I started Janet Malcolm’s book The Silent Woman in the belief that it was a biography of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. I’ve never read much Plath — just the most-anthologized poems — and even less Hughes, and I only know the barest outline of what happened in that fraught relationship, so I was ready to learn. I was surprised and extremely pleased to find out that The Silent Woman has elements of biography — I did actually learn some things about the lives and work of Plath and Hughes — but it is actually a book about biography itself. Malcolm spends most of the book examining the rights of the dead and the living, the experience of the biographer, the relationships that form when someone is writing a biography, and the demands the reader makes on the biographer and on the subject of the biography. It’s a complex work: let me think about it a little here.
One of the things that makes the relationship between Plath and Hughes so suitable for a book like this is that one person in the relationship is dead and one is alive (or was at the time.) In our way of looking at things, dead people have no right to privacy. We can find out whatever we like about them, say whatever we please. But live people do have rights (and Ted Hughes had been fiercely defending his rights for a long time.) What is the balance? What happens when saying something about a dead person hurts the living? Malcolm puts it this way (beautifully):
What Hughes is protesting is being treated as if he were dead. The issue between the Hugheses and the public hostile to them is whether or not the Hugheses are dead. They have compromised their claim to being alive by their financial gains from the dead poet’s literary remains. They have eaten the pomegranate seeds that tie them to the underworld.
Malcolm goes on to say that Plath’s advocates want to restore her the rights she lost when she died: they want to uncensor her journals and letters, they want to take away Ted Hughes’s power over her literary estate. But (says Malcolm)
by so doing, by restoring Plath to the status of the living, they simply achieve a substitution: they send the Hugheses and Mrs. Plath down to take Plath’s place among the rightless dead.
Malcolm also discusses at length the tangled relationships that form between a biographer and her subjects — living or dead. Anne Stevenson’s biography Bitter Fame was generally panned for being under Olwyn Hughes’s control, but as The Silent Woman unfolds, Malcolm lets us see Olwyn’s “spider’s invitation” and how Stevenson (eventually — after years of information and communication) broke free. She points out that readers expect that alliance with the concept that the dead have no rights, and any softening there — any notion that the living might be protected, that a quotation might be removed if it’s damaging or hurtful or unflattering — is anathema. Is that right? Is it necessary? Why?
As the book goes on, we can also see that Malcolm herself takes sides. She is on Anne Stevenson’s side, for one thing. For another, she romanticizes Ted Hughes to a weirdly strong degree. Malcolm never meets Hughes (she does meet his sister Olwyn) and yet she compares him to Prometheus and Chekhov, she pities him for being trapped by biography, she is “electrically” drawn to his letters, and so on. It’s odd. By contrast, Plath comes across as a nebulous, difficult, abrasive person.
The interesting thing about that is not that she has a bias, of course. It’s that she openly discusses the impossibility of not having bias. She says that biography is a genre in which “the pose of fair-mindedness, the charade of evenhandedness, the striking of an attitude of detachment can never be more than rhetorical ruses.” She describes interviews in which people are polite to each other but are actually trying to use and outwit each other. Well, then, might as well be open about it, yes?
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. It was complicated and well-written, and while I’d probably have liked just a tiny bit more signposting of her own foibles, I think it’s well worth investigating. Are all her books this interesting? There may be more in my future.