Tuesday, January 31, 2023

"Sylvia Bites"

Bitten plum / photo by Marco Verch
Sylvia Plath, as a kid, was violent—so much that Aurelia Plath had to keep Sylvia and her brother Warren apart. Sylvia kicked her brother, choked him, stuffed cloth down his throat. Sylvia said this to her psychiatrist Ruth Beuscher in a February 1959 therapy session, and Beuscher around 1970 read the therapy notes to Harriet Rosenstein, who audiotaped the interview.

Sylvia, age 26, told Dr. Beuscher her vivid memories of hating Warren from his birth, and published those memories in her essay “Ocean 1212-W.” Sylvia wrote in her journal (15 June 1951) that she had pelted Warren with tin soldiers, “gouged his neck” with an “careless flick” of an ice skate. You can’t carelessly flick an ice skate. Aurelia said Sylvia’s bullying became a neighborhood problem after her father died, but if Sylvia’s short story “Among the Bumblebees” is as thinly fictionalized as most of her fictions, the original of young Alice Denway was kicking her brother’s shins under the family dinner table to impress a father who was there. In other Plath fictions, girl-child narrators bite a playmate on the leg, bully a Jewish boy, are accused of ruining a neighbor girl’s new snowsuit. The real Sylvia had a rough enough reputation so that when the real-life neighbor girl’s parents came asking for money, Sylvia’s family sadly paid.

Aurelia’s Letters Home preface gets cagey and Latinate about her children’s infighting, signaling that she is suppressing much worse. Aurelia wrote: “[t]here were many times when each made the other miserable; and Sylvia, as the older, was the more dominant and the more culpable,” and does not say, but we know, she sent her daughter to live with her grandparents. Sylvia bit people. A police report in the Boston Globe (23 August 1938) says at the Plath house in Winthrop a dog “severely” bit on the nose a two-year-old guest. The Plaths did not own a dog. The dog was a neighbor's, but that Sylvia might have done it crossed my mind. Later when Sylvia first met Ted Hughes she bit his cheek until her teeth nearly met and the blood ran.

It is normal for children to be jealous of younger siblings and sometimes hurt them. Ruth Beuscher noted that Sylvia’s sibling rivalry went beyond normal. At age 26 Sylvia was bothered that Warren was at Harvard and she was not. Sylvia fought with her husband—“violent disagreements,” she told her mother; “snarlings and bitings,” she told her journal; “sprained thumbs and missing earlobes,” she told her brother. That was two adults in love. She had rushed to marry a “violent Adam,” “a breaker of things and people,” yet complained piteously after they broke up that he had beaten her. A line deleted from a draft of the poem “Edge” (“She has taken them with her”) suggests she considered killing their children along with herself, but on February 11, 1963, killed only herself.

Or so we say. In July 1964, Ted Hughes wrote about their two-and-a-half-year-old son, “Nick is a very tough-minded little bloke—altogether a very strange & violent little kid, a little Napoleon.” “I have a violence in me,” Sylvia wrote, “that is hot as death-blood.” That is true of many others. The difference is that Sylvia knew herself and spoke honestly about how bullying could get her what she wanted.

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Bringing Up Baby Sylvia

October 1932 issue

“I was totally imbued with the desire to be a good mother,” said Aurelia Plath, and a pink satin Baby Book now in the Sylvia Plath archives at the Lilly Library shows full-time new mother Aurelia recording joyfully on its pages her infant Sylvia's every gain.


Baby Books emerge in the U.S. around 1880. They require literacy and leisure and parents who expected children to grow up; in 1900, that’s three children out of four. Mass-produced baby books reached peak popularity around the time Sylvia was born in 1932. Among the mothers of the twenties and thirties faithfully tracking in writing their children’s progress was Rose Kennedy, inspired by The Care and Feeding of Children (1894), a bestseller by a New York hospital pediatrician who made patient “charts” mandatory after seeing nurses keeping them.


Intensified scientific interest in child rearing—the phrase “child care” first appears in 1915—designated “early childhood” the most critical phase. Writing in baby books (kept almost exclusively for firstborns!) made new middle-class mothers feel scientific but anxious, and therefore willing to pay for expert advice. Aurelia subscribed before Sylvia’s birth to Parents’ magazine.


