Monday, April 26, 2021

A Birthday Present for Aurelia

It's Aurelia Plath's 115th birthday (born April 26, 1906). Happy birthday, Sylvia's mom, and here is a present for you.

Hoping to write Sylvia Plath's biography, researcher Harriet Rosenstein on June 16, 1970, interviewed Sylvia's psychiatrist Dr. Ruth Barnhouse Beuscher, who treated Sylvia at McLean Hospital in 1953 and later. Among the first topics Rosenstein and Beuscher discussed was The Bell Jar as autobiography. Rosenstein took extensive notes, now in the Rosenstein Papers at Emory University. (How do I know what's in those papers? I went there in March 2020.)

Beuscher told Rosenstein The Bell Jar is factual, that what happened to its narrator Esther Greenwood happened to Sylvia, but some events were moved or altered. Fourth on the list:

"Esther's easy admission that she hated her mother [is] inaccurate. She [Sylvia] had spent at least the first month in the hospital asserting that she loved her mother. Beuscher says that she had to work hate admission out of Sylvia."

Aurelia, when Rosenstein interviewed you a few weeks later, in July, you blamed psychiatry for making Sylvia hate you. For the rest of your life you kept saying and writing that. Now we have Beuscher's word for what happened.

Beuscher by 1970 had become a Christian theologian like her father but was also deeply interested in the occult. She pursued a personal friendship with Rosenstein and entrusted to her the desperate letters Sylvia wrote to Beuscher in 1962 and 1963.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

You Shouldn't Have Worn That

Smith College freshman Sylvia Plath and her best friend Marcia Brown co-wrote a satirical article about dating, published in a special section of the Princeton Tiger (May 5, 1951, pp.13-15), Princeton’s college-humor magazine. The co-written article, “In Retrospect: A Plea for Moderation” is a taxonomy of college males who in the authors’ opinion are disappointing blind dates. There’s the “Super-Egoed Rah-Rah,” the “Cousins, Brothers, and Cast-Off Suitors,” “The Athlete,” “The Responsible,” and the “Mother’s Boy.” All non-starters. Yet the co-authors conclude they “hopefully but cynically look forward to the next weekend.” 
The special section’s contributors are all women from women’s colleges. Jani Kettering of Bennett College (Millbrook, NY) drew for Plath and Brown’s article comical illustrations of the “Rah-Rah,” “The Athlete” and “Mother’s Boy.”  On page 23 of that issue, sharing a page with two seriocomic poems (a doggerel about dating, signed “Smith,” and a poem mocking strapless dresses) is Kettering’s cartoon, captioned “Bob and Ceil Chapman didn’t get along so well tonight.” It recalled for me the moment in The Bell Jar when Esther Greenwood must hold her dress together after a blind date rips it during a sexual assault.
“Ceil Chapman” (1912-1979) was in the 1950s a very popular designer of strapless and off-the-shoulder cocktail and evening gowns; she was Marilyn Monroe’s favorite designer.

Sylvia wrote Aurelia on March 19 that Marcia typed their article while Sylvia cleaned her dorm room, and wrote on May 14 that their article had been published.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

"Do Not Let Mother See This!"

Sample of Aurelia's shorthand.

It is false to say Sylvia Plath’s “letters home” to Wellesley were written for her mother’s eyes and gratification only. Although addressed to Aurelia Plath, Sylvia’s letters were in fact written for the Plath household, including Sylvia’s brother and grandparents, and Aurelia shared the letters soon after receipt with other relatives and friends, such as Marcia Brown Stern.


Sylvia was aware of that, because in some letters she asks Aurelia to keep them confidential. For example, Sylvia’s letter of February 24, 1956, says, “I am being very naughty and self-pitying in writing you a letter which is very private. . .” This suggests Sylvia typically felt obligated to keep her letters family-friendly, but in this case singled out her mother for more intimate communication.


