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 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 calls biographers professional burglars, voyeurs, and busybodies, rifling through the most intimate places in their subjects’ lives. This crude delving into gossip is masked by the elaborate apparatus of notes and other documentation that makes biography seem a legitimate enterprise. Malcolm attributes the great popularity of biography to a collusion between biographers and readers, both slavering to read other people’s mail and to discover the secrets of other people’s lives.
Biographies raise the same sort of ethical concerns Malcolm has identified in her book on journalism, The Journalist and the Murderer (1990). The biographer, like the journalist, is driven by reportorial desire, the urge to get a story no matter how it may affect its subjects, their friends, and their families. Like the journalist, the biographer uses the interview to con people into spilling the beans, as Malcolm puts it.
To her credit, Malcolm does not absent herself from criticism. Once she decides to do a book on the Sylvia Plath phenomenon, she realizes that she has classed herself with other biographers rooting around for information. She too must deal with the executors of the Plath estate, chiefly Ted’s sister Olwyn, who has been the bane of every Plath biographer. The difference in Malcolm’s case, however, is that she is not writing a full-dress biography of Sylvia Plath; she is studying the whole literature of biography that has grown up around this intriguing poet.
Plath died a suicide in 1963 by gassing herself in an oven. She had attempted suicide once before as a teenager, and as one of Malcolm’s informants tells her, the poet was always a borderline personality, on the edge of doing herself in. Plath wrote poetry about suicide and attracted the attention of other poets, such as Anne Sexton, who also committed suicide.
Malcolm suggests that certain key events and texts ensured Plath’s canonization as poet and feminist martyr. First, Plath wrote her best poetry, collected in her book Ariel (1965), in the last year of her life. Until then, she had worked in the shadow of her husband, Ted Hughes, later the Poet Laureate of England, whose collections of poetry won major awards while she struggled to place her poems in magazines and publish them in book form. Plath’s last poetry is vivid and sometimes extremely painful. Its highly personal tone and use of historical metaphors—such as her allusions to the Holocaust—have attracted both intense praise and condemnation. Virtually no critic, however, denies that her final poems demonstrate genius.
Naturally, biographers would want to know why such a brilliant woman killed herself. In 1963, the year of her death, there was no women’s movement, and Plath’s work was not yet well known. What turned the corner in Plath biography, so to speak, was a brilliant memoir by A. Alvarez, a poet and critic writing for a British paper, The Independent. As poetry editor, Alvarez had published some of Plath’s poems and was one of the first to recognize their startling power and originality. He had attempted suicide himself, and he had known Plath in her last years in London. Thus his prose had a special authority, which reached a general audience when he included his memoir of Plath in his acclaimed book The Savage God: A Study of Suicide (1972), which has been frequently reprinted in paperback.
Alvarez revealed for the first time some of the key details of Plath’s biography—her growing mastery as a poet, her estrangement from Hughes, and her acute suffering during her last days in a bitterly cold England, trying to take care of her two children and getting up at five in the morning to write her poetry. Alvarez, a friend of Hughes as well, was discreet and did not mention many of the details of the Hugheses’ married life. As Malcolm shrewdly points out, however, the very omission of material on Hughes in Alvarez’ memoir raised suspicions. What was Hughes’s role in Plath’s death? Hughes himself was quick to see the damage Alvarez had done, but he couched his objections to Alvarez in the form of concern for Plath’s young children and the pain Alvarez’ speculations would cause them when they were old enough to read them. Alvarez replied that he had treated Plath’s life with considerable tact, reserve, and sensitivity. Malcolm does not disagree, but she persuasively demonstrates that once Alvarez articulated a vision of Plath’s life and death, he opened the door wide to every sort of biographical speculation—exactly...