Sunday, December 31, 2023

Top-Rated Plath Research Posts of 2023

Studious me with manual typewriter, junior year

Most Popular

Diary of an Aurelia Plath Researcher (May 16) Thank you for your interest in what I'd tell you privately.

Aurelia and Sylvia Plath Had Black Cousins (November 14) The most emotional, heart-pounding research I've ever done.

How Did Aurelia Plath Control and Manipulate Sylvia? (July 18) They sadly underestimated Sylvia.

Books About Sylvia Plath That I Hate to Love (July 11) This was fun to write.

Top Research Posts

Sylvia Plath's Hungarian Roots (September 26) Genealogy proves Sylvia Plath was not a Jew.

Aurelia and Sylvia Plath Had Black Cousins (November 14) An inconvenient truth.

Diary of an Aurelia Plath Researcher (May 16) First interview with one of Aurelia's former students.

Hype: The Sales Numbers of Ariel (February 7) Neglected business papers shatter a 50-year-old fantasy.

Personal Favorites

Aurelia Goes to a Poetry Reading (June 27) A Cape Cod archivist's help plus research revealed an Aurelia facet totally new.

Prussia: What Does It Mean? (September 19) I am proud of having condensed thick dusty histories of Prussia into an easy "Prussia for Plath fans" post.

There were 48 weekly posts in 2023, my tenth year of posting. It's having the effect I wanted. Thank you for being so interested in Sylvia Plath's world that you want to know more. There is more.

       -Your researcher,


Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Guest Post: One Sunday in 1973, by Evelyn C. White

Evelyn C. White is the author of Alice Walker: A Life (2004).

I met Sylvia Plath’s mother in the 1970s shortly after I’d begun college in a Boston-area suburb. Reportedly drawn to the enclave because of its excellent public schools, Aurelia Plath, a widow, had lived in the town since 1942. Then age 10 and already published, young Sylvia was soon lauded as one of the most gifted students in the community.

Encouraged by her mother, Sylvia joined a prison ministry during her teenage years. “She traveled into Boston with her Sunday school group to visit the Charles Street jail,” writes Andrew Wilson in Mad Girls Love Song (2013) which details Plath’s life before her ill-fated marriage to British poet Ted Hughes. There, Plath mingled with a “smattering of murderers, gunmen and thieves” during church service, Wilson notes.

As for me? Mindful of the many 1960s-70s era Black freedom fighters who’d been incarcerated (among them Angela Davis, Huey P. Newton, and Assata Shakur), I’d entered college determined to become a prison warden.

Aurelia Plath signs a copy of Letters Home, 1976

In addition to my coursework, I longed for “hands-on” experience in the field of corrections and was thrilled to discover that a group of local women visited inmates at a nearby facility. I arranged to join them.

On a bright Sunday morning, I was picked up at my dorm. The driver introduced me to the other passengers whose names I barely registered but met with a nod. Settled into the backseat, I did note the lustrous crown of auburn hair on the woman next to me. It stood in stark contrast to her somber demeanor.

After clearing security at the prison we were escorted into a chapel for worship service. I don’t recall the sermon. But I’ll never forget the inmates who sat, stony-faced, on the opposite side of the sanctuary surrounded by armed guards. “This might not be a fun career,” I thought to myself.

After church, visitors were led to another room to “socialize” with the prisoners. Directed toward a ring of folding chairs, I took a seat. By chance, my backseat companion on the morning drive sat directly across from me.

Eyes trained on a stream of sunlight from a distant window, I listened as the inmates (still under armed guard) and guests introduced themselves. After a few people had spoken, the woman from the car said her name; one that hadn’t sunk in when I’d first met her: Aurelia Plath.

In the sliver of silence before the next voice, I locked eyes with the woman whose daughter, in the small hours of February 11, 1963, had gassed herself in a frigid, London flat. Aurelia Plath held my gaze until a mutual flash of recognition passed between us. She knew that I knew. And vice versa.

Astonished by the realization that I was in the presence of Sylvia Plath’s mother, I went blank. I couldn’t concentrate as I thought about the brilliant writer who’d chronicled her debilitating depression in The Bell Jar and later, in Ariel, the posthumous poetry collection (“The woman is perfected”) that secured her international acclaim.

Back then, I didn’t have the capacity to convey my condolences to Aurelia Plath nor to understand the impact of our encounter in that setting. But I was indelibly shaped by the experience which effectively ended my prison warden ambitions. In hindsight, I know I couldn’t handle all the sorrow that marked the day.

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Credit Where It's Due

Vera Zorina as Ariel with Arnold Moss in The Tempest, 1945.

As my eyes continue to open I see critical essays about Sylvia Plath using the passive voice and just plain disregard to delete her mother from her life. Biography is subjective; so is scholarship. Neither genre can include every detail. The dodge happens most, though, when Aurelia Plath was not a detail, or she is due some credit:

"Plath's own copy of Thus Spake Zarathustra is much annotated, and its importance for her creative work is shown in her 1955 poem "Notes on Zarathustra's Prologue". . . Where did Plath get her own copy of Thus Spake Zarathustra, so important? From her mother. For Christmas 1949.

"Plath's upbringing may have been strongly pacifist." If true, who brought her up that way?

"The Tempest in Boston was the first play that Plath ever saw." It was January 20, 1945 and Plath was 12. The experience resonated throughout her life. Who bought the tickets to that play?

"Sylvia and Ted went to Paris on their honeymoon." Yes, but the newlyweds tagged along, all day for eight days, with Aurelia, who had planned to tour Paris by herself.

Family photo from Sylvia's wallet
At the time of her death Sylvia had in her purse Aurelia's Christmas card from 1955, printed with a photo of Sylvia and Warren. Aurelia said so. That's so poignant it might not be true. We know for sure Sylvia carried in her wallet a photo of herself with her brother and their mother.

