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Books: Everything but the truth - While Sylvia Plath's poetic fame grows and grows, a new book shows how her life story is 'trapped for ever at the terrible raw moment of her suicide'

SOMETHING like 20 years ago, I was invited by Faber & Faber to consider writing a biography of Sylvia Plath. My response was cautious, but the idea interested me. I had published one biography of a great woman, Mary Wollstonecraft, whose story mixed personal tragedy with high achievement; and Plath was another such, a true and extraordinary poet who had also gone to a terrible death.

My very modest qualifications for taking on the task were that I was of exactly the same generation as Plath. She had been taught English literature by a remarkable teacher, Dorothea Krook, at Newnham College, Cambridge, just as I had been; although I took my degree the year before Plath arrived, and never met her, many of my friends had known her. Michael Frayn remembers her from his undergraduate years in the mid-Fifties as a talkative and strikingly attractive American blonde who offered to introduce him and his friends to the editors of Mademoiselle so that they could earn their livings without having to take jobs. He first saw her when she turned up at a meeting of the staff of Varsity, a student paper, and then walked round the streets of Cambridge with him afterwards. She asked him to introduce her to another undergraduate she liked the look of, and they all three went punting on the river. Later he published two poems of hers in Granta, in those days an undergraduate magazine (see right). He remembers Ted Hughes standing completely silently in her room when he called on her, ignoring their conversation and gazing out of the window. Karl Miller, who knew her only after her marriage, and published her reviews and poems, also greatly admired her work but did not like her personally; in his company it was she who was disconcertingly silent. She struck him as 'self-centred and wrapped up in herself'. Miller knew her through Hughes, and she was pregnant when he met her, so perhaps she had reason to be wrapped up in herself at that point. Or perhaps she had learnt the trick of social silence from her husband.

Thinking back now to the circumstances of her life after Cambridge, it strikes me that certain notions about male- female bonding, loosely drawn from D H Lawrence via F R Leavis, coloured many young marriages of our generation. Lawrence certainly meant much to Plath and Hughes; they called their first child Frieda, after Mrs Lawrence, and his poetic influence is clear in such poems as Plath's wonderful Blackberrying. The male-female notions were to do with sex within marriage being passionate, serious and sacramental. At Cambridge we had generally enjoyed our sexual freedom before marriage, girls as much as boys, but I think we saw sex as something entirely different from the bloodless, easygoing style of Bloomsbury, and imagined we had discovered its importance in a way unknown to our parents' generation. Really we were innocents, of course, and in practice those Lawrentian marriages of total commitment worked out uncomfortably, at least during the early years.

For one thing, unlike Lawrence and Frieda, or Constance Chatterley and Mellors, we produced children. Then, as young graduates, the husbands found jobs easily and continued to live much as they had before, but the wives had to struggle to fit what 'work' they could into any space left by childbearing and rearing and domestic duties. I don't recall that many of our supposedly Lawrentian husbands took on the cooking or trimmed hats for us, as Lawrence did for Frieda. In fact one of my most vivid memories of the mid-1950s is of crying into a washbasin full of soapy grey baby clothes - there were no washing machines - while my handsome and adored husband was off playing football in the park on Sunday morning with all the delightful young men who had been friends to both of us at Cambridge three years earlier. I had wanted to do something with my life - I thought I had some capacities, and here they were going down the plughole with the soapsuds.

When I recalled this to a friend, he asked whether I was suggesting that Sylvia Plath was merely a depressed graduate housewife. The answer is that I think she was that as well as a genius. The shock of adjustment from competitive and high-achieving girl to subjugated wife and mother hit the women of my generation hard. Sylvia Plath's depression and suicide had many other sources, in her father's death and her feelings of abandonment by him, in her double nature, now bubbling and outgoing, now inturned, watchful and silent, but I would guess that the breaking of the sacramental marriage bond between her and her husband just as she was so vulnerable with the two small children was crucial.

Before I could begin to think of how to approach such a complex subject, Ted Hughes told Faber politely enough that while he had no particular objection to me, he did not want a biography done, and that was that. Friends have congratulated me on my lucky escape, and since I have read most of the books that have subsequently appeared, and followed the wretched disputes in the press, I suppose I should feel nothing but relief. It's not quite what I do feel. I keep somewhere under my skin a sisterly sympathy for that young woman who was defeated by the misery of married life, alongside awe for the creature who rose out of her own death, triumphantly, as the poet of her generation.

Now to Janet Malcolm, and her book The Silent Woman. I met her when she was planning this book; I already admired her writing, and thought she had found a good subject for her acute and witty pen in the barbed-wire tangle of recriminations surrounding Plath and Ted Hughes and his sister Olwyn, to whom he entrusted the literary estate of his dead wife. (The fact that Olwyn and Sylvia disliked one another makes this a primary knot in the tangle.) The Silent Woman is, like everything Malcolm writes, intensely readable. It summarises much of the material that has been published about Sylvia Plath's life, and reminds us of a great deal of what has gone on, although not everything; she is oddly silent, for instance, about some of the more outrageous 'feminist' attacks on Hughes and on Plath's grave. And sometimes it proffers journalistic brilliance where something gentler and kinder would have been more appropriate.

