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In her landmark book in the field of biography, The Silent Woman (1993), Janet Malcolm investigates the biographers of Sylvia Plath. It is the reaction to a particular account of Plath’s life, Anne Stevenson’s Bitter Fame, that sparks her quest. Stevenson was pilloried in reviews for being too close to Ted Hughes, Plath’s estranged husband, or at least his ‘camp’.

Malcolm starts out with fighting words about biography:

The biographer at work, indeed, is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewelry and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away. The voyeurism and busybodyism that impel writers and readers of biography alike are obscured by an apparatus of scholarship designed to give the enterprise an appearance of banklike blandness and solidity. The biographer is portrayed almost as a kind of benefactor. He is seen as sacrificing years of his life to his task, tirelessly sitting in archives and libraries and patiently conducting interviews with witnesses. There is no length he will not go to, and the more his book reflects his industry the more the reader believes that he is having an elevating literary experience, rather than simply listening to backstairs gossip and reading other people’s mail. The transgressive nature of biography is rarely acknowledged, but it is the only explanation for biography’s status as a popular genre. (Kindle loc. 145-152)

Yet despite this polemic opening, Malcolm shows considerable empathy for all sides – including the biographers – in the ongoing dispute over Plath’s death and life. Her claims about biography are shown to be true in the case of some of Plath’s biographers, yet clearly not in others. What’s more, the case of Sylvia Plath would seem to me to be such an extreme test case in the ethics of biography that it shouldn’t be used to generalise about the whole. As much as the attentions of a biographer are a mixed blessing, most writers (in the case of literary biography) have sought public recognition for their writings, and for many this is partly a case of wanting readers to understand them, or at least some part of them. Whatever its crimes, biography also brings recognition to forgotten writers. When they are not writing about a sensational figure like Plath, they are often benefactors; I think of John Burbidge working for years on the life story of Gerald Glaskin, a Perth writer whose novels have been largely forgotten (Dare Me! 2014). He did it because he was interested in the man, and thought him worth remembering.

In Malcolm’s eyes, Stevenson’s “crime” was to ‘hesitate before the keyhole’ – to dare to question the entire biographical enterprise, by writing in her (Stevenson’s) preface of the need to be sensitive to Plath’s family. In the course of the narrative, Malcolm goes on to elucidate the terrible, suffocating effect Ted’s sister, Olwyn Hughes, had on Stevenson’s book. (While being, in theory, on the Hughes’s ‘side’.) This emerges as the true reason for the problems with Stevenson’s book; in the meantime, it seems Malcolm is not quite aware enough of the irony of her own judgements and depictions of various living people.

This all said, I think this is a superb book that deserves its status as a landmark in the history of biography. Even when Malcolm generalises and exaggerates, she does so in such a beautiful and provokingly important way. The ambiguities and questions she leaves us with are the treasures. I would hope the effect of the book is not to make writers shy away from the prospect of becoming biographers, but of doing so with a renewed appreciation of their responsibilities.