needed another husband' in Olwyn, even if she already had a good one, was ridiculous - might not Stevenson simply have relished the challenge of writing about a fellow poet, and being the first one to do the authorized biog? The final chapter, where Malcolm notes all the clutter in Trevor Thomas's flat, believes that she understands that he 'holds on to everything' for fear of losing everything, and concludes that it's an understandable position (no it's not if clutter gets out of control) and then likens it (surprise, surprise) to Borges's 'Aleph' story, seemed again as if she was reading Hidden Inner Meanings into things that weren't there. There were other - briefer - examples of pompous writing where I wished Malcolm would just tell her story in a more straightforward way, such as the meeting with Clarissa Roche, where she went off the subject for about ten pages and in the end told the reader very little about Clarissa at all.
So ultimately this was a book that irritated me and fascinated me in almost equal measure - but I still think it was an incredibly worthwhile read, and a book full of intelligent ideas. I wait to see if anyone will follow Stevenson in trying to produce - this time perhaps with less collaboration from Olwyn Hughes - a balanced, objective biography of Plath.
on 9 August 2010
This review ought to begin with one of the few, but main, criticisms I have of it: it's not a biography of Sylvia Plath or Ted Hughes. Now, it doesn't purport to be one in its outline, but the cover is misleading; it suggests a biography.
This book is a very well written piece of investigative journalism, which explores the difficulities and nature of biography as a genre, using Plath and Hughes as its framework to do so. It really is well crafted: exquisitely written but perfectly readable. 'The Silent Woman' is essentially a detective story, in which Janet Malcolm tracks down those who went before her in documenting their own realities of what became the controversial subject of Plath, Hughes, and their relationship. There is unique and fresh insight into the communication between parties involved, but very little in the way of new information on Plath or Hughes' lives - I would therefore not recommend it to anyone unfamiliar with the general story of Sylvia Plath as this book does assume prior knowledge of the reader.
The fact that this book is not a biography is most likely the result of its own findings: that Plath and Hughes' relationship is a puzzle that has never definately been solved, and there was more to be written here on the nature of the genre, rather than attempting yet another biography.
on 9 July 2013
Well what more can really be written about SP and TH? I thought this was interesting in that it examined the thoughts and possible motivations of those who have been influential in contributing towards the "information" in circulation about these two poets. I enjoyed Janet Malcolm's style of writing which made this a fast and smooth read.
on 25 January 2016
A very well written book, one of the few, of which Ted Hughes himself approved. I have the Kindle version, so always easily accessible for reference.
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.
on 23 February 2006
I was quite surprised when I read Janet Malcom's biography of Sylvia Plath, to read anything but a biography of Sylvia Plath. It was certainly a very elegant and very clever reflection about the art of the biographer. It was also, in a strange way, a short biography of some of Plath's other biographers. It was most of all the inside story of what it is to investigate the life of an author, the legal fights to be able to quote or not to quote what had been written about him or her. Malcom's has managed the weird tour de force (that she described in the metaphore of the cluttered house at the end of her book)to write 200 pages about Sylvia Plath without saying anything about her. We understand that Sylvia Plath was a silent woman, but her biographer is certainly a discreet one. If you want to know better who was the author of these poems and that novel that have intrigued you, better look somewhere else.