After a few introductory pages, Malcolm introduces Anne Stevenson, the recent and troubled biographer of Plath - her book was called Bitter Fame - and proceeds to describe meetings and quote from correspondence with her. It is well known that Stevenson, a poet herself, was driven close to breakdown as she struggled with her task. The reason was the repeated interventions of Olwyn Hughes, who had made the contract for the book, and proceeded to take it over like some literary incubus. Perhaps Stevenson hoped for sympathy from Malcolm; but Malcolm was playing a very sophisticated game, and what Stevenson gets is something rather different. She is given the full interviewer's treatment, her clothes, her cooking and her absent-mindedness laid before us, her history of marital problems and drinking dredged up for our inspection. Malcolm is apparently out to demonstrate just how brutal a trade biography is by adopting these methods on the people she interviewed. It is as though she has decided to model herself on Lynn Barber and has never heard of James Boswell.

Later in this book, she interviews Jacqueline Rose, author of a fine academic and purely literary study of Plath, and again she sets to work a la Lynn Barber. She begins by telling us that Rose's face, when she visited her, was framed by 'a great deal of artfully unruly blonde hair' - signifying, clearly, both personal vanity and inauthenticity - and adds that her whole person 'was surrounded by a kind of nimbus of self-possession'. Just as well, under the circumstances, you feel. Because later Malcolm tells us she was not even attempting to be fair, on the grounds that she had already decided to take the side of the Hugheses in their quarrel with Rose, whose publication they had tried to block. Since, according to Malcolm, it is impossible to be fair-minded or detached in matters of biography, here is a demonstration of unfair and malicious reporting to back up her claim.

But Jacqueline Rose was a good fighter, and more intelligent than most of us. She 'never - or almost never - forgot, or let me forget, that we were not two women having a friendly conversation over a cup of tea . . . but participants in a special, artificial exercise of subtle influence and counterinfluence . . .' Rose talked to her as though she were addressing a class, says Malcolm; but she also gives her 'a score of 99' on the scale of 'how people should conduct themselves with journalists'. 'She understood the nature of the transaction - that it was a transaction - and had carefully worked out for herself exactly how much she had to give in order to receive the benefit of the interview.'

Few of us are going to score 99 when being interviewed. The idea that we are engaged in a transaction in which we need to work out what we are prepared to 'give' is curious, and alien, to most people. We probably imagine that an interviewer is interested in exploring and discussing topics and events, and prepared to be open-minded about our work, even perhaps our character. Subjects who are 'good' at interviews are either so well defended that they refuse to say anything interesting, or so manipulative that they cannot be trusted. Perhaps these are the ones who score 100.

Malcolm's book is not really much concerned with Sylvia Plath, and not at all with her poetry. It is deeply concerned with the nastiness of biography, and with interviewing, and the impossibility of objectivity. There is a good deal of knockabout stuff, like the statement that biography is 'the medium through which the remaining secrets of the famous dead are taken from them and dumped out in full view of the world'. The biographer is a burglar, rifling through drawers, driven by voyeurism and busybodyism, and seeking stolen goods. Biographer and reader, each as despicable as the other, tiptoe down corridors together, 'to stand in front of the bedroom door and try to peep through the keyhole'. Sometimes they do; but then again, not always. Biography may concern itself with the shape of a life, with its human, historical and cultural context. It may wish to do justice to one who has not yet received it. It may uncover aspects of history that have been overlooked, or examine the interaction between the events of a life and the work produced. And sexual secrets may legitimately be discussed: how could Andrew Hodge's superb life of Alan Turing have been written without considering Turing's homosexuality? You don't have to be the slobbering voyeur Malcolm loves to conjure up to think that a complete portrait of a human being is better than a partial one.

Another of Malcolm's fixed ideas is that the 1950s were a particularly low and dishonest period. Journalists love to fix labels on decades, but it is a lazy device. We are told that Plath formed part of an 'uneasy, shifty-eyed generation', always keeping up a pretence about something; and that she looked a thoroughly 'vacuous girl of the Fifties, with dark lipstick and blonde hair'. There was also, it seems, a special breed of young men who flourished in 'the Eisenhower Fifties', 'thin, nervous, little, moody, sickly' young men, they were, but perversely attractive to women. Yes, I remember them well, but there are still some of them around in the Nineties; there are still shifty eyes, too, and people pretending, and even dark lipstick and blonde hair.

Sometimes Malcolm does hit the nail on the head. She is right when she says that the story of Plath is trapped for ever at the terrible raw moment of her suicide, whereas most people get through their marital storms into calmer waters. She is also honest in declaring that she has decided to take the Hugheses' side against their critics, even though Ted Hughes refused to talk to her, and even though she puts in a stinging reference to how one 'cannot help wondering about the emotions of the man for whom (Olwyn) is sacrificing herself, as he observes it from his cover'.

You can't help thinking through all this sorry mess that it would probably have been best if Hughes had published all his wife's journals, given his own account of what happened, however brief, and kept Olwyn out altogether. He may not like what he sees as grubby academics and journalists making money from raking about in his past, but he can't stop the interest either in Plath's genius or in her story.

And the poems grow and grow, but the story is still like an open wound that will not close. Around it fester feelings of shame, grief and anger, blame, jealousy and malice, and Janet Malcolm's shiny surgical instruments have done nothing to clean out the wound. I think of the words of Voltaire, who wrote, 'On doit des egards aux vivants; on ne doit aux morts que la verite'. In 60 years, when none of those concerned is likely still to be alive, it may be possible for someone to write a more complete and truthful biography of Sylvia Plath than has yet been done.

'The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes' by Janet Malcolm is published by Picador, at pounds 14.99, on 21 October