At age 30, the poet Sylvia Plath committed suicide, leaving behind two children, a husband from whom she’d separated, and a body of work that he would be left to guard, along with both their reputations. Plath’s husband, the poet Ted Hughes, has been criticized by many for his treatment of Plath during her life and his treatment of her legacy in the years since. Today, Plath and Hughes are today known as much for the controversy as for their work, even though some would say they were two of the greatest poets of their generation. (I would not call either of them my favorite poets, although I went through a Plath stage as a teenager, as so many teenage girls do. I’ve read too little of either of their poetry as an adult to form a strong opinion—although what I’ve read has been arresting, and I can see why their work is so highly regarded.)
Janet Malcolm first became interested in the controversy when she read the 1989 biography of Plath titled Bitter Fame, which she read not out of an interest in Plath but because she was interested in the biographer, a former schoolmate named Anne Stevenson. This biography was attacked for being “propaganda” that served the wishes of the Hughes family, especially Olwyn Hughes, Ted’s sister, who was then in charge of Plath’s literary estate. This obviously biased biography could not be telling the whole truth.
But is there a single, whole truth to tell? That’s the question that undergirds The Silent Woman, Malcolm’s book about the Plath legacy.
The book is structured as a sort of memoir of Malcolm’s own journey as she attempted to uncover the truth of Plath’s story. She meets with most of Plath’s biographers, reads Plath’s own words in her journals and letters, reads letters and journals of those close to Plath, and discusses Plath and her biographies with Olwyn Hughes herself. (Ted Hughes was still alive when Malcolm was writing, but she did not meet him.) Malcolm admits that by the end of her research she is on the side of the Hugheses, but I don’t get the impression that she’s pro-Hughes and anti-Plath. It seems, instead, that she understands why the Hughes family might want to hold back some information instead of ceding their whole story to the biographers whom Malcolm compares to burglars rifling through drawers looking for treasures to take away and show to the voyeuristic public. To both biographers and the public, Plath is frozen in time, and by association, so is Hughes:
But a person who dies at thirty in the middle of a messy separation remains forever fixed in the mess. To the readers of her poetry and her biography, Sylvia Plath will always be young and in a rage over Hughes’s unfaithfulness. She will never reach the age when the tumults of young adulthood can be looked back upon with rueful sympathy and without anger and vengefulness. Ted Hughes has reached this age—he reached it some time ago—but he has been cheated of the peace that age brings by the posthumous fame of Plath and by the public’s fascination with the story of her life. Since he was part of that life—the most interesting figure in it during its final six years—he, too, remains fixed in the chaos and confusion of its final period. Like Prometheus, whose ravaged liver was daily reconstituted so it could be daily reravaged, Hughes has had to watch his young self being picked over by biographers, scholars, critics, article writers, and newspaper journalists.
The writers who pick over their story are looking for the truth, but in Malcolm’s hands they become part of a sort of case study in the near impossibility of truth in biography–or in any nonfiction. Malcolm writes:
In a work of nonfiction we almost never know the truth of what happened. The ideal of unmediated reporting is regularly achieved only in fiction, where the writer faithfully reports on what is going on in his imagination. When James reports in The Golden Bowl that the Prince and Charlotte are sleeping together, we have no reason to doubt him or to wonder whether Maggie is “overreacting” to what she sees. James’s is a true report. The facts of imaginative literature are as hard as the stone that Dr. Johnson kicked. We must always take the novelist’s and the playwright’s and the poet’s word, just as we are almost always free to doubt the biographer’s or the autobiographer’s or the historian’s or the journalist’s. In imaginative literature we are constrained from considering alternative scenarios—there are none. This is the way it is. Only in nonfiction does the question of what happened and how people thought and felt remain open.
Leaving aside the question of how Malcolm’s statements might apply to works of imaginative fiction with unreliable narrators—or in which the author intentionally leaves facts open to interpretation, it’s fascinating to consider that in some respects fiction could be more true than nonfiction. Once I thought about it, it makes sense. Fiction is part of a closed world, all in the author’s mind, and even if the author deliberately leaves options open, that openness is part of the author’s created world. With nonfiction, there really is a truth that happened, but there are so many mediators between that truth and the reading audience, each interpreting the facts differently or choosing which facts to reveal, with some having a stake in how the story is presented and understood. How can one be sure of the truth?
Malcolm compares the truth of a life to a disorderly house belonging to someone who never throws things away. It is “unmediated actuality, in all its multiplicity, randomness, inconsistency, redundancy, authenticity.” The job of a biographer is to bring in garbage bags and clear out what isn’t needed so the important things will be visible. But there’s a risk in throwing out too much, or throwing out and leaving in the wrong things. That’s the challenge any biographer faces; it’s no surprise, then, that the end result is often surrounded in controversy.
As someone only moderately interested in Plath and Hughes, but very interested in reading and writing, I found this immensely rewarding. Malcolm raises so many good questions about the reading and writing of biographies. She doesn’t answer them, but I suppose the fact that she continues to write is a sort of answer. She must see some value in it. The pursuit of truth through nonfiction may be futile (and I’m not convinced it always is), but seeing the complexity of a story has rewards, even if we’re never able to do much more than speculate about what really happened.