Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Silent Woman: Biography and Fossils of Feeling

Several people recommended Janet Malcolm's The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, an analysis of the various biographies of Sylvia Plath and, by extension, Ted Hughes, since Plath's suicide in February 1963.

To start, the cover picture of the Nike of Samothrace, which is on display at the Louvre, is a stunningly accurate image of both Plath and biography in general. Malcolm addresses both in this book--i.e., her discussion of the biographies and the biographers of Plath are balanced with a discussion of the genre of biography itself. I haven't enjoyed a survey of biographers so much since I read S. Schoenbaum's Shakespeare's Lives about twenty years ago. Back to the Nike image, it is headless, hence speechless; it is iconic, beautifully strong, powerful, frozen in time, a fragment, mysterious.

As I usually do, I earmarked pages with passages that struck me. Here's what I thought worth revisiting.

...a problem of biography--the problem of how to write about people who can no longer change their contemporaries' perception of them, who are discovered frozen in certain unnatural or unpleasant attitudes...

Writing is a fraught activity for everyone, of course, male or female, but women writers seem to have to take stronger measures, make more peculiar psychic arrangements, than men do to activate their imaginations.

Letters are the great fixative of experience. Time erodes feeling. Time creates indifference. Letters prove to use that we once cared. They are fossils of feeling.

The next bit I want to quote requires some explanation. After Plath's death, her sister-in-law, Olwyn Hughes, became the executor of Plath's literary estate, which meant that all biographers had to go through her in order to quote from Plath's works. Not on a whim did Malcolm refer to Olwyn at one point as Cerebus. One of the works that Malcolm discusses at great length is Anne Stevenson's Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath, which she wrote under the thumb of Olwyn, and the two women wrote a number of letters to each other during the time when Stevenson was working on the biography.

Leafing throught the Olwyn-Anne correspondence, I have the sense of being in the company of an old and all too familiar presence, and suddenly, in an intuitive flash, I know what it is. I recognize Olwyn as a personification of the force--sometimes call the resistance--that can keep the writer from writing. She is the voice that whispers in your ear and tells you to put down your pen before she knocks it out of your hand. In letter after letter she tells Anne the withering things that writers tell themselves as they try to write. Seen as a dialogue between the writer's inner voices--the one abusive and scornful, the other defensive and plaintive--the Olwyn-Anne correspondence becomes something more than the trace of a quarrel between two women who should never have worked together.

Malcolm says at one point that all biographers, like all novelists, must take sides in order to tell a story (and biography is still a story) and she admits that she is on the side of the Hugheses (i.e., Ted and his subsequent wives and sister). This makes this characterization of Olwyn as all the more damning. If she is on the side of the Hugheses in the Plath Legend wrangles (i.e., did Ted's behavior trigger Sylvia's suicide or did an untreated mental illness make it inevitable), she certainly didn't pull any punches with Ollwyn. Ted Hughes, I feel, she handled with kid gloves. Unwilling to damn him for trying to live his life and not Plath's, enthralled by his words.

Earlier I quoted a passage in which Malcolm comments on the silence of the subject when the biography is one of a dead person. One of the problems that all the biographers of Plath faced is that a biography of her must also be a biography of Ted Hughes and Aurelia Plath, Sylvia's mother, neither of whom wanted their lives to be dissected and analyzed and judged and put on display. Malcolm, in working on The Silent Woman, was able to read some of Ted Hughes's own letters regarding Plath.

Hughes is Vronsky to Plath's Anna. He is the man on the train with the unbearable toothache. When he writes about Plath, he renders all the other writings about her crude and trivial. He writes with brilliant, exasperated intelligence and a kind of Chekhovian largeheartedness and melancholy.

Biography can be likened to a book that has been scribbled in by an alien. After we die, our story passes into the hands of strangers. The biographer feels himself to be not a borrower but a new owner, who can mark and underline as he pleases.

It feels like I've been hiding behind the earmarked pages, and haven't really reviewed the book. I read it because I hadn't a notion of how to think about Plath. I've never read The Bell Jar, nor the Ariel poems. All I've really read is a poem or two--I liked "Wuthering Heights." All I really know is that Plath was a tortured soul who committed suicide in the early sixties and joined the ranks of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Lord Byron, and lives on in legend larger than life.

This book was beautifully written, thought-provoking, and infinitely sad. I don't feel the need to rush out and read any one of the various biographies that Malcolm discussed. I know that reading this book will affect how I read biographies in the future--appreciating more the sifting and exploring that is required to find the story and more sensitive to the fiction that inevitably emerges from the facts and the fossils of feeling that we all leave behind, like the Nike in the Louvre.


  1. @So interesting, Jane, thanks you! You know, I love Sylvia Plath very much. I've read her THE BELL JAR and, from time to time, I read some pages from it with my students comparing its female protagonist with Holden Caufield in THE CATCHER IN THE RYE. Those are two books I love teaching my teenage students. BTW, hurrying to school.Have a nice day!

  2. I would like to read a good biography of Plath, but from what you say, it would be hard to choose. I've just tried to re-read her letters, but pulled up short because the early ones simply serve to remind me just how vacuous we are at 19, 20 .... A biography would get me through those years perhaps.

  3. I really loved this book too. It didn't make me want to read the various biographies of Plath, but it DID make me want to read more of Malcolm's work. I have at least more of her books sitting around on my shelves, and I'm looking forward to getting to them.

  4. Fascinating, particularly about writing biography. Reading your post makes me want to read some of Malcolm's books. I have read The Bell Jar and didn't enjoy it much - it certainly didn't make me want to read any more Plath anyway.

  5. Thanks everyone--I really enjoyed reading Janet Malcolm but her other books aren't on topics that I particularly want to dive into (e.g., Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, psychoanalysis), although The Journalist and the Murderer does sound intriguing. The opening sentence is certainly provocative and sums up why I majored in English instead of journalism in college: "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible." But journalists are essential in a democracy, I'm just not cut from the right cloth to pursue that career. Maybe I better read the book before discussing the topic...:)