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 fire, should we save the masterpiece or the custodian? The Plath poems or the orphans?

As a journalist herself and also (she reveals at one point) someone who has been pursued by the press for writing controversially, Malcolm is prompted by the subject and all its implications to write with special force. This is her best book yet. In her studies of the psychoanalytic profession and its vagaries she was also concerned with truth and fantasy, but here, as both criminal and victim in the moral minefield of journalism, she is even more closely involved with her subject. What seems at first the expected smooth and professional piece of reportage expands and deepens as it goes along. People (a taxidriver) and things (a pile of dirty dishes) that cross her path as she goes about her interviewing are woven by her apparently effortless free-associative style into the argument, and provide metaphors for women’s lives, writers’ lives, anyone’s lives. She takes the barber in Shoah, whom no one who saw that film could forget, as a metaphor for the writer: fighting against terrible resistance to report unbearable things. A file of faded press cuttings about the affaire Plath she sees as petrified poison, a “stalactite” of newspaper stories “that were originally written to satisfy our daily hunger for idle and impersonal Schadenfreude.”

She sees us all, press and public, as equally guilty of idle Schadenfreude. After interviewing friends of Plath’s—somewhat tired and elderly now, like all of those involved—she comes away thinking:

What did I know about them? How inadequate and off the mark my account must be! The biographer commits the same offense when he proposes to solve the mystery that is a life with “data” no less meagre (when you consider the monstrous mass that accrues from the moment-by-moment events of life) and interpretations no less crass (when you consider what a fine-tuned, custom-made instrument human motivation is).

But the public’s “inviolable right to be diverted,” she believes, always wins out, crushing anyone unfortunate enough to be in its way. Biography is


the medium through which the remaining secrets of the famous dead are taken from them and dumped out in full view of the world. The biographer at work, indeed, is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewelry and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away.

An opposing argument—that for our age biography takes the place of essays or sermons, that it can be a medium teaching us seriously interesting things about living—does not get a look-in.

So Malcolm rifles the drawers and gathers the loot, quoting fascinating journals and letters (some previously unpublished) and interviewing people involved in the Plath story—Olwyn Hughes herself (though not her brother, who has always refused publicity), A. Alvarez, who wrote an account of Plath’s last period in The Savage God, the neighbor, Trevor Thomas, who was the last to see her alive. Her most extensive interviews are with the writer Anne Stevenson, who was unfortunate enough to be coerced into producing a biography of Plath which brought down on her head a storm of abuse from those who had made Plath a holy image. Malcolm explains her special interest in Stevenson: Plath, Stevenson, and she herself were roughly of the same generation, Stevenson like Plath had come from the US to live in England, Malcolm (playing the drab mouse, the better to burgle) had always been dazzled by Stevenson’s panache. That panache, it is clear, was knocked out of her through her involvement in the Plath vortex.

Stevenson described to Janet Malcolm how Olwyn Hughes had taken her under her wing to organize a privileged, insider’s biography, lining up interviews for her and offering personal (far from flattering) anecdotes about her sister-in-law. But when Stevenson began to put together her own, independent view of Plath, Olwyn Hughes became the collaborator from hell. Although Malcolm lets drop the remark that The Silent Woman takes the Hughes’ side (she certainly does not side against Plath), she need do no more than quote from Olwyn Hughes’s letters to Stevenson at this point.

I’ve often been surprised by your lack of grasp…I’ve also been disappointed…You have been to a degree resisting your material…almost totally ignored…brush from your mind various cobwebs…fits of antagonism toward me…lack of willingness to let me help you…God knows what version of events you have been telling…your lack of real interest…I’ve had to fight all the way….