"From childhood Sylvia showed a talent for poetry." In childhood, showed whom?

"Unsurprisingly, for someone brought up with Unitarian beliefs, Sylvia's intellectual development was not inhibited by any narrow religious dogma." Then credit Aurelia for bringing up her kids as open-minded Unitarians.

I do not blame critics of years past for not having the information we do. I do wonder what made and still makes for unease about acknowledging Aurelia Plath's presence when she was present, or as a sometimes positive factor in her daughter's life and artistry.

Tempest photo by Eileen Darby: Special Collections, Cleveland State University Library. "her wallet": Plath's wallet with its contents was auctioned in 2018.

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

The Verger's Bastard

Train station at Budzyn, point of departure for three generations of ambitious Plaths.

The young couple whose parents wouldn't consent to their marriage could and did produce what was then called a bastard, shaming both sets of parents into giving the consent required by law.

The would-be bride and groom were not kids. They were both 26. The trouble was that she was Catholic and he was Lutheran.

Baby Theodor -- Sylvia Plath's future grandfather -- was ten months old when his parents Johann and Karoline Plath were at last married. The pious pair then argued about raising their children in this faith or that.

Station still stands at Budzyn (now in Poland).

Theodor's birth record in the town of Budzyn, Prussia, November 5, 1851, shows his mother's name, Karoline Kaszmarek, but in the space for his father's name is "ignatus" (unknown). Oddly, the record then shows the father's occupation: verger.

A verger was a layman hired to clean and maintain a church and help the priest or minister as a messenger and greeter. For public processions, vergers took up a stick or wand called a virge and cleared a path through the crowds. Thus our phrase "on the verge" -- the leading edge.

A verger didn't have to be literate -- Johann Plath was not. But he respected education or the educated. Maybe Johann wished he could have been a minister, and verger was as close as he could get.

When Johann, emigrant to the U.S., heard that Theodor's teenage son was super-smart, Johann generously paid for young Otto Plath to come to the U.S. and for Otto's tuition for Lutheran prep school and college, on the condition that Otto become -- a minister.

But when Otto told his grandfather he would rather teach than be a minister, Johann crossed Otto's name out of the family bible, an act of Christian righteousness sowing alienation and Otto's future bitter atheism.

It was meant to be a memorable scene, and Otto long remembered and told about that one selfish act.

"argued about raising their children": Clark, Red Comet, 6. "A verger didn't have to be literate: Johann Plath was not": U.S. Census, Wisconsin, 1910. See also Somerset Maugham's short story "The Verger" (1936). "bitter atheism," The Bell Jar. Spelled "Budsin" in Prussia, the Plaths' hometown is now Budzyn, Poland.

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

The Mysterious Gap of 1958

Aunt Aurelia bought us a parakeet!

There are no letters from Sylvia Plath to her mother Aurelia between August 13, 1958 and July 9, 1959. Aurelia in Letters Home said that Sylvia and her husband Ted had moved to Boston and "We were close enough to visit often, and used the telephone." (322)

Sylvia wrote that Aurelia phoned ("the usual depressing call from mother") and visited. But knowing how militant Aurelia was about presenting her family as conflict-free, I think Sylvia in that 11-month gap must have mailed her mother something, at least one thing, that has been removed. There is not even a December happy-birthday note to Sylvia's Grampy. 

Aurelia was conscious of that gap and tried to fill it in Letters Home with three excerpts from her own journal, dated August 3, September 9, and September 20, 1958. Aurelia's editor at Harper & Row published only the August 3 entry (348).

In one of Aurelia's notebooks her reflections on autumn 1958 have been razored out.

All this made me suspect dirty family laundry.

Aurelia maybe didn't want us to know that in 1956 she dismissed from her house her 75-year-old widower father, "Grampy," after his 12 years in residence, telling her sister Dotty and brother Frank that it was now their turn to host him.

Grampy was also going blind. None of his three adult children wanted him. Sylvia wrote her brother that Aurelia faced Grampy's resentment along with Dotty's and Frank's. Sylvia's letter is dated April 23, 1956; Grampy's wife wasn't even dead yet.

They sound like a typical American family.

Dotty lived near Wellesley and Frank in Pennsylvania, and both had spouses and kids. In June 1956 Grampy went to Dotty and lived on a porch enclosed to make a room. [1] Aurelia from then on did only respite care, taking Grampy to Bermuda and doing summer Dad-sitting. Aurelia wrote a friend in 1959 that she abandoned the novel she was writing, to keep her father company. [2]

Grampy was a burden. But whoever hosted Grampy got access to his pot of retirement money.

Dotty and Frank's "underhanded business with Grampy's money" -- as Sylvia described it; we don't know the details -- was perhaps exposed or fought over in autumn 1958. In 1959 Frank and Dotty both bought really nice new houses; Dotty's a second house. Sylvia's letter to Aurelia (January 16, 1960) comments on Aurelia's report that Dotty ducked questions about the purchase.

Shipped away to Frank's house, Grampy stayed only eight months because Frank became seriously ill. Grampy went back to Dotty's.

What Grampy wanted is not known. But Aurelia wrote a friend that she bought Grampy a parakeet, an unpredictably noisy little gift and hard for a man with low vision to care for.

Aurelia and siblings were willing to offload and carousel their elderly dad so they might enhance their own lives with his money. If this wasn't the issue, whatever it was, Aurelia wiped it from written records. Meanwhile, in autumn 1958 Sylvia was entangled in her own agonizing problems, described in detail in her journal.

While Aurelia was in England in summer 1962, Dotty put Grampy in a nursing home. On August 27 Sylvia wrote to Aurelia, who was back in the U.S., "I am glad to hear that Grampy is better off in the home and think that decision was the best & only one."

