Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The story of the marriage of poets Sylvia Plath (1933-1963) and Ted Hughes has continued to fascinate readers and biographers since Plath's suicide, as somehow representative of our common lot and yet also inscrutably dramatic. In a cunningly resourceful look at Plath's life, at her posthumous existence and at the struggles of her biographers to penetrate, document and interpret her history and her husband's role in it, Malcolm seizes the opportunity to reflect on the moral contradictions of biography itself (``the biographer . . . is like the professional burglar''), somewhat as she examined journalism in The Journalist and the Murderer . The book, reprinted from the New Yorker , is a highly skillful, intrinsically arguable exploration of mixed motives, considering in detail the characters of several figures: Anne Stevenson, one of Plath's biographers; Hughes, whom she regards with more sympathy than many do; his sister Olwyn; and some of Plath's friends and neighbors (e.g., A. Alvarez). Malcolm's characteristic mingling of observation and criticism, her self-scrutiny, her finely modulated tonal shifts and the strategies of her skepticism expose, with a generous range of nuance, the stories that tend to emerge from any story and complicate it--while writing one herself that is of surpassing interest.
The ``silent woman'' in Malcolm's title is the dead poet Plath, who stuck her head in an oven in 1963 and left her husband, Hughes, along with every other literary ``player,'' to sort out the work she relinguished from then on. In this study, published last year in The New Yorker , Malcolm ( The Purloined Clinic , Knopf, 1992), a hypermethodical writer and an attentive reader, leads us, sometimes against our will, down the labyrinthine path of the making of the Plath legend. The insidious workings of biography dictate that upon one's death, one ceases to ``own'' the facts of one's life, Malcolm argues. She too is forced to cast her lot as a ``player'' and take a side, either for Plath, the poet betrayed by an unfaithful husband and attacked for writing ``not nice'' poems, or for Hughes, the protective husband and father tormented by public nosiness. In the end Malcolm tries to have it both ways: she prudently claims to support the Hughes side yet her feminist and literary sympathies embrace the silenced poet. A sure bet for literature and biography collections.-- Amy Boaz
School Library Journal
YA- This book is as much about the process and pitfalls of writing biography as it is the story of the subjects' lives. Malcolm discusses many of the previous books about Plath with surgical precision. She is sympathetically aware that Hughes continues to live and change while Plath is forever frozen in memory as the brilliant but frustrated housewife and mother who took her own life. This sympathy, though strained by the author's dealings with Olwyn, Hughes's sister and guardian of Plath's estate, is strengthened by her interviews with friends of the couple and information gleaned about the poets' early life. In addition to the discussion of Plath, Ted Hughes and his sister, Malcolm explains how biographers work: they must decide what to keep, what to ignore, and what their point of view will be. A book that should provoke thought and discussion for YAs in class and in their own writing.-Susan H. Woodcock, King's Park Library, Burke, VA
Malcolm's name has become synonymous with the conflict between writers' freedom to interpret exchanges such as interviews and conversations, and their subjects' right to protect their reputation and standing. Her grueling experience with libel and the law has clearly sensitized her to the "transgressive nature of biography," and she couldn't have chosen a more perfect vehicle for exploring this concern than the ongoing obsession with Sylvia Plath. Plath, the mother of two and a poet of shattering originality, killed herself at age 30, ostensibly over her estrangement from her husband, fellow poet Ted Hughes, who was involved with another woman. Plath's death set off a torrent of biographical projects and the posthumous publication of Plath's private papers, including letters to her mother and her journals. Malcolm shrewdly, and bluntly, examines the motives behind such endeavors, particularly Hughes' editing and "misplacement" of Plath's journals, and the manner in which his overzealous and unkind sister, Olwyn, handled her responsibilities as executor of Plath's literary estate. Malcolm is sympathetic to Ted Hughes, who has endured 30 years of intrusion, but she also respects the more sensitive and articulate of Plath's biographers, especially the much maligned Anne Stevenson. As she muses over the taint of voyeurism associated with poking about in someone else's life--reading their letters, eliciting gossip from friends and colleagues--Malcolm admits that "we have no control over the facts of our lives," either in life or in death. And yet, her reflections on Plath and her writing are ennobling, her empathy for Hughes generous, and her forceful and resourceful style quite thrilling. This is a piquant and absorbing performance.
From the Publisher
"Rich and theatrical."The New York Times Book Review.
"The Silent Woman is one of the deepest, loveliest, and most problematic things Janet Malcolm has written. It is so subtle, so patiently analytical, and so true that it is difficult to envisage anyone writing again about Plath and Hughes. She is the cat who has licked the plate clean. It has an almost disabling authority about it, a finality like a father's advice."James Wood, The Guardian (London)
"Not since Virginia Woolf has anyone thought so trenchantly about the strange art of biography."Christopher Benfey, Newsday
"There is more intellectual excitement in one of Malcolm's riffs than in many a thick academic tome . . . She is among the most intellectually provocative of authors . . . able to turn epiphanies of perception into explosions of insight."David Lehman, Boston Globe
"It is the best-written and most stirring polemic of the year. Completely brilliant."David Hare, The Times (London)
"The Journalist and the Murderer was a deeply thoughtful exposure of the moral problems of in-depth journalism . . . [The Silent Woman] contains some of the best thinking I know on both the practical and the philosophical problems of biography."Bernard Crick, New Statesman & Society