Going underground

Elaine Showalter

  • The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Janet Malcolm
    Knopf, 208 pp, $23.00, April 1994, ISBN 0 679 43158 6

Ours is not an age in which literary events get much attention, but the publication in the New Yorker last August of Janet Malcolm’s study of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes was an exception. Brilliantly packaged with reprints of the Plath poems which the New Yorker had originally published, the issue was a sell-out on both sides of the Atlantic, and for weeks no dinner party from Hampstead to the Hamptons was complete without a discussion of it. Now published as a book, The Silent Woman is ostensibly a scathing denunciation of the ethics of literary biography in general and a defence of Hughes and his formidable sister Olwyn in particular.[*] Malcolm takes arms against the hordes of biographers, journalists, feminists and sensation-seekers who have mercilessly raked over the ashes of Plath’s life, often blaming Hughes for his infidelity during Plath’s life and his iron control of her copyrights since her death. ‘The pleasure of hearing ill of the dead is not a negligible one,’ she writes witheringly of their motives, ‘but it pales before the pleasure of hearing ill of the living.’ Since Malcolm herself, however, has been involved in a notorious case about libel and invasion of privacy brought by the modest and reclusive Jeffrey Masson, the topical ironies of the book have attracted a great deal of attention in the United States. In the New York Times Book Review, Caryn James observed that ‘while the English fuss about poets’ graves, Americans gossip about litigation and celebrity journalists.’

Malcolm sees biographers and readers allied in a transgressive and titillating conspiracy against the dead. She writes that ‘the biographer at work ... is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewellery and the money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away.’ For their part, readers of literary biography are driven by ‘voyeurism and busybodyism’, pretending that they are having ‘an elevating literary experience’, when they are actually ‘listening to backstairs gossip and reading other people’s mail’. Journalists are the cruellest of all, trading in ‘sadism and reductionism’; and even the subject’s relatives, ‘the biographer’s natural enemies’, can be sucked into hapless collusion. Among the seven deadly sins of literary biography, Malcolm warns, greed, too, plays a leading role.

So why is this woman sneaking around Ted Hughes’s garden? And why does she publish big chunks of previously unpublished correspondence between Ted Hughes, Olwyn Hughes, Anne Stevenson and Al Alvarez? While she so vehemently condemns the motives of those who rifle the drawers of the dead, Malcolm is herself impelled to do the same, and it is this pull between its overt and covert narratives that makes The Silent Woman such a tour de force. The book is compulsively readable, the best thing Malcolm has ever done. Disguised as a journalistic detective story, it is actually a Jamesian quest, a sort of epistolary novel about American innocence and European corruption, told by a narrator split between the private and professional selves.

This narrator, aptly described by Caryn James as an ‘idealised version’ of Malcolm’s ‘journalistic self’, sometimes refers to her own life, but more often distances herself through impersonal observation, generalisation and literary allusion. She introduces the book with a remarkable Jamesian epigraph about ‘the reporter and the reported’ from his 1896 essay on George Sand, in which he looks to a future when ‘the cunning of the inquirer’, exceeding ‘in subtlety and ferocity anything we today conceive’, will be met by ‘the pale forewarned victim, with every track covered, every paper burnt, and every letter unanswered’. Allusions to James – primarily Portrait of a Lady – and other classic novelists structure the text, and Malcolm, an inveterate mythologiser, also compares Plath to Medea and Medusa; Hughes to Adonis and Prometheus; and Olwyn to Cerberus and the Sphinx. Fairy tales get in there too, especially Cinderella.

Malcolm never names her own role in these mythologies, but she is clearly an American Persephone, descending into the wintry underworld of England to bring back the secrets of sex, art and death. The myth of Demeter and Persephone has been paradigmatic for American women writers at least since the 19th century, a parable of the woman artist’s rite of passage, her necessary separation from the domestic world of maternity and nurture. In Freudian terms, it is about the psychological violence that accompanies the daughter’s transfer of attachment from the mother to the father, and her quest for passion, creativity and independence.