[1] "a converted porch," Harriet Rosenstein transcript of K. Goodall interview on 24 June 1974, Special Collections #1489, Box 3, Folder 3, Emory. [2] "the novel," ASP to Miriam Baggett, 6 February 1960, Smith.

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

The Bell Jar Movie: Would You Sue Too?

Donna Mitchell and Marilyn Hassett in The Bell Jar (1979)

In some databases, Hollywood's The Bell Jar (1979), viewable on YouTube, is classed as a horror movie. I watched it for its portrayal of the heroine Esther's mother, "Mrs. Greenwood," based on Aurelia Plath. Tony-Award-winning and Oscar-nominated Julie Harris acted the thankless role of a ditz whose hobby is Tyrolean folk dancing. The actors are good but the script and direction, ruinous: When "Buddy Willard" drops his pants the room's electricity and lights happen to go out. Esther confidently tips a New York cab driver, and she is sexually aroused by the antics of Lenny and Doreen at Lenny's apartment. On her last night in her hotel room Esther strips to her knickers, bellowing while throwing her clothes out the window.

Critics hated it and star Marilyn Hassett's career never recovered: another Bell Jar casualty, one of many. Sylvia Plath knew the novel was toxic, and although she worked all her life for recognition did not want her name on it. It was the only such request she ever made and it was not honored. Ted Hughes sold the movie rights in the mid-1970s for $60,000 ($250,000 today) and had no part in the result except for starting it.

Donna Mitchell plays "Joan," Plath's fictional fusion of two real-life Smith College classmates. A bit player in the novel, "Joan" in the movie is Esther's best friend and smolders to seduce her. When Esther edges away from clingy Joan at the mental hospital and does not say, as in the novel, "You make me puke," Joan proposes a romantic double suicide. That's not in the book. Esther runs away and later finds Joan's body hanging in the woods. That's not in the book either. We get a horror-movie closeup of Joan's dead face.

Julie Harris as the tasteless and exasperated Mrs. Greenwood.

Jane Anderson in 1986 sued the screenwriter, director, Hughes and others for defamation, asking for $6 million and withdrawal of the film from circulation. In 1979 Anderson, Plath's classmate and fellow patient at McLean but never her good friend, saw the movie but said nothing. By 1986 it had aired as a made-for-TV movie and Plath's biographers had identified Anderson as one of the models for "Joan." The Harvard professor of psychiatry found she had a growing reputation as a suicidal lesbian (she was neither) when those were bad things to be. She said she couldn't teach and couldn't write.

My takeaway from watching was that Anderson, a private citizen, had good reason to sue the filmmakers who had exploited "her" character.

Anderson settled for having been "unintentionally defamed" and $150,000, enough to pay her lawyers. Since 2012, Bell Jar remakes have been announced but never made. It's now said it will be a TV series on Showtime, but no other news has emerged as of late 2023. Probably to the good.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

How to Research Family History

A while back I heard that Sylvia Plath's ancestry had been researched and written up but mostly cut from the final draft of Red Comet (2020), the very fine Plath biography. Another biography declined to discuss Plath's family and childhood to concentrate instead on Plath's "intensity." But where did she get that intensity?

Such questions led me to research Plath's family history (the "stock" or pedigree Sylvia found important when judging her boyfriends), finding patterns and plenty of drama:

Sylvia and Aurelia had African-American cousins. Aurelia's aunt's 1906 marriage to an African-American fits what is now a five-generation family pattern of marriages made to defy a parent or a family.

The first known photo of Otto Plath's parents, Theodor, and Ernestine, Sylvia's grandmother, who died in a mental hospital, I found on a genealogy website. Aurelia Plath, keeper and handler of Plath-Schober-Greenwood-Hughes dirty laundry, kept Ernestine's illness a secret so Sylvia could continue to idealize her dead father, a "pacifist" who to his wife and family was verbally abusive.

Sylvia had no Jewish ancestor. Sylvia had a German father, but she's also Polish, Austrian, and Hungarian. Plath's intelligence and no-nonsense work ethic came to her from both sides of the family. (She wrote: "I don't have time to be intelligent in a fluid, versatile way. I'm too nose-to-the-grindstone.")

For research I used most often two genealogy databases that anyone seeking their own family history can use:

On the free-of-charge database view billions of pages of digitized info about a billion ancestors, each linked with documentation: census, immigration papers, birth/baptism, marriage, military, and death records, if any exist. Site is run by the Mormon church (also called LDS). Free, but you must register on as a user.

A good feature: Each ancestor on FamilySearch is assigned a short alphanumeric label so you can be sure, for example, that your ancestor "Anna Campbell" is the same "Anna Campbell" who is listed among 30 different Anna Campbells all born around the same time.

The site is a gold mine of digitized records. Home subscriptions are costly, but my public library subscribes, and at the library I use it free. Libraries also subscribe to other helpful historical databases such as Ask your librarian.

You'll hit walls where there are no records or confusing records. I've learned that guesses are always wrong. These are human records of human beings, so sometimes inaccurate. My stepfather's gravestone says "1916" when he was born in 1919 because when he got his first job in the U.S. there was a mistake when he signed up for Social Security, and he wouldn't correct even the gravestone (ordered years in advance), fearing Social Security would find him out. 

My own record says I lived in Ferguson, MO, a place I never even went. So trust but verify.

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Sylvia Plath Had Black Cousins

Uncle Christopher J. Nicholson checked "Negro" on his draft card, 1918. (Click image to enlarge.)

Sylvia Plath had African-American second cousins who were first cousins to her mother Aurelia Schober Plath. Using public records and genealogical tools, I drilled down into Sylvia's Austrian-born maternal relatives the Greenwoods and Schobers, and discovered:

Sylvia's great-aunt -- her grandmother's sister Anna Johanna Greenwood, from Vienna -- in Boston in 1906 married African-American waiter Christopher Nicholson.