The first sentence in Aurelia’s introduction to Letters Home (1975), a book often characterized as “Sylvia’s letters to her mother,” explicitly states that Sylvia wrote the letters to her “family.” Aurelia specifies that “family” includes Warren Plath and Olive Higgins Prouty. Aurelia did not tell readers she acted as a curator, deciding on her own and case-by-case who else should be allowed to read or hear her read Sylvia’s letters. We learn this from Aurelia’s shorthand annotations on some of Sylvia’s original letters, now in the Lilly Library at Indiana University.


Aurelia wrote her annotations mostly on envelopes. (Aurelia was the only person in the family able to read or write Gregg shorthand.) I have transcribed all her “share/don’t share” annotations, appearing on seven letters in all, and present here the transcriptions and the date of the letter they’re associated with. Use your copies of Plath’s Collected Letters to figure out why Aurelia might have made these curatorial decisions.


·      share with Gordon if the time is right.  1954, August 30 ["Gordon" was Plath's steady boyfriend.]


·      do not share   1955, October 5


·      (do not share) 1955, November 14


·      do not share!  1955, December 5


·      Do not let Mother see this!   1956, March 9  [“Mother” means Aurelia’s mother, Sylvia’s “Grammy,” who lived in the household and was then dying of cancer. Sylvia asked Aurelia to keep this letter private.]


·      do not let Dot or Frank see this.  1960, January 16 [“Dot” is Aurelia’s sister and Sylvia’s “Aunt Dot”; “Frank” is Aurelia’s brother. Neither lived in the Plaths’ home.]


·      don’t share    1962, October 21  [“don’t share” is written twice on this letter, on the inside and the outside.]


A few things to know: 1) Dozens of Sylvia’s letters home, especially in her first years at college, were penny postcards and openly readable. 2) We cannot rightly assume that Aurelia shared with others all the letters which she did not mark “do not share.” 3) Aurelia penciled in shorthand on Sylvia’s letter of April 25, 1951, “file in safe in my bedroom.” That letter she really didn’t want to leave lying around. Why? 4) Aurelia also read Warren Plath’s “letters home” aloud to visitors (Sylvia Plath to Warren, July 6, 1955).

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Sylvia Plath Quotations From "Letters Home"

"Simply gutted of all strength and energy. I wear about five sweaters and wool pants and knee socks and can't stop my teeth chattering. The gas fire eats up the shillings and scalds one side and the other freezes like the other half of the moon. I was simply not made for this kind of weather. I have had enough of their sickbay and hospitals to make me think it is better to perish in one's own home. . . " (1956, February 24) 

"When one feels like leaving college and killing oneself over one course which actually nauseates me, it is a rather serious thing." (1952, November 19)

"I can't wait to get out of this dusty, dirty coalbin of a house" (1957, May 5)

"[a]ll the other little 'creative' writers were similarly dismissed, but I was singled out for particularly vicious abuse" (1957, June 8)

"I am sacrificing my energy, writing, and versatile intellectual life for grubbing over 66 Hawthorne papers a week and trying to be articulate in front of a rough class of spoiled bitches." (1957, November 5)

"Oh, we have rousing battles every so often in which I come out with sprained thumbs and Ted with missing earlobes. . ." (1958, June 11)

"I lost the little baby this morning and feel really terrible about it." (1961, February 6)

"The next five months are grim ones." (1961, November 5)

"I got so awfully depressed two weeks ago by reading two issues of The Nation--Juggernaut, the Warfare State--all about the terrifying marriage of big business and the military in America and the forces of the John Birch Society, etc.; and then another article about the repulsive shelter craze for fallout, all very factual, documented, and true, that I simply couldn't sleep for nights with all the warlike talk in the papers" (1961, December 7)

"I simply cannot go on living the degraded and agonized life I have been living, which has stopped my writing and just about ruined my sleep and my health" (1962, August 27)

"I guess my predicament is an astounding one, a deserted wife knocked out by flu with two babies and a full-time job" (1962, October 18)

The next time you hear or read that Aurelia Plath's edit of Sylvia Plath's Letters Home (1975) "expurgated" "everything negative or political" in Sylvia's letters and made Sylvia's life and character look sunny and sweet, "like a child's pink frilly bedroom". . . send them this page of quotations from Letters Home.