Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Aurelia Plath, Young Wife and Mother: 24 Prince Street, Jamaica Plain

Newlyweds Aurelia Schober and Otto Plath rented here the lower left unit from 1932 until 1936. This was where the couple rewrote for publication Otto's dissertation about bees. Here Aurelia studied Latin for a college course Otto had her take so she could better draft his paper about insects. Sylvia Plath was born in a Boston hospital, but this house in the Boston neighborhood called Jamaica Plain was her first home. In a little pink baby book Aurelia chronicled her daughter's growth and milestones. Sylvia spoke her first words at eight months old. At 14 months Aurelia noted that Sylvia said, "Daddy," "specially when someone shakes the furnace!" Back then, someone had to shake the house's furnace about every 12 hours to knock the ashes off the burning coals.

In this house Sylvia learned to walk, talk, and read. Little Sylvia, using tiles, here copied onto the living-room carpet an image of the Taj Mahal, artwork that delighted her father. Built in 1916, 24 Prince Street is a short walk from the Arnold Arboretum, a botanical garden and haven for bees, where Otto had dwelt for years with a houseful of fellow Harvard graduate students. Sylvia could recall from her very early childhood her grandparents' house in Winthrop, by the ocean, but only Aurelia recalled in writing some of the events that took place here.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Aurelia's Platinum Summer

In April 1954, Sylvia Plath mailed her mother Aurelia a birthday card picturing a witch. Back at Smith College after her breakdown, Sylvia, 21, was growing up and away, changing and thriving, and in case Mother didn’t get the message, she came home for the summer bleached blond and loaded for bear. 

“Kindnesses and loving acts were now viewed cynically, analyzed for underlying motives,” Aurelia wrote in Letters Home, using the passive voice to soften the truth: Sylvia had confronted her with a new, independent-from-her-mother personality. “One had to stand back and hope that neither she nor anyone else would be deeply hurt,” Aurelia wrote, but she was the one deeply hurt. (LH, 138)

The issue was Sylvia’s sex life. Aurelia worried that Sylvia might have sex. Parents of daughters still harp about that, but Aurelia got very ugly and grilled Sylvia about where she went and with whom. In mid-June Sylvia told her psychiatrist that Aurelia threatened to withdraw financial support unless Sylvia stayed a virgin. Sylvia, probably not a virgin even then, chose to tell her mother nothing rather than lie. Hearing about another mother-daughter argument on June 21, Sylvia’s psychiatrist advised her not to confuse defiance with true independence. [1]

That summer too Aurelia’s ulcer was bleeding, her mother had stomach cancer, her employer was closing the college she worked for, and she worried that Sylvia might try suicide again. Sylvia pleased Aurelia by accepting a suitor’s proposal but strung him along while having affairs with men she met at summer school. In an August 7 letter to her fiancĂ© Gordon Lameyer, Sylvia claimed to have won her independence from her mother. What she had actually done was pick up a stranger and have a fling with him.

Back at Smith for her final year there, she wrote Aurelia as usual, at times sounding contrite, but avoided seeing her mother for the rest of the year while Aurelia’s ulcer raged out of control.

Known for smiling through her pain, Aurelia in summer 1954 gave in to self-pity showy enough that 20 years later Lameyer recalled that Aurelia would say to Sylvia, “you love ____, or you kiss ____, but you don’t like me.” [2] Aurelia was very bad at fishing for sympathy. In late 1954, feeling a bit better after a hospital stay, Aurelia told her woes to her sister Dorothy “Dotty” Benotti and her husband Joe. Devoutly Catholic Dotty told Aurelia that God was punishing her for leaving the Catholic church and her other sins.

Aurelia was so outraged she vomited blood. She wrote Sylvia that Dotty said something cutting which Sylvia’s return letter of January 29, 1955, does not specify. But Aurelia preserved what Dotty said in angry Gregg shorthand annotations in a book of Bible stories, in the margins alongside the story of Job:

And now upon the scene appeared a group of Job’s friends who said they came to be his comforters, but who turned into his tormentors because they kept on insisting that his afflictions must be a sign that he was very wicked, and that the first thing he needed to do was to repent. To the left of this passage, Aurelia penciled, in shorthand, “My sister Dorothy in 1954!”

As reinforcement, Aurelia wrote “1954” and circled it. She underlined nevertheless upon this good man all sorts of sorrow and bereavement descended, and next to it wrote “tell Dot!” [3]

Sylvia’s January 29 letter to her mother opened with six full paragraphs of consolation, saying Dotty was just jealous: of Aurelia’s children (Dotty’s were adopted), of Aurelia’s better looks despite her much harder life, and of driving lessons that were going badly but would lead to Aurelia’s greater independence. It is the lengthiest and most empathetic expression of sympathy Sylvia Plath ever sent her mother. She had indeed grown up, if just a little.

Aurelia had a long memory for slights but a longer one for kindnesses. On Sylvia’s comforting January letter she wrote in shorthand, “specially fine and kind to my bruised ego.” Dotty and Aurelia forgave each other, and Aurelia sped to her sister’s side in the 1970s when Dotty became terminally ill.

[1] Harriet Rosenstein’s undated taped interview with Ruth Barnhouse Beuscher, Collection 1489, Emory University, Stuart A. Rose Library.

[2] Collection 1489, Box 2, folder 13, "Lameyer" p. 2.

[3] pages 359-360, Stories of the Bible (Abingdon Press, 1934), in the Sylvia Plath collection, Smith College. The book is inscribed “Love to Sylvia & Warren from their ‘other mother.’ Marion Freeman Christmas 1940”. The underlining of "sorrow and bereavement" and annotations on another Bible story in the book indicate that Aurelia wrote the annotations after Sylvia's death.

Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Aurelia Plath's Trips Abroad

Aurelia Plath traveled quite often, but only in later life. In 1956, she was 50 years old. In 1981, she was 75.

1981: Bermuda, May 18-25

1979: Antigua with Roberta Wood, April

1978: Antigua, with Roberta Wood

1973: England, Aug. 23-Sept. 5

1970: European Tour with Dot and Joe Benotti, June 4-30

1969: Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia with Marion Freeman, May 31-June 22

1967: England, July-August

1965: England, June 10-c. July 23

1964: England, June 10-July 1

1963: England, June 6-July 11

1962: England, June 21-August 4

1961: England, June 18-July 14

1958: Bermuda with Francis Schober, Sr. (father), arriving May 31

1956: England, France (eight days in Paris), Netherlands (five days in Amsterdam), Germany, Austria (three weeks), Switzerland (three weeks), England (nine days), June 13-August 14 [1]

1908: San Remo, Italy, with Aurelia Schober, Sr. (mother), according to Francis Schober's citizenship papers, and returning to the U.S. in May 1909, according to a ship's manifest. Aurelia was a toddler at the time and never mentioned this trip.

[1] Itinerary according to Aurelia's Christmas letter 1956 to Miriam Baggett (archive, Smith).