Interracial marriages were legal in Massachusetts, but rare. Sylvia Plath's writings, and what we have of her mother's writings, never mention an Aunt Anna or Annie. I had thought that odd because Aurelia Plath and her mother so much valued contact and visits with relatives. Sylvia's future grandmother with her sister Annie as teenagers left Vienna in 1904 and together crossed the Atlantic to Boston, where they moved in with their brother. Both girls soon married professional waiters. Annie married Christopher J. Nicholson, born in Boston of parents from North Carolina.

In 1907 the Nicholsons moved to Philadelphia, where in November Christopher Jr. was born. The state of Pennsylvania registered the baby as "mulatto." Their daughter Deborah's birth certificate says "1/2 black, 1/2 white."

Nicholson was out of work for much of 1909 and the federal census for 1910 shows the family living in a South Philadelphia boarding house, its head and tenants all designated black except for Nicholson, 28, his wife, 26, and their son and daughter, all designated white. In 1911 the family moved to New Jersey. Its 1915 state census says Nicholson and the children are black.

Nicholson worked steadily as a waiter at Atlantic City's Royal Palace Hotel. In September 1918 he registered for the draft as Christopher Jessee Nicholson, checkmarking the category "Negro," and on the back of the card, the categories "Slender" and "Tall."

The couple had another son, Melvin, and a daughter, Martha. Seeking what happened to them led me to this horrifying photo:

The Nicholson children, ages 11, 8, 5, and 3, all died in October 1918, probably of influenza, and are buried in Atlantic City Cemetery, Pleasantville, New Jersey.

Their parents survived. Nicholson kept his job until Prohibition in 1920 led to layoffs of professional waitstaff. Atlantic City directories show him employed as a laborer through 1923. Then he is a waiter again, but after 1925 I found no further records. Anna Nicholson surfaces, alone, in the 1928 directory, working as a domestic. In 1932, as Anna Greenwood she married British-born Joseph Campbell in New York City. The couple moved to England in 1939. The story of their later life is posted here.

Sylvia's Plath's mother Aurelia Schober was 12 when her four cousins died. Did she know about them? Could anyone keep secret such a family tragedy? I think Aurelia, who lived with her mother for 40 years, probably knew. Did Sylvia know that she had African-American relatives? Probably not. But we do.

The Nicholson family should be added to Sylvia Plath's family tree.

Draft registration card:  Headstone: "England as of 1939": In January 2024 I researched Anna's later life and the story is posted here.

Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Meditation on a Photo: Aurelia Plath's Ankles of Clay

Front row, third from left. Her Winthrop High graduating class had 146 students.

Aurelia Schober in this yearbook photo from 1924 -- she's a high-school senior, 18 -- differs from her classmates in height and build and is the worst-dressed of the lot, her faded cap-sleeved cotton dress, with a decorative bow and ribbon so it's not a housedress or what her mother called a "wash dress," a vivid contrast to her schoolmates' woolen sweaters and skirts. They're dressed for autumn or winter, yet wear pretty shoes while "Ri-Ri's" oxfords look too tight. Her ankles will always be a weak point, broken twice (when she was 10, and again at 21) then repeatedly twisted or injured. Ankles of clay. Or maybe ill-fitting shoes.

Readymade clothes didn't (and still don't) accommodate tall women, so Aurelia wore whatever fit. In this photo she looks like what she is: eldest daughter of immigrants with two younger siblings and a breadwinner father who in 1924 was literally walking Boston's streets seeking jobs, a former headwaiter reduced to taking intermittent or seasonal employment. He had already chosen for Aurelia a two-year business college that would train her to make her own money. Her parents would never recover from her father's underemployment and later depended on Aurelia for housing.

In the photo Aurelia stands tall, doesn't look unhappy or self-conscious or shunned. She was the First Rebuttal speaker on her women's debating team and a star at school -- always, always, a top honor student. Freshman year, the yearbook's "Who's Who" picked her out and said: "Aurelia Schober doesn't hesitate to swallow every morsel of knowledge to be found." Sophomore year, when they knew she could take a joke: "A. Schober doesn't swallow the books much. She has brains in her feet, even. Just think!" The 1924 Winthrop High School senior class "prediction" said:

". . . one of [a classmate's] planes [is] making its daily trip to Florida. Seated at the extreme left is George B., world-famed violinist. . . in the third seat is Cecelia D., a school teacher . . . The young aviatrix is Aurelia Schober, who, not able to get seated comfortably because of her height, stood during the entire trip. Aurelia is now President of Schober Soapy Soap Flakes, Inc."

The future Aurelia piloted the plane and CEO'd an industrial firm! Which female in your own graduating class compares? (On the yearbook staff, Aurelia might have written this "prediction" herself.) It seems that the Schober family was poor but clean, as the trope goes. Aurelia wore to school a shapeless over-washed unseasonable thing without publicly pouting because her parents, as immigrant parents do, scolded her to mind her schoolwork and be at the top of her class because they'd sacrificed their whole lives for her and she should be grateful for any shoes and clothes she got.

Aurelia had friends and always did. The local newspaper records that she attended a classmate's quite elegant tea party, but never that she gave one. For certain of my readers I must point out that in 1924 females holding hands or linking arms with besties was not gay.

Photos of Aurelia -- fairly rare -- show that except for the first years of her marriage to Otto Plath she wore unflattering or misfit clothing, often secondhand. That for years she wore a ratty coat "like some teachers you'll see," a witness has confirmed. In her late 60s Aurelia, retired from teaching, made some money from the work of her famously dead writer daughter and was photographed in suits that fit and pearl earrings, her incorrigibly wavy hair tamed with a permanent. The best she could do in high school was a hairband.

Aurelia Schober, later Plath, as her class salutatorian gave a speech about "Loyalty" (a mind-blowing document to be discussed in a future post). Unwillingly, and unprepared for it, "Ri-Ri" became the most famous alumna of them all.