Malcolm nationalises the myth as Plath’s passage from safe, maternalistic Fifties America to exile in harsh patriarchal post-war England. The suicide of an expatriate, she observes, produces for some people the ‘fantasy that the foreign place contributed to the death, was even the cause of it’. Clearly Malcolm herself has ambivalent feelings of attraction and repulsion, fantasy and fear, about England. She wants to document Plath’s ‘alienation in England’ and yet sees her exile as the key to her artistic maturity. In a sense, England and the image of a feline English literati replace Hughes in Malcolm’s narrative of blame for Plath’s death. In this story, Plath arrives at Cambridge immaculate, with her gold and white Samsonite luggage, her neat Smith College clothes, her shiny freshly-washed blond hair. And England drags her under, dirties her, releases the true poetic self, which is ‘aggressive, rude ... disorderly, sexual’. In death she is ‘the little defeated American girl’, Malcolm writes with self-mocking sentimentality, in the chilly flat far from ‘homely Massachusetts’. And yet, Malcolm believes, Plath ‘did not write – and could not have written – The Bell Jar or Ariel in her native Massachusetts’. She needed to shed her American accent, appearance, identity, to become an artist; ‘like so many women writers, she had to leave the daylight world and go underground to find her voice.’ Not only Plath but the Hughes family, Malcolm writes, have colluded in the myth of Persephone, for they too have ‘eaten the pomegranate seeds that tie them to the underworld’.

Malcolm sees Plath as a paradigmatic figure of ‘the fearful, double-faced Fifties’, the ‘divided self par excellence’, who embodies ‘in a vivid, almost emblematic way the schizoid character of the period’. The Eisenhower Fifties were a period of lies and hypocrisy Malcolm still finds ‘troubling to recall’, a time when ‘there was no feminist movement or feminist theory, and relations between men and women were at a nadir of helpless transferential misprision.’ For intellectual women with literary ambitions, the times were particularly inauspicious; in the years before the sexual revolution (the 19th century in America, Malcolm says, didn’t end until the 1960s), women’s destinies seemed bounded by their choice of men. And while all writers must struggle against convention and their own resistances, ‘women writers seem to have to take stronger measures, make more peculiar psychic arrangements than men do to activate their imaginations.’ Yet while other women surrendered or failed, Plath resisted the period’s compromises and confronted its horrors head-on. In her life, as in her writing, Plath ‘was able – she was elected – to confront what most of the rest of us fearfully shrank from’.

But Plath’s life and identity are less at issue in this book than her afterlife. Malcolm is also journeying in pursuit of Anne Stevenson, whose biography Bitter Fame (1989) was ‘pilloried’ because it was ‘seen as being used by Ted and Olwyn Hughes to put forward their version of Ted Hughes’s relations with Plath.’ Malcolm tells us that she sided with Stevenson, not only because she too had written a book that was attacked, but also because she had long idealised Stevenson, who was a year ahead of her at the University of Michigan in the Fifties, and who lived out her own adolescent ‘fantasies of nonconformity’. ‘In those days,’ she recalls, ‘I greatly admired artiness, and Anne Stevenson was one of the figures who glowed with a special incandescence in my imagination.’ When Stevenson achieved literary success, Malcolm was not even jealous, she tells us, because it was ‘in a different sphere, a higher, almost sacred place – the stratosphere of poetry’. Moreover, Stevenson had married and moved to England, the Eng Lit 305 (Modern Period) of Malcolm’s undergraduate education, made up of Forster, Shaw, Beerbohm, Woolf, Strachey, James, Eliot and Lawrence. When Stevenson published a 50th birthday poem in the TLS, it evoked for Malcolm ‘a society of remarkable people meeting in each other’s burnished houses and talking about literature and ideas in their quiet, kind English voices’.

Ironically, Anne Stevenson, we soon learn, had similar expectations: ‘I had read Jane Austen and Charles Dickens and Henry James, and I expected England to be the book I always wanted to live in.’ But, Malcolm writes dryly, for Stevenson ‘England turned out to be another book altogether.’ Soon after the publication of Bitter Fame, Malcolm meets her in London at the University Women’s Club, in a ‘dour and pinched’ room, with ‘sagging brown armchairs’ and a ‘little, wobbly table’. Anne, sitting ‘in a dejected slump’, is ‘an upset, beset, wound-up woman pouring out her grievances’, a woman still beautiful but drab and severe.

