Can We Agree On No More Sylvia Plath Biographies?

I think we can all agree that a mythology has grown around Sylvia Plath and her husband Ted Hughes. Both her writing and her short life were undoubtedly remarkable, but it is also the fact of Hughes’ control over what was published or not published after her death that has gained notoriety and drawn endless attention to both their names. For decades people have written about them, pried into their lives and invaded their privacy, even when Ted Hughes was still alive. Now that they have both passed away it seems that there are no limits on how much or what can be said about them.

In her book The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (1994) Janet Malcolm confronts the issue of how much the poets’ live have been dragged through the mud and held up to the public for viewing in all their glory and pain. Malcolm examines the various Plath biographies that have appeared over the years and the people that have both written and contributed to them. She speaks to people who knew Plath and those who have decided to take sides in what some perceive to be a divide between those who support Plath and those who support Hughes. I personally think such a divide, the act of taking sides, is ludicrous and serves only to trivialise the complicated and ultimately personal and private nature of their relationship. Taking sides implies that we have a a right to an opinion about what was right or wrong, who should be praised and who should be criticised. The fact is, we do not.

2012 Granta paperback
2012 Granta paperback

And yet, what is biography if not dissecting other people’s lives, and, sometimes, passing judgement? The very nature of biography is to sift through the details of a life and expose what was once personal and private. We love to examine the lives of others, and the fact is that this can be done with respect and discretion – but when the life being examined was in living memory, and more is known, the examination can become too detailed, too personal, and can cross from interest and fascination into gawking and speculation. We forget that they were just people. I think sometimes everyone forgets that Sylvia Plath was just a person, another woman like me or anyone else trying to work through life. She was special in that she saw that life with a poet’s eye, and it is, rightly, for this that she is remembered. But she is also remembered for the dark elements of her life, including the breakdown of her marriage – not that that is any of our business frankly. Her poet’s eye was part literary genius and part mental illness, which is what makes her so fascinating. I think it also makes her hard to understand for some people, which leads to the gawking and over-examination. People become obsessed with getting ‘the whole story’ and understanding the truth.

The nature of truth is something that Janet Malcolm explores throughout The Silent Woman. As a journalist and non-fiction writer she is in the business of finding the truth, and as she interviews various people who knew or wrote about Plath she examines how much truth she finds in each person and their recollections. Ultimately she declares that there can be no real truth in non-fiction writing because we cannot ever know ‘what really happened’ between other people. She states that there can only be truth in fiction, where the author is the omniscient power. I’m not sure if I agree – but I didn’t agree with a lot of Malcolm’s assertions. Malcolm is an opinionated writer, which I liked, but I didn’t always warm to her. To me she was cold and humourless, researching and interviewing with a determination that seemed more like a fixation than a passion. She doesn’t seem to gain any pleasure from her research for this book – it is all bleakly matter-of-fact and while I was fascinated and engaged, I realised towards the end that I didn’t really enjoy reading The Silent Woman. It produced no positivity for me and only proved that some things are best left alone, best kept at a respectful distance. Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes were both extraordinary writers, and I think we would all be better off if the world focussed on that and left their personal lives to rest.

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First published by Picador in 1994, then by Granta in 2005 and 2012.

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