["146 students," Winthrop Sun, 14 June 1924.]

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Sylvia's "Remote Mongolian Ancestor" and "Ariel"

People's Republic of Mongolia flag, 1939-45. Stalin suggested the emblem's design.

Sylvia Plath maybe did have a "remote Mongolian ancestor" as her husband Ted Hughes told his editor she did -- more than a year after Sylvia had killed herself. [1] Hughes said she wanted a heroic horse-and-rider image, as on the former Mongolian flag, printed small on the cover of her book Ariel; that she "prided herself" on this ancestry. As an alternative, Plath had suggested the image of a rose.

Neither image came to be. The publisher bound Hughes's edit of Ariel in the red cloth Sylvia had wanted, but without horse and rider or a rose.

Like many people, Sylvia wished for a heritage more interesting than her own. On her mother's side, records back to the late 1600s show Roman Catholic ancestors all baptized and married. The question "Was Sylvia Jewish?" is now settled: The answer is "No." Did she have a fortune-telling "gypsy (Roma) ancestress" as the poem "Daddy" said? Not in her mother's line.

But farther back, where there are no family records, 13th-century nomadic Mongolian armies on horseback harrowed Asia and Europe, conquering China, Kiev, Moscow and Baghdad, Krakow and Vienna; burned Pest to the ground and flattened Meissen in northern Germany, expanding their Great Khan's empire to four times the size of the Roman Empire.

It matters, I think, to Sylvia's poem "Ariel" that the Mongols controlled their horses with their heels and knees, freeing their upper bodies for deadly archery. They murdered, tortured, pillaged, and raped, leaving as a legacy their blood type, B, a genetic variant originating in the Himalayas.

Animated map showing growth of the Mongol Empire
The Mongolian empire's growth is echoed in today's geographical distribution of blood type B. CC BY-SA 3.0

How Plath learned about her possible Mongolian ancestry we don't know. [2] Except in rare cases, we are born with either our mother's or father's blood type. Aurelia Plath wrote on a health card that Sylvia's blood type was O. Aurelia Plath had type O. Aurelia's ancestors might have had some B, but Aurelia did not have it. Because Otto Plath's heritage was Polish and north German, he might have had type B blood, but as of now there is no proof. We know only that Sylvia cannot by her blood type alone be linked with Mongolia. Only DNA testing could rule it in or out.

Very likely her link was spiritual, as with the Jews she envied for their history and traditions, and her wish to align with the oppressed. During the fight of her life, the fury that inspired Ariel, Plath came to claim descent from one of a Golden Horde of ruthless warriors -- if what Ted Hughes said is true.

Thank you, Eva Stenskar, for sending me the question about Plath's claim to Mongolian ancestry, and the documentation, and the flag image.

[1] Ted Hughes to Charles Monteith, 7 April 1964.

[2] The link between Mongolia and Eurasians with blood type B was established in the 1940s, after Otto Plath's death, so Plath did not hear about it from Otto.

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Imagine If Sylvia Plath Had Lived

Carrot cake for Sylvia's birthday, Oct. 27. -Amin Safaripour, Unsplash

This week Sylvia Plath would have turned 91. Let's imagine that she didn't kill herself. What we might be hearing:

"Did you know Sylvia Plath was Ted Hughes's first wife? Divorced him, hung around London until she realized she'd never belong and needed a real job. Book reviews weren't paying and BBC had had enough of her since her only subject was herself. Her funny/bitter divorce novel Double Exposure sat unfinished because she couldn't find the right ending. Granted, she became a path-breaking poet despite Ariel being her personal domestic drama, throwing darts at Ted as if he cared one whit. The Bell Jar? British readers sighed: an overprivileged American, suicidal because she had too many choices.

With her children Plath moved back to the U.S. and as a female couldn't get credit or a credit card in her own name until 1974. For lack of child care, Plath declined to teach freshman English at Smith and by the time the kids were in boarding school no one at Smith had ever heard of her. Grants and prizes went to younger writers. Plath then opted to publish The Bell Jar in the U.S., alienating all her friends except Mr. Crockett, and her furious mother burned all her letters and childhood stuff. Plath worked as an instructor at Boston University and later, after the success of Three Women, had a full professorship in the English department at a vocational college.*

American Literature was a boys' club, alcoholic and handsy, and Anne Sexton with her Pulitzer held the top spot for women poets and said Plath had copied her. This inspired Plath to write the novel Gargoyles. In the middle 1970s, feminists discovered and reprinted Plath's poems "Daddy" and "The Jailor." Teased at school that "Daddy" was their daddy, the kids moved back overseas where their father had a new wife and children and was publishing book after book.

Healed by the antidepressant Prozac and inspired by a stay in Alaska with her son, Plath wrote the brilliant, bracing poems of Ocean 1212-W, a volume credited with seeding modern eco-poetry. At rendering a landscape or infusing a mere feather with moral dimension and meaning, Plath had no 20th-century peers. Plath let Ms. magazine publish her old radio play Three Women. A producer read it, asked for its theatrical rights -- and the adaptation was a hit!

Three Women was the first drama set in a maternity ward. Women could identify! With music, it was hailed as "For Colored Girls, but without the color." Its off-Broadway success funded the travel and studies that inspired the poems of Molten and Plume, the latter book short-listed for important awards. But Plath's essay trashing John Ashbery's work got her labeled "flaky" and "anile." Interviewers asked her only about Ted and whether she was writing a book about Ted. The published divorce novel seemed dated and unfunny. A family member in turn published a novel about a poet mother, titled Harpy.

Plath taught in an MFA program for 11 years, earning five-star ratings. Her collected environmental essays were published as The Raw Meat Motel. Nudged into retirement when a student found ethnic slurs in her early work, Plath reviewed her stacks of journals and manuscripts and copies of Mademoiselle and in an email wrote, It scarcely seems possible that we were all so obsessed with ourselves and with our little games of distinction! Plath recycled all that paper and moved house. Her mirror, she says, shows a committed artist who never misses a sunrise and hopes she lives to be older than Stanley Kunitz."