Malcolm reflects, not without satisfaction, one suspects, on ‘the complicity of England in the downward movement’ of Stevenson’s life. As the one who stayed home, she hears that the kind, cultivated voices sound ‘clipped’ and ‘Englishy’ and sees that the burnished houses are small and weird. But as it turns out, Anne Stevenson shares this view, and has projected her own experience onto Plath. In a lecture on the writing of Bitter Fame, she recalls her ‘own numb misery in England’ in the Fifties, and her assumption that Plath felt the same: ‘I supposed that Sylvia Plath, while imagining she was at home in British society, had in fact underestimated her own defensive naivety, especially among British intellectuals.’ Stevenson traces ‘Sylvia’s bewilderment among the English literati’ to her own confusion at their ‘tone of bitchy, scornful, sophisticated English superiority, decked out with French phrases and trenchant literary allusions’. Writing to Malcolm with fearful candour, Stevenson describes her own checkered history of alcoholism, despair and marital turmoil, down to leaving her children and husband to go off with another poet. To Malcolm, who mercilessly reports all the nasty remarks others make about Stevenson’s intellectual capacities and poetic abilities, this history reveals a typically Fifties tendency to endow men with the responsibility for one’s own artistic fate. On a later visit to Stevenson’s home, Malcolm finds ‘a touchingly eager hostess’, who seems younger and more animated than before. Yet her pleasant house is a confusing maze of little rooms; she messes up the lasagna she is cooking for dinner; and she still seems dependent on men to bail her out.

So after Sister Anne has suffered and Sister Sylvia has perished, Sister Janet takes her own trip to the dark tower. Her quest is punctuated with many moments of discovery and combat. On the anniversary of Plath’s death, in February 1991, she has lunch with Olwyn Hughes in a restaurant in Camden Town. The city itself seems deserted: ‘London ... had a hushed, emptied-out feeling. The Gulf War had begun a few weeks earlier; terrorism was feared, and travel had halted – my hotel was three-quarters empty.’ Olwyn is a fiercely loyal Cerberus at the entrance to the cave, who warns Malcolm of the ‘awful’ Jacqueline Rose and her forthcoming book, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath; but agrees to show Malcolm the house in which Plath committed suicide. Its very ordinariness brings powerfully to her mind ‘the tension between time and history’ – time which heals, history which reopens the wound. Somewhere in the gap between the blankness of the house and its tragic story is the enigma of the Plath legend she has come to solve.

Once over the threshold, Malcolm begins an ‘arduous’ journey into England as she interviews Plath’s friends and enemies. It is bitterly cold, as in the winter of 1963 when Plath died, and, as Al Alvarez wrote, ‘the trains froze on the tracks.’ Malcolm too sits for hours in an unheated train because the doors have frozen shut, and the behaviour of her fellow passengers strikes her as maddeningly English: they ‘sat docile and expressionless, incurious about their fate, in a kind of exaltation of uncomplaining discomfort’. In this annoyance she feels a kinship with Plath, in whose essay ‘Snow Blitz’ she finds ‘American impatience with English passivity and its attendant moral superiority’.

Fed up with the slow and ‘sickly trains’ (British Rail plays a major role in this quest), she decides to take a taxi from Cornwall to Milverton in Somerset to see Clarissa Roche. The taxi driver arrives with his wife and child in the back, and for the whole journey, the driver chats to Malcolm, sitting in front, and does not speak a word to his wife. After some futile efforts to bring her into the conversation, Malcolm desists. ‘I felt I was in the presence of a husband-and-wife relationship so archaic, so out of date, that it was almost like standing in front of some extraordinary old ruin. This was the real thing, this was sexism so pure and uninflected that it inspired a kind of awe.’ It is a very Stonehenge of sexism; and abruptly, she tells the driver to detour to Court Green, the house Ted Hughes shared with Plath before their separation, and now inhabits with his third wife. The juxtaposition inevitably stirs metaphoric echoes. On the surface, Malcolm proclaims her sympathy, indeed her ‘feeling of tenderness’ for Hughes, and her ‘shame at my complicity in the chase that has made his life a torment’. On another level, the taxi driver and his silent wife and child become accusing symbols of another story.

At the heart of the book, Malcolm comes face to face with Jacqueline Rose, whose critical book on Plath outraged the Hugheses. A brilliant literary critic, English rather than American, Rose is a formidable antagonist, and Malcolm braces herself for the encounter. Earlier she has told us how Plath had the habit of going to a park in Cambridge to cut a rose or two for her apartment with a pair of silver-plated scissors. Now Malcolm admits that she too is armed: ‘My narrative of Rose has an edge; my silver-plated scissors are ever at the ready to take snips at her.’ But Rose wins Malcolm’s grudging admiration. She is impressed by Rose’s ‘very handsome flat’ and says twice that Rose herself is ‘attractive’ – a cool understatement, but a lot more than she grants most people who let her into their homes. (Wisely, Rose serves her only biscuits and tea. I would sooner cook for Michael Winner.) Having written famously before of the way most people babble like narcissistic fools in front of a reporter, she gives Rose ‘a score of 99’ in conducting oneself with a journalist.

