The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes by Janet Malcolm

A year of Lucy Sweeney Byrne’s favourite books

 Gwyneth Paltrow as Sylvia Plath and  Daniel Craig as Ted Hughes: Janet Malcolm’s study of biographies written about Plath questions the notion of a single truth. Photograph: Bill Kaye/David Appleby

Gwyneth Paltrow as Sylvia Plath and Daniel Craig as Ted Hughes: Janet Malcolm’s study of biographies written about Plath questions the notion of a single truth. Photograph: Bill Kaye/David Appleby

 

There’s something forbidding about Janet Malcolm. This is because her writing is invariably so capable, so insightful, so sharp, that it’s only when you close one of her books that you notice you’re bleeding. The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes, a study of biographies written about Plath, is no exception.

“People grow older. They forgive themselves and each other, and may even come to realize that what they are forgiving themselves and each other for is youth. But a person who dies at 30 in the middle of a messy separation remains forever fixed in the mess. To the readers of her poetry and her biography, Sylvia Plath will always be young and in a rage over Hughes’s unfaithfulness.”

Thus, Malcolm sets her stall out early. Her job here, she tells us, is not to take sides, not to offer opinion. In fact, her point is that this is never the job of the biographer, nor of the reader – and yet it always happens. The author, even in a biography, can never fully disappear, and nor can the reactions and inflected emotions of the person reading. Subjectivity skewers fact, which can be dangerous, when real lives are involved.

Malcolm distrusts vilification, victimisation, easy answers and teaches us to distrust them too. Every sentence written, Malcolm posits, is a decision not to write its alternative. Biography, as well as history, we come to learn, is a choice made, rather than a truth uncovered; after all, the same sky can be described as mostly clouded, or mostly clear.

Thus, with characteristic brevity, Malcolm wastes no time in drawing our attention to her theme; the unreliability of the author; the vigilance required to always remember that there is no one single truth, no clear, adherable narrative, when writing an account of a life (or of anything that happens, for that matter). The book is, at root, a biography of biographies; a critical tool, for interpreting the world around us. But, more importantly, it’s also enormously pleasurable, revealing, sometimes even laugh-out-loud funny.

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