Not an easy life, but honorable and full! Better than most. Many happy returns!

*In 1985, women were only 17 percent of full-time U.S. faculty at the associate professor and professor levels.

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Guest Posts Wanted

I am inviting guest posts about or related to Aurelia Plath and Sylvia, around 800 words or less. Negative or positive, all points of view should be evidence-based and not rants (Sylvia's rants about Aurelia are enough).

New-book excerpts, if about Aurelia or about Sylvia's family, are fine. Those with something new to say or show about Aurelia Plath's life or her context, or about mother and daughter, or with suggestions for future posts, please email Microsoft Word documents to Thank you!

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

The Clothes of Tyrol

Card with real textile samples, Franz M. Rhomberg textile company, Austria, 1930s

 New mother Sylvia Plath started sewing clothes for her daughter Frieda. On November 6, 1960, Sylvia wrote her mother that looking at dress patterns she "drooled at a whole series of 'Tyrol' outfits--black bodices, full bright-colored skirts and white blouses" for her little girl. Why? Most of the Tyrolean Alps are in Austria, and Sylvia was assuring her mother that she was mindful of their Austrian heritage.

The Tyrolean folk outfit for women is called a "dirndl." As an international fashion trend it started in Salzburg in the 1930s, promoted throughout the Reich by Chancellor Hitler, who wanted Hitler Youth wearing folk dress as their uniform. The company Lanz of Salzburg still sells Tyrolean-styled women's nightwear in its canonical print of stripes, hearts, and flowers. To prod urban women away from Paris fashions toward Tyrolean chic, here's an upscaled design by Rhomberg of Innsbruck, 1935:

The horses are a specific Tyrolean breed.

The concept of the assertively printed dress with dirndl details such as puffed sleeves and taut midriff, but all in one piece, caught on as couture. Here's a U.S. pattern (Butterick, 1938), and how it played out in real life:

"Tyrolean" lost its cachet during World War II, but the dirndl silhouette persisted as a gender marker, specifically ultra-femininity. Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar donned a dirndl skirt to pretend she was the mindless "Elly Higginbottom." Brigitte Bardot in the '50s was costumed in dirndls that played up her bust. U.S. TV housewife and uber-Mom "June Cleaver" in 1960 wore shirtwaists: the power dirndl, man-tailored on top.
TV homemaker "June Cleaver" confronts her husband, 1960

Colorful, "feminine" print fabrics outlasted the dirndl's demanding shape: Your own family photos will show matronly types wearing yoked and belted multi-colored floral and geometric print dresses far into the 1970s. The "dress with purple cartwheels on it" worn by Esther Greenwood's mother on a visit to the hospital I do not doubt was Aurelia Plath's real dress.

Yet how is it that the Tyrolean women's costume looks so much like the Bavarian, German, Swiss, Swedish, Czech, Polish, Danish, and other European national costumes?

That's because the idea of a "national" or "traditional" costume was imposed: It's 19th-century Romantic nationalism compressed to images of robust and rosy Aryan peasant folk who would never dream of overthrowing their governments. Having a "national costume" minimized a nation's minorities and subgroups who dressed otherwise. Hitler knew that. So did Mao.

Younger women such as Sylvia drew back from anything to do with Central European styling, disdaining a 1950s fad for polka dots and favoring for themselves Anglophilic woolen plaids and tweeds, Chanel-inspired suits, sheaths, pencil skirts and American denim. As more women worked outside the home, the dirndl devolved into a style for barmaids and toddler girls. Little Frieda in 1962 looks sweet:

Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Mother, Mother, Mother, Mother, Mother

I thought that for a poet who hated her mother, Sylvia Plath wrote surprisingly few poems of mother-hatred or mother-criticism -- true! -- and that Plath's better-known poems of "father-worship" (her phrase) meant she used the word "mother" rarely -- false! [1] Detail of page 326 from A Concordance to The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath (by Richard M. Matovich, NY: Garland Publishing, 1986):

This concordance is for the 1981 edition of The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath that we know did not collect them all. Plath fans look forward to the publication in 2024 by Faber & Faber of The Poems of Sylvia Plath -- 500-plus poems with 500-plus pages of notes -- edited by Karen Kukil and Amanda Golden.

[1] "father-worship": Sylvia Plath to Lynn Lawner, 18 February 1960.

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Sylvia Plath's Hungarian Roots

Sylvia Plath's DNA test results would break the Internet, but we can know right now that on her mother's side Sylvia was part Hungarian. Her maternal great-great grandfather Franziskus Paier or Pajer, pronounced "pyre," was born in Pest in 1822. In Austria he Germanized his name to Franz Bayer ("byer").

Sylvia grew up with her maternal grandmother, "Grammy," whose mother Barbara was Franz Bayer's daughter. Sylvia noted in her diary for 1945 that "Great-Grammy died," so she knew of Barbara, but mentioned her again only in the line "Mother, grandmother, great-grandmother / Reach hag hands to haul me in" ("All the Dead Dears"). Sylvia's chief interest in things Hungarian was a brief acquaintance with a young man named Attila, written up in her journal as exotically attractive.

In case you cannot view the family tree pictured below (click to enlarge), it centers on Franz Bayer, the Hungarian ancestor. Franz's parents were Georg Pajer and Elisabeth Buzar of Pest, Hungary.

Parish records show that Franz's paternal and maternal grandparents were married and baptized children in Pest, so Franz was at least of the third generation. Franz married Vienna-born Josepha Magdalena Schmidt on March 5, 1848, in Vienna. Eight days later a violent revolution erupted exactly there.

