Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Was Aurelia A Virgin Bride?

When Aurelia Schober married Otto Plath, January 4, 1932, she was 25 and he 46. Because Aurelia said nothing about whether she was a virgin at marriage, I will marshal what evidence I have to show why I think its answer is no.


Before she met Otto Plath, Aurelia, barely 20, started a two-year relationship with an Austrian engineer and MIT professor in his 40s. [1] Dashing, divorced Dr. Karl Terzaghi, pursued by Boston society ladies married and single, had one-nighters when out of town on business. His diary—kept meticulously all his life—mentions in August 1926 hiring “Miss A. Schober” as his secretary and German-to-English translator. A college junior with Austrian parents, the intelligent and warm-hearted girl (his words) eased Karl’s loneliness, and he hers. They went to museums, saw plays, conversed about art and poetry. By November they were kissing in the park, in the dark. This was Aurelia’s first romance, and she fell crazy in love, as did Karl.

Aurelia’s parents met Karl, and between Christmas and New Year’s her mother told her to quit seeing him. Karl (born in 1883), said her mother, was too old for her to marry, a mere three years younger than Aurelia’s father, so we know the issue of marriage had come up.


Heartsick and stuck at home during winter break, Aurelia on December 29, 1926, bought poet Sara Teasdale’s most recent book, Dark of the Moon, and retreated into its wistful love lyrics. She checkmarked and bracketed lines that moved her, and—in Gregg shorthand, which she had learned in college and her family couldn’t read—processed her feelings:


I wonder if this is true about Karl. (page 45)


This I have said in my heart when with Karl, “At least we two have had today.” (67)


This is something that I must not do. Yet I am afraid that I may. What is better—to do what one’s heart dictates or what one’s conscience tells you is right? I only hope this day will not come to me eventually. (79)


If I said good-bye to Karl I would be afraid to feel this too. Therefore I will not say “good-bye.” (79) [2]


Karl by then was calling Aurelia “Lilly,” the German nickname for a dream girl, and his diary refers to her also as “L.” (This confused Karl’s biographer, who thought “L.” was someone else.) [3] Aurelia turned 21 in April 1927 and apparently that made Karl okay. He stayed overnight at the family home in Winthrop after Aurelia’s junior prom. In May a colleague invited Karl and Aurelia on a camping trip. The colleague’s wife made Karl phone and reassure Aurelia’s mother. He also heard his girl war-whooping in the background. Sylvia Plath in her bathing suit is famous, but Karl’s diary gives Aurelia her own “bathing-beauty” moment: “Enjoyed seeing Lilly in bathing suit, well built and very pretty.”


Aurelia worked at a YWCA camp in Maine during summer 1927. Karl was a guest there for a week in July, and the couple spent evenings rowing on the lake, swimming in coves, and were for the first time “alone-alone” with a blanket. Karl wrote:


Before midnight . . .  on a lonesome clearing at the lake shore, experiencing again the delight of perfect and unrestricted communion with my girl, listening to the sounds of the woods and the low, tender, musical voice.


That’s as explicit as Karl’s diary gets. He returned to Boston so much in love he wondered what to do. At Christmas 1927, he gave Aurelia mementos of the idyll at Camp Maqua: an eight-by-ten photo of himself in a gauzy shirt and another of Aurelia in a meadow in her middy dress.


But by April his diary said he’d decided against marriage, citing her family. He was traveling more often to muddy and godforsaken sites to design hydroelectric dams. If they married, what would Aurelia do with herself but write him letters? He left on a four-month business trip only days before her June graduation. An anguished Aurelia hoped it wasn’t over, but it was. On their final date in December she huffed to Karl that she did not want to be an “episode,” but for him, she was. “Almost a wife,” his biography calls her. But Karl married someone else.


In the 1970s Aurelia wrote to her granddaughter Frieda about her lost love, never naming him, saying her heartache persisted until Sylvia was born. [4] In other words, Otto Plath was not a substitute for Karl, whose photo she kept all her life. When Otto came calling, this time Aurelia’s mother didn’t object to a suitor twenty years older; in 1932 the median age for women at marriage was 21, and Aurelia was 25 going on 26, approaching the spinster zone.

Steady or engaged couples in the Depression era tended to delay marriage and children, yet about one-third had sex before marriage, and the older they were, the higher the percentage. The 1920s had normalized premarital sex and contraception. Recalling his first wife’s distaste for sex, Otto probably asked Aurelia about her past, or for a road test, so maybe Otto, if not Karl, was her first. Aurelia said or did something, such as let slip a word about her ex, because after their honeymoon Otto the so-called pacifist shocked her with jealous rages, and we can gauge what they were like by comparing them with Sylvia’s marital rages.


Aurelia wrote on a draft of her Letters Home preface that regarding sex she “felt that my daughter should be better informed than I had been.” [5] So we know she had personal regrets, and she also gave Sylvia an article titled “The Case for Chastity,” to cajole Sylvia into remaining a virgin until marriage. Aurelia’s paragraphs describing the sex education she gave her children were deleted from the preface, and the published version turns the tables and shows Sylvia educating herself by reading and underlining passages in a book.


There’s one more clue to the answer to the question I have no right to ask unless it grants Aurelia the heart and humanity printed pages have denied her. Plath scholar Tracy Brain noticed a significant deletion from an earlier draft of The Bell Jar. Its narrator Esther, wanting to lose her virginity and seeking the right man for the job, shares, “Then, since my mother had hinted of the thralldom a woman undergoes in the hands of her first lover, to be on the safe side, I wanted somebody I didn’t know.” Plath deleted the italicized clause that reveals Esther’s mother as both her sex educator and the voice of experience. [6]



[1] See “Aurelia Plath’s First Love,” blog post May 9, 2019.

[2] Rankovic, “Aurelia Plath Shorthand Transcriptions,https://epublications.marquette.edu/aureliaplath/4/

[3] Goodman, Karl Terzaghi: The Engineer as Artist, p. 111.

[4] Andrew Wilson’s Plath biography quotes a letter dated April 21, 1978, from the Cruickshank Archive, not available to the public.

[5] “IX. Aurelia Plath,” Box 30, folder 57, Sylvia Plath collection, Smith College. See also “Aurelia Plath and the Case for Chastity,” blog post December 21, 2021. 

[6] The Other Sylvia Plath, p. 154.

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