Review by David Starkey
Janet Malcolm, who died on June 16, 2021, typically referred to herself as a journalist. While that’s certainly an honorable occupation—and working for The New Yorker,she often kept up a journalist’s pace of publication—what she she’s been writing since her first book, 1980’s Diana and Nikon: Essays on the Aesthetics of Photography, can more properly be called creative nonfiction. In that field, she was one of the greatest authors of the last forty years. Psychology, art, literature and crime were all favorite subjects of Malcolm’s, and she investigated them to get at something close to the ever-shifting “truth.” I admit to being somewhat disappointed with her most recent collection of essays, Nobody’s Looking at You, but mostly her writing was nothing short of riveting.
It is as a journalist that Malcolm presents herself to her readers and the interested parties in her 1994 book The Silent Woman: Sylvia & Ted. As its title suggests, the book is Malcolm’s attempt to make sense of the complex relationship between Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. The title comes from an anecdote by Hughes’s sister, Olwyn, about a Christmas visit Sylvia and Ted made to the Hughes family home in 1960. Olwyn subtly insulted Sylvia, and rather than engaging in a verbal argument, Plath gave Olwyn the evil eye, refused to speak, and insisted that she and Ted leave at dawn the following morning.
That anecdote comes from Anne Stevenson’s 1989 biography Bitter Fame, the book that is at the heart of Malcolm’s story. Bitter Fame was the first biography published with the cooperation of the Plath Estate, of which Olwyn was the literary executor and overall gatekeeper. Initially, the partnership between Olwyn and Stevenson was a fruitful one, evidently cemented by their mutual antipathy towards Plath. However, after reading Plath’s personal writing in the archive at Smith College, Stevenson became more sympathetic to her subject, a fact that infuriated Olwyn and Ted. Stevenson began resisting Olwyn’s edits, although they continued to play a part in a book that everyone involved apparently wished had never been published (Stevenson said she couldn’t back out of her contract because she was unable to repay the advance). Reaction against the biography, led by Plath’s editor and sort-of-friend A. Alvarez, was swift.
Malcolm is at times critical of the pugnacious Olwyn and the selectively-sensitive Ted, and she certainly finds much to admire in Plath’s poetry, particularly her final, posthumous collection, Ariel. Indeed, initially, it’s hard to tell which way she is going to swing with her sympathies, but the many instances of Plath’s erratic and difficult behavior clearly put Malcolm off. She is also swayed by her sympathy for Stevenson, who was a year ahead of Malcolm at the University of Michigan. Ironically, despite the backlash from Plath’s supporters, Stevenson, who was herself an accomplished poet, almost sounds like her subject when she tells Malcolm: “To be an artist, you have to grant a certain authority to yourself. The critical world wants to deprive you of this authority. A lot of critics—perhaps because they’re failed artists themselves—love nothing so much as shooting down writers who are authentic artists.” Finally, Malcolm can’t get past the fact that as she was writing her book, the very much alive Ted Hughes was treated by Plath’s readers and sympathizers not only as a villain, but also as someone who was essentially already dead.
Malcolm’s experience writing about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes leads her to believe that writing a truly accurate biography is all but impossible. And even if such a biography could be written, Malcolm wonders if anyone would want to read it. Most people, she believes think “a biographer ought not to introduce doubts about the biographical enterprise. The biography-loving public does not want to hear that biography is a flawed genre.” Instead, these readers believe that the “biographer’s business, like the journalist’s, is to satisfy the reader’s curiosity, not to place limits on it. He is supposed to go out and bring back the goods—the malevolent secrets that have been quietly burning in archives and libraries and in the minds of contemporaries who have been biding their time, waiting for the biographer’s knock on their doors.”
My recent reading of the book took a strange yet weirdly appropriate turn when my wife saw me with The Silent Woman and recalled reading that very same copy from the library. Apparently, I had brought it home several years earlier, and after she finished it, I returned the book without reading it myself. My wife’s central memory of the book was how unappealing Olwyn and Ted were, and she recalled penciled marginalia that had agreed with her interpretation. “I’ve been erasing those pencil marks,” I said. “They’re the opposite of what Malcolm is actually saying.” My wife was upset. “Don’t do that,” she said. “Can’t you see you’re being just liked Ted Hughes—destroying his wife’s journals, refusing to let a woman have her say.” I promised that I would refrain from any further erasures, but then, late in the book, I arrived at a passage that described “Plath’s white fury on discovering that five books she had lent [her friend Jane] Kopp had been returned with Kopp’s penciled marks added to Plath’s inked underlinings.” Writing later to her mother, Plath said, “‘I was furious, feeling my children had been raped, or beaten, by an alien.’”
Malcolm’s takeaway from that incident is that “Biography can be likened to a book that has been scribbled on by an alien. After we die, our story passes into the hands of strangers. The biographer feels himself to be not a borrower but a new owner, who can mark and underline as he please.” She continues: “Writers on Plath have felt (consciously or unconsciously) something of the same sense of permission, as if they had been given the right to act boldly, even wildly, where ordinarily they would be cautious and tread delicately.” On the facing page of my library book, the anonymous annotator had written, “Both Hughes’s [sic] are monsters & insane.” That seemed to be hyperbole, considering all we had just read. And wouldn’t Sylvia herself at least agree with me about marking in someone else’s book? However, in deference to my wife, and the imperfect art of biography, I let the comment stand.