Thursday, October 07, 2004

the silent woman | a review of Janet Malcolm's study of Plath biograpy

The Silent Woman Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes - by Janet Malcolm
review by Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti

I’m not sure what Janet Malcolm was after when she wrote the silent woman. The back-ad copy says that this is a “feat of literary detection” and that in The Silent Woman, Janet Malcolm examines the biographies of Sylvia Plath to create a book about Plath’s afterlife.

Malcolm succeeds in giving us a very, very thorough retelling of the various biographies, with a special focus on Anne Stevenson whom she portrays as a rather weak writer and victimized by Plath executor Olwyn Hughes (Ted Hughes, Plath’s husband’s sister). Olwyn, as anyone who knows about Plath knows, never was one to mince words and she is fierce in her protection of the image of Plath that she will allow the public to see. As long as Olwyn is alive, there will be biographies that are authorized that read like Anne Stevenson’s Bitter Fame – which is to say, expected, the usual high points and low points, the same tired stories we have heard time and time again.

Malcolm focuses a lot on the Myth of Plath, which is the myth that Plath herself created in her lifetime, that of the brilliant but tortured victim of Ted Hughes. Of course, there was also a great love between Plath and Hughes (what else could make such high animosity possible between the two), but when Hughes left for the infamous Assia Weevil, who admittedly had “set out” to “bag” him as she told a girlfriend, the Plath – Hughes marriage fell to pieces and Sylvia fell with it.

That Sylvia was a victim, if one can still use the word and not be pounced on for being politically incorrect, then certainly she was a victim of infidelity and betrayal in the first order. Hughes had lied about other women in the past and Sylvia had stood by him, sending out his work and playing a sort of Zelda to his F. Scott, putting her husband’s career and fame ahead of her own very palpable talent. That Sylvia did this willingly one does not question. But it would seem that the deal was not without its conditions, as would be expected or anticipated. Nothing is free, and even in the best of marriages, when we give, we expect some modicum of respect in return. Perhaps not an actual deed or tit-for-tat, but certainly to be treated rightly and respectfully. So after years of putting her husband first, Sylvia soon finds that he too has put himself first, tossing her by the wayside in favor of Assia, who was dark to Sylvia’s light (in terms of looks) and, at the time, seemed in terms of character, light to Sylvia’s dark.

Surely Assia seemed a lighter, more secure person, and perhaps Ted was tired of being not trusted, though in fairness, one clearly sees that Plath had many good reasons not to trust Hughes. Still, one cannot deny that Sylvia did go about creating her own myth. Why she did this, is unclear. The facts and the real story were clearly on her side for the most part. Yes, we know she could be difficult to a large degree and moody as hell, but how does that make her different from anybody else? Everyone has their moment of stadium self pity and difficulty and stickiness. We all have those hot button issues. Malcolm’s view of Sylvia doesn’t allow for such human qualities. The book reads as if we are to have expected Sylvia to take her fate willingly, to simply carry on after Ted’s betrayal and not talk to friends. I have to ask myself, isn’t it completely understandable that Assia and the topic of betrayal would be prominent in Sylvia’s life at the time? What else would she be talking to her friends about in the weeks or even months before she died. Like anyone, she was talking of her life as it was, and feeling and worse, living, all of the desperation and heartache. This does not make Sylvia mythical; it makes her human.

If Plath is a myth, and she is, while she had some hand in that by the things she wrote, and mostly by writing about them in a way that was both cutting and yet still removed – a real talent for someone so entrenched in her situation and her own mind. Yet Plath’s later work, the last book Ariel, reads with a kind of icy precision that is enough to set goose bumps running on the most jaded of readers. Her images seem to predict her own suicide. “Edge” could have been written almost after she died, it is so accurate a picture of what Plath had done, with “the Pitcher of milk now empty” and the “Body wears the smile of accomplishment, The illusion of a Greek necessity.” It’s too good almost; it’s highly likely that Plath had already planned her suicide when she wrote the poem Edge.

