The Silent Woman

Thanks for all your comments about how you choose books; I enjoyed reading about people’s methods.  In addition to the Nam Le book of stories (which I’m now half way through and am enjoying a lot), I picked up Adeline Mowbray, a novel published in 1804.  I figured if I’m going to read something from 2008, I should also read something from an earlier century.  Both choices have turned out well so far.

But I never gave you my final thoughts on Janet Malcolm’s book about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, The Silent Woman (first thoughts here).  In short, it was wonderful.  Litlove talked about enjoying nonfiction with “a bit of a twist to it,” and this book fits that description perfectly.  It takes familiar genres — biography and memoir, mainly, but also philosophy and literary criticism — and turns them upside down.  It’s a book about biographies, the various ones written about Plath and Hughes, and also a book about biography itself, the paradoxes of the genre and the trouble it can get people into.

Malcolm places herself in the middle of the book, describing her experiences interviewing the various people involved in shaping the Plath myth.  Each meeting becomes a little story, a vignette that reveals something about Plath or Hughes, or more often about the interviewee or about Malcolm herself.  By placing herself in the center of things, she acknowledges that biography is far from an objective form of writing, and that the biographer shapes the story almost as much as a fiction writer does.

The book is actually a little like a novel in the way that it sets out to tell a story and then keeps your attention so well you can’t wait to find out what turn the action will take next.  I usually read nonfiction slowly, but I flew through this book, drawn in by the fascinating characters — particularly Ted Hughes’s sister Olwyn, a woman you might see as a villain if you find yourself sympathetic to Plath or wanting to write a book about her (she was in charge of the Plath estate for many years), and Anne Stevenson, a writer who had a disastrous time working with Olwyn to produce a biography of Plath only to find herself villainized by Plath advocates (“libbers” as Olwyn calls them because most of them are feminists).

Malcolm says that any writer, including biographers, must take sides, and that she has taken the side of Hughes, defending him against those who have turned his life into a living hell by invading his privacy and pronouncing judgment on his most intimate moments.  But my sense is that in spite of her claims about the impossibility of objectivity and her obvious emotional involvement in the story she tells, she has produced a book as close to objective as is possible.  She may take Hughes’s side at times, but she also describes moments when her feelings toward him harden, and while she writes about how difficult and disturbed a woman Plath is, she also portrays her with great understanding and sympathy.  By being honest about her personal reactions to the players in this story, Malcolm earns the reader’s trust, or at least she earned my trust; I couldn’t help but feel that here was a writer doing her very best to tell the story as accurately as possible, and while she might fail now and then, she has succeeded as much as any writer can.

To give you a sense of what her writing is like (extraordinarily vivid, I thought) and what kinds of conclusions she draws about biography, here is a passage on the subject (lengthy, but worthwhile):

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.  The voyeurism and busybodyism that impel writers and readers of biography alike are obscured by an apparatus of scholarship designed to give the enterprise an appearance of banklike blandness and solidity.  The biographer is portrayed almost as a kind of benefactor.  He is seen as sacrificing years of his life to his task, tirelessly sitting in archives and libraries and patiently conducting interviews with witnesses.  There is no length he will not go to, and the more his book reflects his industry the more the reader believes that he is having an elevating literary experience, rather than simply listening to backstairs gossip and reading other people’s mail.  The transgressive nature of biography is rarely acknowledged, but it is the only explanation for biography’s status as a popular genre.  The reader’s amazing tolerance (which he would extend to no novel written half as badly as most biographies) makes sense only when seen as a kind of collusion between him and the biographer in an excitingly forbidden undertaking: tiptoeing down the corridor together, to stand in front of the bedroom door and try to peep through the keyhole.

Even if you are not remotely interested in Plath and Hughes (I am interested in them, although not enough to read traditional biographies; this book does, however, make me want to read more of their poetry), there is much to enjoy here.  Even if you aren’t interested in biography as a genre (which I suppose I am, although that fact surprises me, as I never realized it before), you will still like the book — in short, unless my description leaves you completely cold, read this!


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

11 responses to “The Silent Woman

  1. That sounds fabulous. I will put that on my to-read list.


  2. What fun! I love the passage you quoted. I’ve never thought of biography as being transgressive but it is. It makes me feel a little naughty to think of it as burglary. Unfortunately it also adds a bit of a thrill.


  3. This sounds like an excellent book. I think I have it somewhere and now will have to dig it out. I think it would be hard to write a biography–I would want to write about someone I felt pretty passionate about (to spend so much time researching them) and then it might be hard being objective and writing about the less than attractive aspects of the subject’s life. But I love reading biographies and it would be interesting to read about the process of writing one!


  4. verbivore

    I would like to spend more time with both Hughes and Plath through their poetry and then perhaps try a book like this one. So far I’ve only read Plath (her novel, and a few of her poems) but Litlove’s post and now yours has made me curious about Hughes as well.


  5. I’m finding myself being drawn more and more to this type of book. Nice review!


  6. I really like the sound of this book. If both you and Litlove recommend it then I will definitely have to order it. Great passage about the transgressive nature of biography. That’s what makes psychology such fun too – being a bit of a voyeur into other people’s lives.


  7. I’ve added this to my tbr list, thanks to both you and Litlove. I’ve always been a bit fascinated by Plath and you have made me want to read this book!


  8. Yogamum — I hope you like it when you get there!

    Stefanie — I liked her point about how we wouldn’t tolerate the sometimes bad writing in biographies if we weren’t enjoying the thrill of transgression. I’m not sure I’ll think of biography-reading in quite the same way again!

    Danielle — I think all the time and effort that must go into writing a biography would be hard. I would lose patience somewhere along the way, I’m sure. All that attention to detail! I’d like to know more about the process of writing biographies as well.

    Verbivore — I’ve enjoyed the Hughes poetry I’ve read so far. It’s not at all like Plath’s — not personal or quite so overpowering. I remember it being very earthy and strange — a lot about the natural world.

    Lisa — thanks! I want more of this kind of book too. I wish someone would make a list!

    Pete — I do like how Malcolm is so upfront about the questionable pleasure of biography; she’s very astute about psychology too — I can tell she’s read a lot of Freud.

    Courtney — I hope you enjoy it! If you find Plath fascinating, I have no doubt you’ll be interested in this book.


  9. I’m so glad that you enjoyed this, Dorothy – as you know, I loved it too. After reading it, I sought out the section on Sylvia Plath in Elizabeth Wurtzel’s book on difficult women, Bitch, and it was so disappointing in comparison. It made me realise again how brilliantly Malcolm deals with her material. And this is a wonderful review you’ve written here.


  10. LK

    Good review – you’ve caught the essence of this book. You might like Diane Middlebrook’s Her Husband. Take care.


  11. Pingback: New on the Shelves ! « Smithereens

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