Ours is not an age in which literary events get much attention, but the publication in the New Yorker last August of Janet Malcolm's study of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes was an exception. Brilliantly packaged with reprints of the Plath poems which the New Yorker had originally published, the issue was a sell-out on both sides of the Atlantic, and for weeks no dinner party from Hampstead to the Hamptons was complete without a discussion of it. Now published as a book, The Silent Woman is ostensibly a scathing denunciation of the ethics of literary biography in general and a defence of Hughes and his formidable sister Olwyn in particular.[*] Malcolm takes arms against the hordes of biographers, journalists, feminists and sensation-seekers who have mercilessly raked over the ashes of Plath's life, often blaming Hughes for his infidelity during Plath's life and his iron control of her copyrights since her death. 'The pleasure of hearing ill of the dead is not a negligible one,' she writes witheringly of their motives, 'but it pales before the pleasure of hearing ill of the living.' Since Malcolm herself, however, 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 in the United States. In the New York Times Book Review, Caryn James observed that 'while the English fuss about poets' graves, Americans gossip about litigation and celebrity journalists.'
LRB 12 May 1994 | PDF Download