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The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

by Janet Malcolm

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In an astonishing feat of literary detection, one of the most provocative critics of our time and the author of In the Freud Archives and The Purloined Clinic offers an elegantly reasoned meditation on the art of biography. In The Silent Woman, Janet Malcolm examines the biographies of Sylvia Plath to create a book not about Plath’s life but


In an astonishing feat of literary detection, one of the most provocative critics of our time and the author of In the Freud Archives and The Purloined Clinic offers an elegantly reasoned meditation on the art of biography. In The Silent Woman, Janet Malcolm examines the biographies of Sylvia Plath to create a book not about Plath’s life but about her afterlife: how her estranged husband, the poet Ted Hughes, as executor of her estate, tried to serve two masters—Plath’s art and his own need for privacy; and how it fell to his sister, Olwyn Hughes, as literary agent for the estate, to protect him by limiting access to Plath’s work.

Even as Malcolm brings her skepticism to bear on the claims of biography to present the truth about a life, a portrait of Sylvia Plath emerges that gives us a sense of “knowing” this tragic poet in a way we have never known her before. And she dispels forever the innocence with which most of us have approached the reading of any biography.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"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)

"Rich and theatrical."--The New York Times Book Review.

"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

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.
Library Journal
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

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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5.17(w) x 7.97(h) x 0.56(d)

Meet the Author

Janet Malcolm's previous books are Diana and Nikon: Essays on Photography; Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession; In the Freud Archives; The Journalist and the Murderer; The Purloined Clinic: Selected Writings; The Silent Woman: Slyvia Plath and Ted Hughes; and The Crime of Sheila McGough. She lives in New York with her husband, Gardner Botsford.

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