THE SILENT WOMAN: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes JANET MALCOLM Alfred A. Knopf. 207 pp. $23.
Until recent years there was a restaurant in Manteo, N.C., called The Silent Woman. The colorful sign in front, designed after an Elizabethan pub sign, pictured a headless woman standing upright.
This image came to mind while I was reading Janet Malcolm's The Silent Woman, about the biographer's craft as it relates to Sylvia Plath. A novelist best known for The Bell Jar and a poet who showed flashes of genius, Plath ended her own life in 1963 by putting her head in her kitchen oven and turning on the gas.
No silent woman, she; for far from being silenced in death, Plath entered that peculiar pantheon of fame that is the domain of suicide rock stars and artists: In death, her fame far outstrips the reputation she enjoyed while alive. Her husband, poet Ted Hughes, is known not only as England's poet laureate but as Sylvia Plath's husband. In Malcolm's book the real Plath remains anything but silent, though it is clear that her reputation has been obscured, not illuminated, by her biographers. In the years since Plath's death, one segment of the reading public has identified her as a feminist martyr: a woman of genius destroyed by her circumstances in an insensitive world. But Hughes has his supporters, too, and they have written of him as a martyr in his own right, a man unfairly blamed for the ugly death of his wife, who was - to her detractors - little more than a madwoman who wrote.
There is also a third faction: readers worldwide who care not at all about Hughes, Plath or their poetry, and yet have gone on to live normal, healthy lives despite this deprivation. Their numbers may increase after The Silent Woman.
In this unusual book, Malcolm examines the various biographies that have been written about Plath, conducting an especially effective examination of Anne Stevenson's critically blistered Bitter Fame and tracing the roots that have brought about the fervent factions divided over Plath's life and work. She is at her best when recording her conversations with Plath's biographers, less so when she discourses upon what she's heard. The conversations are fascinating, but Malcolm's commentary has an undergraduate artsiness about it ("ink-stained kvetch" is one unfortunate pun she offers along the way), while her retellings of who did what to whom tend to meander.
The greatest hurdle Plath's biographers have encountered is Olwyn Hughes, Ted's sister and longtime executor of Plath's literary estate. She was for years ``the Cerberus to the Plath estate,'' according to Malcolm, and any biographer who attempted to communicate with Ted Hughes or to quote from Plath's works had to write according to Olwyn's viewpoint, expressing loyalty to brother Ted. As interviewed by Malcolm, Plath's biographers appear as a collection of eccentrics, their lives changed for the worse after being caught in Olwyn's web. By comparison, Ted Hughes - who was not interviewed by Malcolm - seems an evasive shadow, not so much a man poet as a rumor of a man.
Malcolm takes pains not to pass judgment on her interviewees, letting them tell their stories in their own words. She lets her own prejudices shine through only occasionally - for example, she repeatedly reminds the reader that the 1950s, the decade of her own coming of age, were a hypocritical, staid and gray period in American history, thus confounding autobiography with history - while revealing a deep understanding and sympathy for Plath's poetry and prose. If she occasionally goes a bit too far afield in her use of quotation to make critical points - and she does, at one point quoting a stomach-turning entry from Plath's published Journals about the ecstasy of picking one's nose - she certainly does throw some light, however dappled, on the difficulties of writing biography in general and Plath's biography in particular.
Memo: James E. Person Jr., a native of Virginia who now lives in Michigan, is the editor of "Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800."
Caption Photo c. Indiana State University Poet and novelist Sylvia Plath committed suicide in 1963.
Copyright (c) 1994, Landmark Communications, Inc.
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