Kicking the Myth Habit

The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes

by Janet Malcolm
Vintage, 207 pp., $12.00 (paper)

Janet Malcolm
Janet Malcolm; drawing by David Levine

Why the “silent woman”? Among the vast number of words generated by the suicide of the poet Sylvia Plath (which are hereby being added to) is an account of a scene in Yorkshire in 1960. Olwyn Hughes, sister of Plath’s English husband, Ted Hughes, and a crucial figure in the wretched cause célèbre that the girl’s death became, called her brother’s wife badly behaved, inconsiderate, and rude—the kind of sisterly-in-law remark that can crop up in family gatherings. Sylvia “glared accusingly [and]…kept up her unnerving stare. Olwyn, who immediately regretted she’d said a word, remembers thinking, ‘Why doesn’t she say something?”‘ The glaring, silent woman, as described here by Olwyn Hughes to a biographer, is the Bad Sylvia; the Good Sylvia is the one described by another biographer as “a fragile, lovable creature, in danger of being crushed,” female victim of a cruel male world. And she is a silent woman also because, while everyone else argues and writes, she alone can’t “say something”—has not been able to since 1963.

The Bad Sylvia and the Good Sylvia are figures of myth. English readers of Janet Malcolm’s book may have seen a parallel with a now inescapable factor in English life, the long-running Royalty farce in English newspapers (Was he a cruel husband? Is she an angel? Can we get a picture of her in a bikini?). Figures who get involved in debased myth—the Royals, relatives of Plath and Hughes—know how it licenses cruelty. Hughes put the point bluntly in a letter:

They can caricature and remake S.P. in the image of their foolish fantasies, and get away with it—and assume, in their brainless way, that it’s perfectly OK to give me the same treatment. Apparently forgetting that I’m still here, to check, and that I’ve no intention of feeding myself to their digestions and submitting myself to their reconstitution, if I can help it.

Religious myth used to be a valuable source of awe and excitement; but with mass-media myth having become an excuse for cruelty, an enjoyable holiday from political correctness, perhaps it is time we began to kick the myth habit.

Malcolm’s book is partly about the sins that lead to harmful mythmaking—spite, curiosity, laziness, untruth, self-promotion. Her account of the Plath controversies is not another “What Was She Really Like?” (though a picture of Plath, much as revealed by the writer herself in poems such as “In Plaster,” emerges) but is about the relation of biography to life, of fact to literature, of journalism to both. In our era of information overload, in academia just as much as in the gutter press, the book looks for honesty, and poses moral dilemmas: in particular, where criticism and biography should start to defer to personal vulnerabilities. We had an old chestnut of a dilemma to write about when I was at school: If the art gallery was on…

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