The Silent Woman
Janet Malcolm’s sympathies lie with the subjects of biography and with their families, who have to withstand the prying of biographers. She investigates Sylvia Plath’s life in order to understand why it has occasioned so many biographies that tend to idealize her and demonize her husband, Ted Hughes, a brilliant English poet and a ruggedly handsome man whom Malcolm believes biographers have maligned.
Malcolm is shrewd in pointing out the faults and ethical dilemmas of biographers, but she is curiously blind to the shortcomings of authorized biography. Her sympathies to out to Plath’s authorized biographer, Anne Stevenson, although by Malcolm’s own account Stevenson was manipulated and treated rather badly by Hughes and his sister Olwyn. Malcolm never acknowledges that the authorized biographer is just as likely to present a skewed version of the subjects life as the unauthorized biographer.
Malcolm is a forceful and eloquent writer. She is also rather glib and invasive in ways that would make the boldest biographer gape. Thus she transforms the messy interior of an interviewees home into a metaphor for the difficulties of writing, thereby demeaning the interviewee in the interest of presenting a questionable literary conceit. This arbitrary and rather cruel handling of an interview subject who is still alive is surely as reprehensible as an intrusion a contemporary biographer might make into a person’s life.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XC, February 1, 1994, p. 978.
London Review of Books. XVI, May 12, 1994, p. 3.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 15, 1994, p. 3.
The Nation. CCLVIII, May 16, 1994, p. 670.
The New Republic. CCX, June 6, 1994, p. 34.
The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, March 27, 1994, p. 1.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, March 7, 1994, p. 58.
Time. CXLIII, April 18, 1994, p. 80.
The Wall Street Journal. March 29, 1994, p. A14.
The Washington Post Book World. XXIV, March 27, 1994, p. 1.