Click to enlarge. Tree from, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Their daughter Barbara Josefa Bayer, Sylvia's great-grandmother, was 12 and her sister Anna Amalia 7 when they were orphaned in 1866. So it is true that Sylvia's great-grandmother was an orphan, as Plath family lore said. Because the name Barbara Bayer was not changed, Barbara probably was sent to a relative or an orphanage.

None of this was unusual. Men went where there were jobs, changed their names to help assimilate. Life expectancy in Austria was 40, so Vienna had thousands of orphans.

Regarding Sylvia Plath's maternal ancestry, all births, weddings and burials from the 1700s into the 1900s were Roman Catholic, and all births were to married couples. Like the elusive "Native American ancestor" that families in the Americas like to claim, the lone Jew or "gypsy ancestress" in European families is mostly a figment, conjured when it is advantageous to do so, and I think Plath in her poem "Daddy" was doing that.

Barbara Bayer at 18 married Matthias Grunwald in Vienna. Between 1902 and 1908 Matthias and Barbara and their seven grown children all left Vienna for the U.S. and changed the family name to Greenwood.

Through their father, Sylvia and her brother were more Polish than they were Hungarian, and above all their heritage was German and Austrian. Pressured in school to become "all-American," neither Sylvia nor her mother Aurelia mentioned in writing their slender Hungarian root.

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Prussia? What Does It Mean?

Sylvia Plath’s father was born in 1885 in Prussia, in the German Empire, and those are two separate things, and “Germany” a third. Let this map explain Otto Plath’s Prussia and maybe Sylvia’s references to it.


Otto was born to German parents and grew up in the area the map labels “Posen,” territory Prussia had seized from Poland.

The component parts unified as the “German Empire” in 1871, and for 40-plus years the Empire looked like this (Prussia in green):

Prussia was the Empire's biggest, richest, most productive state because 1) Its government and military had long been organized while other states suffered the whims of kings and dukes, and 2) Rather than exterminate Jews, Poles, and other ethnic groups, Prussia had them work to build a better Prussia, with hospitals, industry, a thriving middle class, welfare and so on. Prussia hand-picked the best and made them bureaucrats and officers so none could fight Prussia without fighting their own.


When Sylvia referred in the poem “Little Fugue” to her father’s “Prussian mind” she meant strict, focused, righteous, keen and authoritarian. Her admiration included some fear. Otto yelled a lot. It was his way or no way. She called this “Prussian” and “German” behavior, as we might, but that is only partly correct.


The German Empire’s first chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, decided to model the whole German Empire on successful Prussia and its values – with one exception. Because the Empire ought to be German only, non-Germans such as Jews, Poles, and Russians were to be Germanized or forcibly marched over the borders and out.


That’s not authoritarian; that’s totalitarian.


That wasn’t “Prussian”; rather, it was Teutonic, referencing the Crusaders who around 1250 C.E. – their flag was black and white – did God’s will and crushed the North Baltic pagan Prussians, and imposed their rigid, exacting, Christian monastic and male-dominated culture. Its advantage: Nobles were no better than anybody else.


Bismarck’s expulsions destabilized the new Empire and the rest of Europe labeled Germans evil and barbaric, and an estimated 1.5 million citizens and residents, including Prussian-educated Otto, fled the Empire for the United States.


You know the rest. The Empire within 40 years lost a war, shrank to an impoverished “Germany,” and Prussia (no relation to Russia) went extinct; it hasn’t been on a map since 1918. New borders made Otto’s birthplace, Grabow, suddenly a Polish town. On at least one document Otto gave his birthplace as Poland.


Understandable that Sylvia Plath and The Bell Jar's “Esther Greenwood” and the speaker of “Daddy” had only a general idea of where their father came from.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

"An Emotional Voyage": Dr. Rachel Trethewey on Writing About Mothers

Rachel Trethewey; photo by Poppy Jakes
Published this week by The History Press UK, Mothers of the Mind is a triple biography of Virginia Woolf, Agatha Christie, and Sylvia Plath and their mothers, researched and written Dr. Rachel Trethewey, a fellow of Britain's Royal Historical Society and the author of five nonfiction books: Mistress of the Arts, Pearls Before Poppies, Before Wallis, The Churchill Sisters and now, Mothers of the Mind.

Dr. Trethewey read History at Oxford University, then did an M.A. in Victorian Studies followed by a Ph.D. in English from Exeter University, where she will speak about the book in November. I had questions I wanted answered right now, and Dr. Trethewey kindly replied.

1.     Why did you choose Woolf, Christie, and Plath?

      I first had the idea for this book at an exhibition at the Tate of St Ives in Cornwall. Alongside a quotation from Virginia Woolf, “We think back through our mothers if we are women,” was a bewitching photograph of her mother, Julia Stephen. It made me want to know more about Julia and her relationship with her famous daughter. I then wondered if the quotation was equally true for other female writers.

     As an avid reader of literary biographies, I recalled that Agatha Christie and Sylvia Plath also had intense relationships with their mothers. Fascinated by Plath since I was a teenager, I had always wondered how her mother coped with discovering Sylvia had such a different view of their bond. Agatha Christie had also always been on my radar because I was born and brought up in the same town as she was, Torquay, in Devon. Perhaps because I am so close to my own mother, when I read a biography of Christie, I was struck by her great affinity with her mother.

      When planning this book, I did consider other writers, but the mother-daughter bond was not so central to their lives. For instance, I am very interested in Daphne du Maurier, but her father was the focus of her early life.

2.     Why write about these writers’ mothers? What were you thinking?

      Inevitably every woman is influenced by her mother, but I wanted to write about exceptional mother-daughter bonds. My criteria was that the relationship must have profoundly influenced the famous author’s life, literature, and attitude to feminism. Like Virginia Woolf, I believe not enough has been written about women’s relationships with each other. Too often Virginia, Agatha, and Sylvia have been defined by their relationships with their lovers. I wanted to redress the balance by focusing on their formative affinity with their mothers. As I began researching, I discovered that the mothers were just as interesting as their offspring, formidable women who had shaped the outstanding writers their daughters became.


