Before I commence the promised raving about The Silent Woman, Janet Malcolm’s book about (sort of) Sylvia Plath, I will state my position on Sylvia Plath. I like some of her poems a crazy lot and some of her (extremely famous) poems (like “Daddy”) not that much at all. I have read very few Ted Hughes poems but have always disliked the ones I did read. One time when I saw the two of them referred to as “the Hugheses” in a modern college syllabus, I became massively enraged on Sylvia Plath’s behalf. I think Ted Hughes was a cad who was punished by life perhaps rather more than his caddishness merited. Having read Sylvia Plath’s journals, she sounds like she would have been a very hard person to live with, and if I had to choose to live with one of them, I’d choose Ted Hughes. Not in an I’d hit that way. I want to go on record as saying I positively would not under any circumstances, including apocalyptic ones, hit that. I just think Ted Hughes would be more likely to leave me alone on a day-to-day basis.
I say all this because if you are a definite Ted Hughes hater, this book maybe would irritate you. From my position of liking Sylvia Plath better than Ted Hughes but ardently wishing never ever to have any personal contact with her, the book’s stance on Ted Hughes was fine. Janet Malcolm is too thoughtful a writer to take unqualified sides, but if sides were to be taken, she wouldn’t be standing hand-in-hand with the ladies of Jezebel on this one, ya know what I’m saying?
The Silent Woman is about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes and their marriage and her suicide. Sort of. I have now tried three different times to describe what this book is about, and failed spectacularly. It’s a short book, and a fast read — because it’s enthralling — but it packs a lot in. Janet Malcolm is interested in the ethical quandaries inherent in biography: by choosing what to include, you are choosing as well what to exclude, and your choices have an impact on the living. Whence the famous stories of Sylvia Plath’s life, Malcolm asks, and what has been the effect on the living of returning to them over and over?
Argh, I’m not doing this book justice! I loved it so much, and I cannot articulate the reasons. Janet Malcolm is an elegant, insightful writer who describes people well and vividly, but also knows when to step aside and let her subjects speak for themselves. As a fan of block quotes by judicious writers, I was enchanted at how much (really good, interesting, germane) material was quoted directly from letters by all the involved parties: biographers and Hugheses and all. Perhaps I can do no better than to quote two bits from the first chapter that give a better indication of what the book is about:
But a person who dies at thirty in the middle of a messy separation remains forever fixed in the mess. To the readers of her poetry and her biography, Sylvia Plath will always be young and in a rage over Hughes’s unfaithfulness. She will never reach the age when the tumults of young adulthood can be looked back upon with rueful sympathy and without anger and vengefulness….
After we are dead, the pretense that we may sometimes by protected against the world’s careless malice is abandoned. The branch of the law that putatively protects our good name against libel and slander withdraws from us indifferently. The dead cannot be libelled or slandered. They are without legal recourse. 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.
See what nice clear writing? I am reading Consider the Lobster right now, and liking it, but Janet Malcolm is a breath of fresh air after the orgies of convolution perpetrated by David Foster Wallace (more on him later). You may also note that Janet Malcolm is not comfortable with the project she herself is undertaking, to write about dead people. This is a tension that runs throughout the book, and one that is not resolved to her satisfaction by the end. For instance, when she writes about Olwyn Hughes, Ted’s sister and gatekeeper of the Plath estate, you can see that she sympathizes with Olwyn while also pitying the Plath biographers who are subject to the draconian restraints placed on their writing in exchange for the use of material from the Plath papers. I, too, worry about the families of people whose biographies and memoirs I read, and I nevertheless continue to devour memoirs about dysfunctional families like they aren’t making them anymore (which, let me assure you, they definitely are). So I can sympathize.
Apart from that, I don’t know what to say to convey to you how much I loved The Silent Woman. It was one of those reading experiences where the book is so good that you have to keep pausing and marveling at your luck at having happened to pick up a book that is just so damn good. It was page-turnier than I would expect a book about books to be. I started reading it on the High Line and then came home on the subway because it got too windy, and finished reading it on my couch, with short breaks to shriek to Miniature Roommate about how relentlessly good it was.
The moral of this post is: Janet Malcolm is the best! I am now going to read the rest of her books in reverse order of how awesome Amazon says they are. When I’m done with that, I expect I will lament the fewness of her books and the fact that a whole one of them was devoted to (blech) Chekhov.
Thank you to the wonderful Litlove for recommending this book to me much earlier this year. Part of me wishes I’d read it sooner, and part of me feels like there could have been no more pleasant experience than reading it on the High Line at the turn of autumn.
A weird little PS: This is probably silly, but do y’all know anything to Janet Malcolm’s discredit? I don’t want to fall madly in love with her just to find out a few days/months/years down the line that she, like, supports the repeal of the 19th Amendment. If you do know something bad about her, please tell me now. I’ll still read all her books, I just won’t fall in love with her. I’m only worried because she’s a little bit on Ted Hughes’s side here, and Katie Roiphe frantically loves her, and neither of those two things is a red flag on its own, but together they’re like a tiny half red flag. I can feel myself wanting to fall properly in love with her like I am in love with Patrick Ness or Diana Wynne Jones, people who are fantastic writers and also seem to be genuinely good people, and I don’t want to have my heart broken, y’all! Do you have any idea how much I used to love Orson Scott Card? And how long it took me to accept the fact that he is a big jerk? Tell me now if you know. It will spare me heartache down the line.
A second weird little PS: Also extremely fascinating to me are contentious heirs to literary greats. Like Stephen James Joyce? What do we think, guys? Will his head explode when Joyce falls into the public domain? Will he do what he threatens and burn up letters written by James Joyce? The man’s a loose cannon! He talks about himself in the third person! Because I have no stake in Joyce scholarship, this does not cause me anguish but only fascinates me. If Merlin Holland were this crazy, I would cry. Fortunately he seems to be a sweet dear and incredibly kind and helpful to Wilde scholars.