The much admired critic and New Yorker staff writer Janet Malcolm has died of lung cancer aged 86. She was the author of eight books of non-fiction and four essay collections, including “In the Freud Archives” (1984), “The Journalist and the Murderer” (1990), and “The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes” (1994), reviewed in the New Statesman by Bernard Crick, a biographer of George Orwell. Malcolm’s book, Crick wrote, “contains some of the best thinking on both the practical and the philosophical problems of biography”. It documented in detail the controversy of previous Plath/Hughes biographies and the arguments over the Plath estate, and in doing so reconfigured the very essence of what “biography” is. Crick considered some of Malcolm’s descriptions of witnesses “grating”; her insistence of quoting sources verbatim, New Yorker style, was “not particularly relevant to what I think of as biography: an account of how someone led their life, not necessarily how they present themselves in print or interview”. Yet, he concludes, “The Silent Woman” is a “provocative work” that “will be talked about for years to come.”
I often meditate on the art of blurbs as well as on the art of biography. Learned libraries, unlike public libraries, do us no service to discard the jacket as if not part of “the text” or semiotic package.
This book’s blurb is not just a good blurb but one which this reviewer, having read the book three times (first in the New Yorker, then the American edition, now in an almost identical English edition), can for once wholeheartedly endorse. It describes “a brilliant, elegantly reasoned meditation on the art of biography, in which [Janet Malcolm] takes as her example the various biographies of the poet Sylvia Plath … It is not a book about the life of Sylvia Plath, but about her afterlife: how her reputation was forged from the poems she wrote just before her suicide, how her estranged husband, Ted Hughes, as executor of her estate, tries to serve two masters – Plath’s art and his own need for privacy.”
Surprisingly, for a book of this importance, the English blurb and jacket-copy are identical and American. I suspect that the author’s hand lies heavily on the publishers (good for her), because she must walk through the myths and minefields (legal, moral, aesthetic and psychological) of the turbulent Plath-Hughes territory. Tough cookie though she seems, she must walk like a cat on eggs.
Her The Journalist and the Murderer was a deeply thoughtful exposure of the moral problems of in-depth journalism. But now her own technique of re-interviewing the witnesses of causes celebres has led to a prolonged libel suit. Did she conflate and touch up, with intent to damage, the interviews for her subsequent The Purloined Clinic? New York, as they say, buzzes with it. And sides have been taken, not always because of the merits of the complex case, but often because of anger that The Silent Woman does not give unqualified support to a local view of Sylvia Plath as a feminist martyr driven to suicide by a cruel Englishman.
This present book contains some of the best thinking I know on both the practical and the philosophical problems of biography, despite Malcolm’s grating habit of marking witnesses up or down by irrelevant if often funny details about their dress, furniture or cooking. The main balance of her judgments is admirable, however – even awesome, if one considers “all that background noise”. It’s no mean feat to get the five biographers and other witnesses to agree to be interviewed, as well as Olywn Hughes, for so many years her brother’s gatekeeper and literary agent for the Plath estate. And Malcolm got permission to quote directly from these interviews, from angry and harrowing letters of Ted Hughes, and from unpublished parts of Plath’s journals.
On practical matters, only once does she mention using a tape recorder, though she honestly admits how over-relaxed and incautious people can be in their own homes. She notes that all biography is inherently “transgressive” and “voyeuristic”; but I myself found tapes rarely necessary. They could inhibit private persons and make public figures play up to the mike. Perhaps Malcolm is too keen on verbatim quotes. That is New Yorker style. It gives a fine sense of character, but is not particularly relevant to what I think of as biography: an account of how someone led their life, not necessarily how they present themselves in print or interview. This is the old conflict of authenticity versus truth, reflecting the liberal world-view that everything follows from personality.
So we have “brilliant” portraits or character studies of the Plath biographers and of the pained, clumsy and impulsive gatekeeper. Philosophically, we have acute meditations on bias and motivation together with telling demonstrations of biases. But Plath and Ted Hughes, of course, remain out of range. Plath because she is dead “and has never grown old”, and Ted Hughes because he defends his privacy and will not obey the pert summonses of any biographer, including the meta-biographer Malcolm.
Here only would I apply her own scepticism to her blurb, which claims that “a portrait of Sylvia Plath emerges that gives us a sense of ‘knowing’ this tragic poet in a way we have never known her before”. That is debatable. For Malcolm can only leave many episodes of the life uncharted and, when charted, still enigmatic. She could do a trustworthy full life, but only with Ted Hughes’ permission. So, probably, it won’t be done in his lifetime. His right to privacy and to his own life must contradict the high-minded right to know, the arrogant demands of academic workshops and sheer vulgar curiosity. This seems to me wholly inescapable.
Our primary concern must be her poems (and his). But it is also reasonable for myths and speculations to be put to rest one day. If he did now authorise a biography, suspicions would attach. Think of poor Anne Stevenson. Olwyn offered her full co-operation and then, when she didn’t like the early drafts, bullied and harried her into awful compromises (even if the book is still easily the best of the bunch). Ted Hughes or “the estate” should not (but legally can) destroy any more of the evidence. By destroying the last manuscript volume of her journals, then publishing much of the rest, he got the worst of both worlds.
Malcolm says that her readers will notice that she has taken sides, that of the Hugheses and Anne Stevenson. At times they might find that hard to notice. She is really taking issue with “the pack of Ted Hughes’ tormentors and pursuers”, not endorsing all the Hugheses’ actions and their” clumsy fierceness” in trying to prevent publications.
When marriages break up with rage and violent recrimination, we all should know how useless it is to take sides rather than offer support if asked. When suicides follow, we can hiss “X drove Y to it” or “that crazy person got their revenge forever”, or speculate that the timing or the dose for another suicide attempt went wrong. We are all totally free to attribute motives to the dead, and often far too free to do so to the living.
To put so much stress on the personalities of the biographers does imply a kind of reductionism, given the terrible event that Plath’s great poems were her last poems. If we had all the facts of a writer’s life, we would understand how they were written. It’s the old argument. But even with honest Orwell (a writer playing on an image); even with tortured Plath, deserted and in deep depression (but a poet using her pain), there is an irreducible gap between imagination and biography. Think of Ezra Pound. Because he was a fascist we should not deny he was a poet; but because he was a poet we should not deny he was a fascist.
In this narrative of Chinese boxes, the reviewer himself pops up. Now he ungratefully reacts by noting the over psychologising so common both in New York intellectuals and in the New Yorker itself. Malcolm says that I was a “model of biographical rectitude” to insist on an absolute and prior waiver of copyright from Sonia Orwell, but that this insistence was because “he first had to ritually bring Orwell’s widow to her knees”. In fact, I was scared stiff of her. To demand such a contract was simply prudence.
However, this book is a provocative work that will dispel forever the innocence with which most of us have approached the reading of any biography. It will be talked about for years to come. Those last two sentences should be in quotes. I agree with the blurb almost reservedly – and with only a teasing irony. For Malcolm herself shrewdly guards her flank by casting doubt (unnecessarily) on the legitimacy of her own brave enterprise.
Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).