Rifling the Drawers of the Dead : THE SILENT WOMAN: Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes, <i> By Janet Malcolm (Alfred A. Knopf: $23; 208 pp.)</i>

<i> Elaine Showalter is professor of English at Princeton University, and the author of "Sister's Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women's Writing" (1991)</i>

Ours is not an age in which literary events create much stir, but the publication in the New Yorker last summer of Janet Malcolm’s study of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes was an exception. Brilliantly packaged by Tina Brown, with reprints of the Plath poems that had been originally published in the New Yorker, the issue was a sellout on both sides of the Atlantic, and for weeks no dinner party from Westwood to Hampstead was complete without a discussion of it. Now published as a book, “The Silent Woman” is a scathing denunciation of the ethics of literary biography, as well as a defense of Plath’s survivors--Ted Hughes, now poet laureate; his fiercely loyal sister Olwyn, and indirectly the writer Anne Stevenson, whose book about Plath, “Bitter Fame” (1989), was “pilloried” because it was seen as a vehicle for the Hughes family’s view of the marriage. Writing less about Sylvia Plath’s life than about her afterlife as a legend, Malcolm takes arms against the hordes of biographers, journalists and feminist literary critics who have probed the mystery of Plath’s suicide, and blamed Hughes for his infidelity in life and his iron control of Plath’s copyrights in death.

According to Malcolm, biographers are just professional burglars, snooping through the drawers of the dead for loot--that is, intimate, scandalous or damaging information. Readers of literary biography are driven by “voyeurism and busybodyism,” deceiving themselves that they are having “an elevating literary experience,” when they are actually “listening to backstairs gossip and reading other people’s mail.” Journalists are the cruelest of all these scavengers, trading in “sadism and reductionism”; and even the subject’s relatives, “the biographer’s natural enemies,” can be sucked into hapless collusion. Among the seven deadly sins of literary biography, Malcolm warns, greed also plays a leading role.

Since Malcolm herself has been involved in a notorious case about libel and invasion of privacy brought by the modest and reclusive Jeffrey Masson, the topical ironies of the book have attracted a great deal of attention. We might well ask why she is eagerly publishing big chunks of previously unpublished correspondence between Ted Hughes, Olwyn Hughes and Anne Stevenson, let alone why she is sneaking around Ted Hughes’ garden in Devon. The magnetic pull of Sylvia Plath’s story, and Malcolm’s personal attraction to it despite her proclaimed scruples, produce the tension that makes “The Silent Woman” so fascinating. The book is a tour de force, the best thing Malcolm has ever done. Apparently a journalistic expose of sorts, it is more like an epistolary novel, a Jamesian quest for American innocence and European corruption, and an exploration of the terrible costs of female creative achievement for the American generation of the 1950s.


Why is Sylvia Plath’s story so compelling? Malcolm quotes an excerpt from Plath’s own journal of 1958: “Liz Taylor is getting Eddie Fisher away from Debbie Reynolds, who appears cherubic, round-faced, wronged, in pin curls and house robe--Mike Todd barely cold. How odd these events affect one so. Why? Analogies?” She finds many analogies between Plath’s experience, Anne Stevenson’s and her own; indeed, she claims, Plath was a paradigmatic figure of her generation--”the fearful, double-faced fifties.” For intellectual women with literary ambitions, the times were particularly inauspicious; in the years before the sexual revolution (the 19th Century in America, Malcolm writes, didn’t really end until the 1960s), women’s destinies seemed bounded by their choice of men. And while all writers must struggle against convention and their own resistances, “women writers seem to have to take stronger measures, make more peculiar psychic arrangements than men do to activate their imaginations.”

Yet while other women surrendered or failed, Plath resisted the period’s blandness and confronted its concealed horrors head-on. In her life, as in her writing, Plath “was able--she elected--to confront what most of the rest of us fearfully shrank from.” Asking herself how Plath, the scrubbed and shiny college girl from Massachusetts, became the terrifyingly mature and powerful poet of Ariel, Malcolm hypothesizes that expatriation was an important element. In one sense, she argues that Plath was alienated in postwar England, and closed out by the feline British intelligentsia, so different from the burnished image that appealed to bookish and romantic American undergraduates in the 1950s. Yet she also believes that Plath had to flee the puritanism and duplicity of Eisenhower America; she “did not write--and could not have written--’The Bell Jar of Ariel’ in her native Massachusetts.” Plath had to shed her American accent, appearance, identity, to become an artist. In a parable of American women’s writing, which has functioned at least since the 19th Century, she was Persephone: “Like so many women writers, she had to leave the daylight world and go underground to find her voice.”

In the course of the book, Malcolm becomes a Persephone too, following Plath, and also Anne Stevenson, into darkest England. Beginning in February, 1991, in a London deserted by tourists because of the Gulf War, she travels in freezing weather and incompetent British Rail trains to interview Plath’s friends and enemies, her survivors and her critics. Ironically, Malcolm never meets Ted Hughes, although she finds “a kind of Chekhovian largeheartedness and melancholy” in his letters. Indeed, the further she travels, the more complex the “truth” appears to become, and the more sympathetic the motives of all involved. Malcolm’s quest ends, during another trip, in September, 1991, when she meets Trevor Thomas, who lived in the flat below Plath’s when she killed herself, and who was the last person to see her alive. He is a self-obsessed eccentric, whose account of Plath’s emotional distress is mingled with his own grievances, and whose house is crammed with a lifetime’s accumulation of junk. Malcolm takes it as “a kind of monstrous allegory of truth” and “a metaphor for the problem of writing.” How can a biographer shape a narrative from this chaotic material? Ultimately the journalist, like the novelist, picks a card from the deck, but in the Plath game the room is “so dark and gloomy that one has a hard time seeing one’s hand; one is apt to make mistakes.”

Malcolm calls the book “The Silent Woman” in reference to an anecdote about a quarrel between Plath and Olwyn Hughes, which ended in Plath’s mute glare. This “(Medusan) speechlessness,” Malcolm writes, “is the deadly, punishing weapon.” It is also a metaphor of suicide; Plath stopped the conversation forever, and spoke only from beyond the grave with the blazing poems that have made her one of the most widely read writers of our century. In their stunning achievement, Malcolm writes, the books and poems are also “full of threatening silences . . . we stand before the Ariel poems as Olwyn stood before the stone-faced Sylvia.” Plath’s art is “threatening,” I assume, in its challenge to the reader’s own compromises and timidities.

But finally the silent woman in this book is Janet Malcolm herself. Repeatedly but with tantalizing vagueness, she draws connections between herself and Plath, between herself and Stevenson, who was one year ahead of her at the University of Michigan, and seemed to have lived out her own “fantasies of nonconformity.” It seems clear that Malcolm has used journalism as a shield and a passport into alternative lives, places where women both long to go and fear to tread. Plath’s story is a thread she follows into the labyrinth of sexuality, art and death, and into the uncertainties of nonfiction where “we almost never know the truth of what happened.” Beneath its high-minded denunciations of biography, “The Silent Woman” is a step across a threshold, and the first tentative notes of a personal voice. As Malcolm knows very well, it’s not Sylvia we mourn for.

BOOK MARK: For an excerpt from “The Silent Woman,” see the Opinion section.