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.

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