Malcolm doesn’t get into the Myth perhaps as much as she would like to or certainly, lay claim to. Her focus is more on the biographers themselves, tracking then down and following the routes they took to the same sources to hear the stories that they heard. Malcolm also meets with Olwyn Hughes and corresponds with her several times and appears quite chummy about the whole thing, which makes me think that she isn’t getting to the root of any story either. She can piss all over Anne Stevenson if it makes her feel better, but at the end of the day, as long as Malcolm too is looking to Olwyn Hughes for some comment, she is not going to get the full story either. Malcolm states that the “transgressive nature of biography is rarely acknowledged,” and she is right. When we right a biography, particularly about he dead, we are transgressing and turning over stones and kicking up traces that perhaps would be better left unturned, or at least, that perhaps our subject (or victim, as the case may be) would rather be left alone.

In the final account, this is a book about the making of a biography – and while the focus is on Plath – and Plath biographies that have come before, it could be a book about the making of any biography and the necessities that are involved. The unreliable sources, the wishes of the estate, the permissions denied and given. It’s an interesting topic and is very much a piece would expect to find in the late Fred Karl’s series (that I have written for as well) Biography and Source Studies – a series entirely devoted to the art and making of biography and what it means to be a biographer (an interesting series for anyone interested in the subject; books are available by volume on and elsewhere. The most recent is Biography and Source Studies; Volume 5, editor Fred Karl). The focus here is largely on Anne Stevenson’s book, and from the start, it is dismissed as she notes, “when Anne Stevenson’s biography arrived, it looked like damaged goods. The wrapping was coming undone, the label looked funny, there was no piece of cotton at the top of the bottle” and even comments on the “suspicious Author’s Note on the opening page” which says that “in the writing of this biography I have received a great deal of help from Olwyn Hughes.” The statement goes on to say that Olwyn’s help had almost made the book a work of “dual authorship.”

Malcolm says she first read Bitter Fame in 1989 and was “unaware” of the “charged situation” surrounding it.” and that Anne Stevenson was in the graduating class ahead of her at the University of Michigan in the 1950s. It is this little fact on page 13 of the book, that open Chapter Two, that is telling. For the rest of the book after that statement, Anne Stevenson will be dragged around behind Janet Malcolm like a rag doll that belongs to a petulant and snotty child; dragged to such an extent that one begins to empathize not with Malcolm or see her point, even the valid ones, but with Stevenson. Even I had problems or issues with Stevenson’s book and yes, it was controversial but at least it was a book about Plath, which is a lot more than I could ever say about Janet Malcolm’s book The Silent Woman.

This is no more a book about Plath than is Catcher in the Rye or some other title. It is a book about a personal rivalry, it seems, that uses Plath as the hook on which to hang the rest. There are a few interesting details here and there that relate to Plath, but nothing knew and certainly, not very much that can’t be found in other books that are true biographies and not a study of biography as this claims to be. This is not a study of biography; it is a sort of biography about an entirely different subject than it lays claim to and that is the author’s relationship to Anne Stevenson and her book Bitter Fame and the relationship of Olwyn Hughes to the two of them, who frankly, comes off as having a bit of fun herself, playing these two against each other as if they were her pawns.

Forget about The Silent Woman. It maybe useful if you are writing a book or paper on Plath just to see the amount of emotion that even dead, Plath is still able to evoke and the controversy that will always surround her and any book about her or her now late husband Ted Hughes. With Assia dead (she too committed suicide, killing her daughter by Hughes with her shortly after Sylvia had committed suicide), Sylvia, and now Ted Hughes just a relatively short while ago (and naturally, one should add, not by his own hand), writers are vying t dredge up the last stories of anyone involved in the Plath Hughes marriage. Even minor acquaintances are now used and referred to as “trusted sources” when they were no more than fast friends or social friends. You know the type, you have them yourself. Would they be right in telling the story of your life? I doubt it.

Go back to the source as I did and read Ariel and then read Ariel’s Gift by Erica Wagner. That is a book worth reading and gets to the core of who Plath really was, not who Anne Stevenson was.

Saturday, October 02, 2004


return to plath-hughes project.