Review: The Silent Woman, Janet Malcolm

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.

  • What a surprise to see you review this today. I have this book on my shelf and have been thinking all week about bumping to the top of my stack. Mostly I’ve been wanting to read it because (for a slew of complicated reasons) I’ve had Nancy Griffith’s wonderful song “Back When Ted Loved Sylvia” in my head. If you haven’t heard it, go look for it. Griffith’s view is eminently sensible, and it’s a beautiful song.

    I feel similarly to you about Plath and Hughes although maybe I like her poetry a little better than you and have no particular opinion of Hughes poetry because I’ve read so little. I did like the production of Phedre that I saw a couple of years ago based on his translation, but I couldn’t say whether it was the language or the wonderful Helen Mirren that I liked.

    Now to go get the book and promote it to my living room book stack.

  • Usually I will not read any book about Plath’s life because I only like reading her poetry. You got me slightly interested with that long quotation, though; I can see how you could fall in love with this author.
    How can you not love Chekhov? Perhaps the translations you’ve read are at fault, or you’ve never seen a good performance of one of his plays. Sometimes there is no better pleasure than to laugh at the quiet melancholy of everyone’s life.
    Also, I actually passed up a new book by Card at the library yesterday. I have fallen that out of love. (It was the second Empire book that really did it.)

  • Oh, oh, I hate when I love something and can’t articulate the reasons. Sometimes I try to work it through with my husband but he gets bored and turns on football….

  • I’m pretty sure I read some of Sylvia Plath’s poetry years and years ago, but I don’t remember anything about her poems. I love the passage you pulled from the book. I always think it’s great when non-fiction authors are transparent about the quandaries of writing about their topic, even if that transparency is in just the author’s note or something.

    I don’t know this author so unfortunately I can’t assist you in knowing her reputation, but I sympathize with your dilemma.

  • Jenny, first off, I have to say that even in your seriousness, you are one very funny lady. I refer back to the last two post scripts on this post, and think that your earnestness in wanting to fall unreservedly in love with Malcolm, but being a little shy after that Orson Scott Card debacle makes me heart you. I also love your reflections on what a big ball of crazy Stephen James Joyce is. But as for this book: I need to read it. I have read so little about Plath, and read so little of her poetry that it’s shameful. But I do know there is a crazy juicy story amidst all of that, and I am eager to find it out. This book goes on the wish list right away, and I thank you for making my morning. 🙂

  • Plath and Hughes were certainly an interesting couple. Like you, I’m divided on her poetry. Some of her more celebrated poems don’t appeal, and some of her lesser known ones I like a lot.

    I really like the excerpt you used, and I’ll be looking for this at the library first, and then, if necessary, online for purchase.

  • I’d certainly be interested in reading this book – like you I love some of her poems, but not all, and I’m not over-familiar with Ted Hughes poetry because I’m not struck with the few I have read.

  • I’ve now added Silent Woman to the TBR list, because I love Malcolm’s writing and I loved your review.

    I know some people who knew Janet Malcom, and the worst they’ve ever said about her was that she doesn’t always see herself clearly. Since she has a piercing gaze on the topics she writes about, it’s more obvious than with most people, who don’t see anything clearly, let alone themselves.

    This came up in discussion when I was reading her book The Journalist and the Murderer and some of the controversy over her Freud book seemed to have reflections in the text. Oh my goodness, this was almost 20 years ago! So actually she’s had plenty of time to develop unpleasant habits since then, but I haven’t heard about it. My New Yorker connections are much looser now.

  • Aonghus Fallon

    Oddly enough, I’ve never read any of Sylvia Plath’s poems, but I did read an anthology of her short stories many years ago – ‘Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams’.

  • I forgive Plath her borderline-ness for her poem Tulips, which I love love love. But like you, I am very glad I do not have to live with her. And after reading this review, I think you are right: this may be just the book to move me out of my slump. Forgive me for doubting, Wise One.

  • Amy

    I’m a big Plath fan, but like you, can’t imagine living with her. The big famous anthologized poems aren’t my favorites, either; I prefer things like Three Women, and the poems she wrote about her kids. I loved the Malcolm book. I think it speaks to the peculiarity of the whole Plath/Hughes situation that not only are there numerous bios of Plath, but then you get the Malcolm book, which is sort of a bio of writing bios about Plath.

  • This sounds rather good, actually. I am thinking I will have to give it a try. I have to admit I am not a huge poetry fan, but I have always been interested in Sylvia Plath as a person and her story.

  • Jenny

    I’ve never wanted to read anything about Plath, because it never ends, does it? There’s been so much written about her, and Hughes, and the whole mess. You could get obsessed, and they were both such unpleasant people, I don’t want to get obsessed with them. But perhaps one carefully-curated book. You make it sound irresistible.

  • You had me at ethical quandaries inherent in biography. Also, I hope there’s nothing terrible to be discovered about Janet Malcolm! I can see how those two things together would ring alarm bells, but hopefully it means nothing.

  • I am SO glad you enjoyed it. What I loved about it was that it scratched a real itch, the one that says, yes but all these people with views about Personality X – who are they to criticise? What’s their standpoint in all of this? It’s like all the times when someone’s been sounding off about another person’s behaviour and you watch them through narrowed eyes, thinking, and who made YOU the judge of anyone? And Malcolm goes right ahead and takes them apart in such satisfactory ways, not unkind, not unreasonable, just showing us where their motivations lie. Well, I just loved that anyway. I’ve read almost all her work now (not the latest) and everything she does is good. I was intrigued to see if anyone could come up with anything bad about her – but not much so far. I know nothing, except that she writes great non-fiction.

  • Eva

    Hah! I’m going to go read her one on Chekhov, as I clutch him to my chest. :p

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  • Ela

    That sounds really interesting, though normally I’m not a fan of biography in general. That said, I have never read any of Plath’s works, whereas I have read a lot of Hughes’, and boy, is it good stuff (not that I am in any way qualified to comment on the goodness or not of poetry). So I am actually more pro-Hughes than pro-Plath, heretical though that makes me sound.

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