And so on, and on. Stevenson was reduced to writing that “four years of my life have disappeared in miserable wrangling. My eyesight, my digestion, my joie de vivre, the poems I might have written—all victims of your relentless persecution”; the book had to be issued with the health warning that Olwyn Hughes must be considered more or less co-author; and still Stevenson was bitterly attacked on publication. In fact the biography, Bitter Fame, is not especially derogatory. Plath was neurotic and sometimes difficult? Extraordinary! Other poets—Lowell, Bishop, Sexton—of course never were. Malcolm sees Stevenson’s willingness to allow herself to be persecuted by such a collaborator as an emblem of the woman writer’s difficulty in overriding criticism and believing in her own work.

Pursuing fact and falsity, honor and dishonor, Malcolm cites other biographers and their subjects. When Bernard Crick took on George Orwell’s life he, as Malcolm puts it, “had to ritually bring Orwell’s widow to her knees”: complete access to the papers, permission to quote whatever he liked, were the terms, as he wrote in an essay entitled “On the Difficulties of Writing Biography in General and of Orwell’s in Particular.” When Sonia Orwell found that Crick in fact had his own, differing views on Orwell and the marriage, she tried to rescind the agreement but could not. Would it have been, as a book, better or worse if she had been able to?

Frances Spalding wrote a well-received biography of Vanessa Bell; but when Bell’s daughter Angelica Garnett wrote of her childhood it sounded different and sadder. The desperate attempts of J.D. Salinger to defend himself against his biographer, Ian Hamilton, are well known. Because of Salinger’s reclusiveness, Hamilton had planned the book in terms of “the quest for Salinger.” But in the end he amassed a good deal of material; and when the biography approached publication, Salinger sued for unauthorized use of his letters. The book had to be rewritten. There was, I remember, around the time of the lawsuit a press photograph of Salinger resisting the camera, in which he looked like a hunted animal.


Hamilton has been honest about how he felt when he got a letter of entreaty from the author:

Here was this letter, obliging me to face up to the presence of the man himself. He wanted to be left alone….He had, it would appear, behaved with dignity and forbearance whenever some eager college student had turned up at his door. Didn’t he have the same right to his privacy as you and I?

But then… There was a question of money to be earned, a job to be pursued.

Malcolm is strong on the mixed motives of biographers, and the pain of their subjects. She also has provocative things to say about the other side of the Plath coin, the passionate wave of identification with the dead girl and consequent persecution of the Hughes relatives. “We choose the dead because of our tie to them, our identification with them,” she says. “Their helplessness, passivity, vulnerability is our own.” She goes on, extraordinarily, to argue that Thanatos is a strong unadmitted force in our lives:

We all yearn toward the state of inanition, the condition of harmlessness, where we are perforce lovable and fragile. It is only by a great effort that we rouse ourselves to act, to fight, to struggle, to be heard above the wind, to crush flowers as we walk. To behave like live people…. Death always remains interesting, pulls us, draws us.

And she quotes a verse from Ted Hughes’s poem about a dying lamb:

It was not
That he could not thrive, he was born
With everything but the will
That can be deformed, just like a limb.
Death was more interesting to him.
Life could not get his attention.

This would surely have been understood by Sylvia Plath. Life did get her attention: in a cold English winter, heated by one of those little 1950s gas fires, she sewed red corduroy curtains for her family. But because she herself felt that there was a Bad Sylvia (the real) and a Good Sylvia (false) there seems a feverish quality to her vitality, which shows up most clearly in her dreadfully sprightly letters to Mom in the United States, published as Letters Home.

One of the strangest things quoted in The Silent Woman comes from Ted Hughes’s foreword to Plath’s journals, published in 1982:

Though I spent every day with her for six years, and was rarely separated from her for more than two or three hours at a time, I never saw her show her real self to anybody—except, perhaps, in the last three months of her life.

Does he mean that she never even showed it to him? Or just to the outside world? Malcolm implies that the historical period is relevant to Plath’s development: 1950s conformism whose icon was the all-American straight-A’s college girl (though even then there were bobby-soxers fainting for Frank Sinatra). But the extent of Plath’s self-division Malcolm ascribes to the warding-off of a blankness that always lurked dangerously near, and quotes a sentence from her letters: “Perhaps when we find ourselves wanting everything it is because we are dangerously near to wanting nothing.” The poems of those last three months, Malcolm says,

trace the short trajectory from being close to wanting nothing to wanting nothing. In the final poems, written in the terrible English winter of her death, Plath, like a feverish patient throwing off a blanket, sheds the ragged mantle of her rage and calmly waits for the cold of her desirelessness to achieve its deadly warmth.