3.     Woolf and Plath had older, tyrannical, intellectual fathers and self-sacrificing mothers with Victorian values. It seems like a kind of formula that encourages creative daughters. Your opinion?

I was struck by how many similarities there were between two of the fathers, Leslie Stephen and Otto Plath. Intellectuals who wanted to be seen as geniuses, they were disappointed when they did not live up to their own exacting expectations. This had serious repercussions for their families. They were demanding men to be married to, who drained their equally talented wives. 


I agree that this complicated family dynamic played its part in the development of creative daughters. In each case, both parents were exceptional and had varying degrees of literary talent, which Woolf and Plath inherited. Their parents noticed and nurtured their children’s creativity. Family tensions also later provided plenty of subject matter for the daughters to write about. Certainly, the way the daughters viewed their mothers’ treatment influenced their feminism. They rebelled against a sexist society in which vibrant, independent young women were transformed into exhausted, self-sacrificing wives. 


However, although their daughters viewed them as martyrs, Julia and Aurelia perceived themselves as having more agency than that. As my book shows, they lived very full lives and would not have wanted to be viewed as passive victims. As Aurelia once wrote, Sylvia could only imagine what she thought her mother thought. Her mother's true feelings were very different.


4.     None of the mothers was abusive. Or were they?

None was, but Virginia’s and Sylvia’s relationships with their mothers proved to be detrimental to their mental health. When Virginia was a child, Julia was so involved in philanthropy and nursing that she was rarely alone with her daughter. When present, Julia was often sharp-tongued and impatient. Her death, when Virginia was thirteen, was devastating for her daughter. The Bloomsbury author felt haunted by her mother for the rest of her life. She tried to recapture her in her literature, but Julia always remained elusive.


Agatha’s relationship with her mother Clara was certainly not abusive. Clara’s unconditional love provided the firm foundation on which Agatha built the rest of her life.


Sylvia’s bond with Aurelia was arguably the most complex of the three. Plath’s psychiatrist encouraged the poet to believe that the mother-daughter relationship was at the root of many of her mental health problems. However, I think Aurelia always did her best by Sylvia, often at great emotional, physical, and financial cost to herself. It seems to me that both mother and daughter loved each other deeply, but the way their personalities reacted to each other could be toxic; perhaps they were just too similar. As perfectionists, they both wanted a perfect mother and daughter relationship, but that was just not possible in the real world. 


5.     Why did you include among your three writers an American younger by 50 years than the British writers? Are you one of those who consider Plath as British as she was American?

My criteria was the strength and complexity of the mother and daughter relationship rather than when they were born. However, as I wrote the book I was pleased that it covered a wide time span because it ended up charting how far attitudes to women’s roles had changed over a crucial century for feminism. I was also interested to see how Plath was able to take both her literature and feminism a stage further than Woolf had. For instance, Virginia broke new ground in the way she wrote about women’s bodily experiences, and Sylvia went further by writing about the visceral experiences of motherhood. 


I don’t consider Plath as being as British as she was American. Tracing both Sylvia’s and Aurelia’s story, I think it is tied up with the American dream. The fact Aurelia was the daughter of immigrants played an important role in Aurelia’s attitude to life and influenced Sylvia imaginatively, as can be seen in some of her short stories which drew on her mother’s experiences. My research also showed that rather than Aurelia being an atypical pushy mother, her parenting was influenced by the culture of her era in America. Her didactic approach was very similar to that of Rose Kennedy, who also acted as a teacher as well as a mother to her embryonic political dynasty. 


6.     Woolf and Christie came from families with money and status. Plath did not. What difference did this make, in your opinion?

A great difference. As I wrote about Aurelia Plath, I felt her life was the embodiment of Woolf’s feminist theories. Virginia’s tract suggesting that a woman needed an independent income and "a room of her own" to write came out at about the time Aurelia was choosing her career. Like Sylvia, Aurelia was exceptionally clever and ambitious; she wrote a brilliant thesis about Paracelsus, and could have pursued a career in academia. She also had aspirations to write, and would have liked the chance to explore a literary career. However, because her family lacked money and status, she had to take the safer option and become a teacher.


Finances also affected her relationship with her daughter. Aurelia wanted Sylvia to have all the opportunities she had missed out on. She worked exceptionally hard to make that possible. At times Sylvia resented her mother’s self-sacrifice. When Plath went to Smith College, she was very aware that she had to work hard for the same lifestyle her wealthier contemporaries took for granted. 


7.     Can you speak briefly of your own mother’s influence on you?

My mother Bridget has been my rock throughout my life. She has always supported me without smothering me and our relationship has been one of the most complete and uncomplicated in my life. I consider myself very lucky to have experienced that unconditional love. She has been very involved in this project from start to finish. She was with me when I first had the idea at the art exhibition and, while I was writing the book, she encouraged me every step of the way. I have dedicated it to her because our relationship is what really made me so interested in other mother-daughter bonds.


8.     Anything else you find interesting or want your readership to know?

Writing this book has been an emotional voyage of discovery for me. I found myself comparing my relationships to the bonds I was writing about. I didn’t find one formula which makes for a good relationship. But it did make me question how well we can ever know another person, even those we love best. I realized that rather than want our loved ones to be happy, we should want them to be fulfilled, and only the person themselves can know what will give them that fulfillment. At times I found writing the book harrowing, particularly the parts about Aurelia and Sylvia: I could feel how powerful the love between them was, and it was so sad that it went wrong. 

Mothers of the Mind: History UK ISBN: 9781803991894

Mothers of the Mind Amazon Pre-Order USA (April 2, 2024)