After their meeting, guarded and wary on both sides, Malcolm writes Rose a letter which she does not mail, but prints in the book. In it she speculates about her feeling that they were fighting over ‘some central, unacceptable thing’. She wonders whether the charged, crackling intensity of their encounter involved ‘issues of secrets and forbidden knowledge, as well as of sibling rivalry (the image of two women fighting over something – over a man?)’ Are they somehow rivals for the ‘electrically attractive’ Ted Hughes? In my view, what is ‘unacceptable’ here is that they are actually fighting over a woman, over the seductive tension that reading Plath and identifying with her compels. The encounter is crucially placed, because it is Rose who has offered a sexually androgynous reading of Plath’s ‘The Rabbit Catchers’, a reading Hughes finds utterly objectionable and outrageous. For him, Malcolm writes, and ‘perhaps for the whole pre-Freudian English nation’, bisexuality is unacceptable. Yet despite her own Freudian credentials, she does not look very deeply into this confrontation.

Malcolm’s journey ends in September 1991 ‘at an ugly modernised station’ in Bedford where ‘a wan sun appeared in the gray sky’. In ‘a small house on a silent street of narrow, rather bleak and pinched two-storey brick row houses, the most common form of English domestic architecture’, she meets Trevor Thomas, the last person to see Plath alive. He is a self-obsessed, blinkered eccentric, and his house is a bizarre junkheap, a set for The Caretaker. The house she takes ‘as a kind of monstrous allegory of truth’ and ‘a metaphor for the problem of writing’. How does one choose from the surfeit of material, the welter of details? Ultimately, the journalist, like the novelist, picks a card from the deck, but in the Plath game the room is ‘so dark and gloomy that one has a hard time seeing one’s hand; one is apt to make mistakes.’

Malcolm calls her book The Silent Woman in reference to an anecdote she hears from Olwyn Hughes, about a quarrel which ended in Plath’s mute glare. This Medusan speechlessness, Malcolm writes, ‘is the deadly, punishing weapon’. It is also a metaphor of suicide: Plath stopped the conversation for ever, and spoke only from beyond the grave with her blazing poems. In their stunning achievement, Malcolm writes, the books and poems are also ‘full of threatening silences ... we stand before the Ariel poems as Olwyn stood before the stone-faced Sylvia.’ But there are silent men in this story, as well as silent women. Malcolm never meets Ted Hughes, although she finds ‘a kind of Chekhovian large-heartedness and melancholy’ in his letters. He has remained silent about Plath out of choice, although he writes in frustration that his silence ‘seems to confirm every accusation and fantasy’. Plath’s brother Warren has never spoken to biographers, or written his own memoir; and among Plath’s lovers, Richard Sassoon has eluded all the biographers’ nets. Such proud silences command our respect.

Yet the silent woman of the title recalls a famous inn sign of a headless woman holding a tray. Is this woman silent or silenced, threateningly mute or deliberately shut up? Are the messages she bears from the underworld still too terrible to hear? Plath’s survivors, as Malcolm describes them, are silencers; Olwyn in particular, with her brutally direct letters to Stevenson and others, seems to be the hostile muse, ‘a personification of the force – sometimes called the resistance – that can keep the writer from writing. She is the voice that whispers in your ear and tells you to put down your pen before she knocks it out of your hand. In letter after letter she tells Anne the withering things that writers tell themselves as they try to write.’ Ted Hughes, according to Stevenson, has the authority to compel silence without ever demanding it.

But finally the silent woman in this book is Janet Malcolm herself. Both Olwyn and Ted Hughes have complained about the way literary critics and journalists have treated them like characters in fiction. ‘Of course they do,’ writes Malcolm. ‘The freedom to be cruel is one of journalism’s uncontested privileges and the rendering of subjects as if they were characters in bad novels is one of its privileges.’ Cruel, perhaps; but bad novels are not the models she is aiming for. Come out from behind that mask, Ms Malcolm; there’s still time.

[*] The Silent Woman will be published in this country by Picador on 25 October (224 pp., £14.99, 0 330 33578 2).