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The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes Paperback – March 28, 1995

3.9 out of 5 stars 38 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Sylvia Plath committed suicide in February 1963, and since then her poetry, fiction, and, increasingly, her life have maintained enormous power over readers' (particularly female readers') imaginations. Biographies continue to appear with regularity, despite the strong hold the Plath estate has on her work. But because of that hold, each biographer has been forced to accommodate the living (Ted Hughes, who was separated from Plath at the time of her death, and his larger-than-life sister, Olwyn, long the executrix), often at the expense of the dead. In 1989, Anne Stevenson's peculiar hybrid, Bitter Fame, was published, complete with an appendix full of devastating memoirs. It was not your average biography. When Janet Malcolm was first sent the book, she was less drawn to it by the Plath legend than by the fact that she had known Stevenson in the '50s, but she soon became captivated by the book's defeatist subtext. The dead woman's voice and writings seemed to overwhelm Stevenson's tentative narrative; and if that wasn't enough, there was also the none-too-angelic choir of those who had known Plath. "These too, said, 'Don't listen to Anne Stevenson. She didn't know Sylvia. I knew Sylvia. Let me tell you about her. Read my correspondence with her. Read my memoir.'"

Bitter Fame was soon garnering some powerfully bad notices, especially that of A. Alvarez in the New York Review of Books. Alvarez, the author of one of the most influential pieces on Plath, in his study of suicide, The Savage God, had some special, personal cards to deal, as have so many others Plath left behind. Because Malcolm's great theme is treachery--that of the interviewer, the journalist, the teller of just about any tale--the Plath mess seemed a perfect fit, and she decided to become a player, too. In 1991, Malcolm was having lunch with Olwyn Hughes in North London, 28 years to the day on which the poet died.

This is only one of the coincidences in The Silent Woman, a postmodern biography par excellence, which is less about the drama of Plath's life and still controversial death than about their continuing effect on the living. For Malcolm, all cards are wild, each one revealing more complexity, human cravenness, and, above all, brilliantly playful aperçus about human agency and writing's deceptions. I look forward to the dictionary of quotations that foregrounds the elegant "The pleasure of hearing ill of the dead is not a negligible one, but it pales before the pleasure of hearing ill of the living." And then there's, "Memory is notoriously unreliable; when it is intertwined with ill will, it may be monstrously unreliable. The 'good' biographer is supposed to be able to discriminate among the testimonies of witnesses and have his antennae out for tendentious distortions, misrememberings, and outright lies." It's clear that Malcolm doesn't see herself as a "good" biographer--she openly declares her allegiance, but is more than capable of changing it and of showing her cards. Or is she? In the end, The Silent Woman is a stunning inquiry into the possibility of ever really knowing anything save that "the game continues."

From Publishers 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.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 228 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (March 28, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679751408
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679751403
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #30,884 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Paperback
THE SILENT WOMAN: SYLVIA PLATH AND TED HUGHES by Janet Malcolm is a biography through the lens of what's wrong with biography. It's fascinating to Plath fans and afficionados (me) and those who want to examine language, text and form and the barriers between whatever truth is and the outcomes of communication (me again).

Malcolm is explicit in her premise: A biography had been written of Plath by Malcolm's University of Michigan cohort, Anne Stevenson (Bitter Fame), that had been controversial. Plath loyalists fulminated against Stevenson's pro-Hughes bias, and the Hughes family denounced it because they said that Stevenson had not cooperated enough. Malcolm, who looked up to the slightly older Stevenson at U of M, who is also a poet of some standing, follows the process of the Plath biography, as well as other works on the famous poet and the machinations/efforts of her former husband and Plath's literary estate executor, Hughes's sister, Olwyn. Malcolm interviews many of the participants, including Olwyn, but not Ted Hughes, and works not to find a "right" or "wrong" but to understand the issues with biography that can create the problems of trying to portray another's life. In the process, she exhibits more on the life of Hughes and Plath that fascinates those who are interested in such things. She couldn't have chosen a better example/subject to use for this dissection, because their lives are compelling, and the drama around how those lives have been portrayed by others -- including the impression management on the Hughes side, which was no small matter -- seem never ending.