Or, in more boring and clinical terms, she ceased to struggle against “existential depression by means of the various manic defenses offered by the romantic imagination.”

In some families—perhaps in Plath’s—the whole modus vivendi consists of a false brightness covering over feelings that are dumped, wholesale and unknowingly, into the children. Who are baffled all their lives, and wonder what actually is real. In the time of Freud’s case histories the term “real self” had not entered the vocabulary—it was clear that patients with bizarre hysterias needed to get back to a well personality. But since then, the sense that there is something precious in the person that is obscured by layers and layers of inauthenticity has been the preoccupation everywhere. Malcolm’s argument that we all yearn for a simple, original, harmless condition means a wish for realness, as well as for the sweet, imaginary death-state. When she was in hospital after an operation Plath wrote:

I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted
To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.
How free it is, you have no idea how free—
The peacefulness is so big it dazes you,
And it asks nothing, a name tag, a few trinkets.
It is what the dead close on, finally; I imagine them
Shutting their mouths on it, like a Communion tablet.

Malcolm calls it a hymn to the death wish. But, earlier, she has said that “in some secret way, Thanatos nourishes Eros as well as opposes it”; so she might agree that this is a simplification of the poem’s meaning.

One way for biographers and critics to avoid sinking these shafts into someone’s life and death is the deconstructionist mode, as set out in Malcolm’s interview with Jacqueline Rose, author of The Haunting of Sylvia Plath. For the austere logic of postmodernism, it doesn’t matter what Plath was like, what Hughes is like, what really “happened.” There are just the documents, to be subjected to analysis. “I’m not ever interested in what happened between Plath and Hughes,” Rose tells Janet Malcolm. She “rejects the distinction between high and low art, good and bad writing, ‘true’ and ‘false’ selves,” as Malcolm says. But Malcolm clearly feels this stance is not really possible; it reminds her of “those prison scenes in historical movies where aristocrats and beggars, virtuous women and prostitutes, righteous men and thieves have all been thrown into one cell and are being treated by the guard with elaborate democratic sameness.”

Anne Stevenson, muddled and distressed where Rose is clinically competent, seems nearer the mark when she concludes that she can only be certain of finding “truth” in fiction, whether prose or poetry. As Malcolm says, when Henry James reports in The Golden Bowl that the Prince and Charlotte are sleeping together, it is so, with a certainty that biographers and journalists cannot achieve. All the same, she recoils from a smugness in Rose’s standpoint. She reports how Rose’s analysis of a lesbian content in one of Plath’s poems evoked a frantic letter to the Times Literary Supplement from Ted Hughes, about the shocking effect this would have on Plath’s children if they read it. People keep getting in the way of theory.

Malcolm closes with a tragi-comic interview with Trevor Thomas, the ground-floor neighbor who was the last to see Plath alive. Tragic because of the fact that when a distraught Plath knocked on his door some hours before her death, he didn’t spot impending suicide. Comic because the now aged Thomas, a distinguished academic, is found, after a saga involving a vegetarian pizza, some Heinz salad cream, and a secondhand car, to be living in a house of indescribable squalor. Passageways are lined with sagging cardboard boxes, surfaces are crammed with things filmed by dust, clothes are piled on unmade beds, and every part of the kitchen is stacked with used objects. The house, for Malcolm, is the Aleph of her tale—an overblown allegory of truth, chaotic, random, uncataloguable. The writer or biographer has the sticky task of shifting through it to find what matters, what fits, what needs to be thrown out, and what needs to be kept. It is a hellish business, and in the end, she implies, perhaps an impossible one.

This Issue

April 6, 1995