Malcolm writes, "In a work of nonfiction, we almost never know the truth of what happened" (p 154).
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Format: Paperback
This is not a book for a casual reader to pick up and assume s/he will finish it understanding Plath & Hughes in a linear sense. It is more a record of the author's journey into the world of Plath biographers, and Hughes defenders. Having read those previously, I did find this work interesting but ultimately confusing. Were previous biographers co-opted by Ted Hughes' sister Olwyn, and were they harder on Sylvia's quirky personality than they would have been otherwise? That is the question and, to my mind, it is not answered here. Hughes' death last year makes it all more interesting; though the poems in Birthday Letters speak for himself, he no longer can. This will be a great sourcebook, in a sense, for biographers in the future, after ALL the players are gone, but at this time, for me, it raised more questions than it answerered.
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Format: Paperback
Part of the great appeal of Janet Malcolm's work is precisely her subjectivity. She makes no bones about being "objective." There is no such thing as objectivity even in a New York Times article. What you get with a Malcom book is her view of the facts, and that is exactly what makes her interesting, for her view is so psychologically astute and well reasoned and just plain well-written that even if the stance she takes is contrary to yours, the story will be fascinating. The exploration of the effect of Sylvia Plath's suicide on those she left behind is what makes this book so worth reading. The universals here go way beyond who was the victim and who was the demon. I don't really care about Sylvia Plath. I don't care about Ted Hughes either. It's Malcolm who's the main character here.
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Format: Paperback
Malcolm's characteristic interest, in all her books, is to examine the many sides in a typically academic battle regarding truth and viewpoint and show how the many people involved in the battle often shoot themselves in their feet by making self-servicing claims in their own defenses. Naturally, few things work better for this condition than the problematic of biography, and in the case of Sylvia Plath Malcolm found a humdinger of a topic.
Most literate readers know about the basic facts of Plath's life--the marriage to Ted Hughes, his philandering and subsequent abandonment of her, and her suicide in 1963. On these basic signposts various biographers (and, more crucially, Plath's friends, family, and enemies during her lifetime) have hung all sorts of interpretations, to the point where a college classmate of Malcolm's, Anne Stevenson, agreed to write an unsymathetic account of Plath's life on behalf of Hughes and his sister Olwyn--and wound up devastating her own literary career by pleasing neither the Hugheses nor Plath's advocates.
This is one of the most thoughtful studies of biography and its problems ever written, and shows the horrible things people can do to one another in the name of trying to "set the story straight."
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a remarkable book, a blend of numerous genres: biography, memoir, journalism, criticism, psychological analysis, deconstruction of other biographers and memoirists and their work, discussion of postmodernism, and more. Malcolm has an extraordinary intelligence and imagination--both expressed in her metaphors, many of them extended beyond belief. I particularly liked her metaphors for and about Olwyn Hughes, Ted Hughes's sister: "Cerberus to the Plath estate," Anne Stevenson's unsuccessful commanding of "Olwyn back into the lamp," Anne's obliviously walking into "Olwyn's web." (Anne wrote what Malcolm says is a good biography of Plath that Olwyn insisted on editing and correcting as the price of permission to quote.) Malcolm has brilliant things to say about memory and memoirs, criticism, biography, the impossibility of fair-mindedness and truth, writing in general, the language of face and body that can't be captured on recordings, and footnotes. What I don't understand, although Malcolm addresses the question, is why any of the people she interviewed and wrote about gave her permission to quote them. Even the people whose sides she takes emerge scarred and bleeding from her descriptions. Surely her reputation for this proclivity preceded her with at least some of the characters in the book. On the other hand, the noted critic Harold Bloom has remarked on her "wonderful exuberance" and has stated that her books "transcend what they appear to be: superb reportage."

Of biography Malcolm says that it "is the medium through which the remaining secrets of the famous dead are taken from them and dumped out into full view of the world. The biographer at work, indeed, is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house . . . .
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