Most fatefully for Sylvia, Parents’ in the 1930s mainstreamed in the U.S. the quite novel idea that the goal of education was for children to be happy. Aurelia, like her contemporaries, was raised “to be good,” meaning “to bow to authority.” “Happiness” was incidental; the root of “happy” means “good fortune,” and no parent can guarantee happiness. That churchmouse Aurelia was an ultra-modern mother, raising her children “to be happy” starting with feedings on demand and continuing along the lines set out by Friedrich Froebel, founder of “kindergarten.” He said children should have creative toys, sing and read and hear stories, be reasoned with, and follow their own interests.

A modern Baby Book, 2023 ($27).


But it seems that after the kindergarten stage Aurelia imposed happiness as a household norm. Sylvia learned to hate it when Aurelia kept repeating that she only wanted her children to be happy.


Sylvia Plath as a mother consulted the manual Baby and Child Care (1946), which moved the child-rearing goalposts: It said the goal was to make children feel loved. Sylvia was rarely happy and did not feel loved, and Aurelia, “good” by any lights but her daughter’s, met the same fate.


[1] Founded in 1922, Parents ceased publishing its print edition in 2022.

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Aurelia Plath's Heart Attacks

"A heart attack laid her mother out two months ago," Ted Hughes wrote to Al Alvarez in November 1971. He meant Sylvia's mother Aurelia Plath. In September of that eventful Plath year Aurelia, age 65, had a heart attack. Today we call her ailment "broken heart syndrome" or takotsubo cardiomyopathy. Its trigger is sudden and grievous stress.

What happens: One heart ventricle balloons. "Takotsubo" means "octopus pot." No joke.
Aurelia described "long periods of excessively rapid and irregular heart episodes," pain and unconsciousness. The doctor prescribed bed rest 12 hours out of 24 and no stress. Neither was possible. The Bell Jar U.S. rollout in spring 1971 made Aurelia's daughter's novel the talk of the nation, and Aurelia felt ashamed as its Boston-area characters were matched to her neighbors and to Sylvia's dates, classmates and mentors, and herself.

Aurelia also made it her business to keep Sylvia's benefactress Olive Higgins Prouty, then almost 90 and unwell, from ever reading The Bell Jar, a task because Prouty lived until 1974. As of July 1971 forcibly retired from Boston University after 29 years, broken-hearted or not Aurelia had to work, commuting weekly to a community college on the Cape. On October 30, 1971, a month after the heart attack, she wrote:

Five days a week I walk the hill from the parking lot to the College, then the 43 steps up to my office (no lifts!)—slowly and with pauses. If, between classes, I have no student to counsel and I feel exhausted, I lock my door, take a pillow from my chair and stretch out on the rug on the floor to relax and gain enough energy to continue. I drive the 100 miles from Brewster to my dear home in Wellesley only about once a month now.
Aurelia wrote a friend the following year that "I did not expect to reach Christmas '71 alive." Olwyn Hughes, who published the U.S. Bell Jar over Aurelia's protests, wrote a letter feigning concern and suggesting yoga. Aurelia replied just as insincerely, blaming her heart attack on Sylvia's old boyfriend Gordon Lameyer's unpublished memoir in manuscript. By contrast The Bell Jar's portrayal of clueless mother figure "Mrs. Greenwood," read by thousands that year, cost Aurelia friends, social standing, and any sympathy for the mother of a suicide. The book probably factored into Sylvia's decision to die. It spoiled other lives too. Only the Hugheses got any money, and they were not the happier for it.

Takotsubo can kill, but most patients recover within weeks. Aurelia's next "pressure heart attack" was in 1987, after reading a draft of Linda Wagner-Martin's Plath biography. Aurelia objected to hints about Sylvia's birth as "three weeks early" and that she had been an absent parent. "You have hurt me deeply," Aurelia wrote Wagner-Martin. "You did a massive undertaking well, except for the portrayal of me." Whether this heartbreak was a medical event or a guilt trip is not clear.

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

The Lost Lines of "Eavesdropper"

On October 15, 1962, in the middle of composing her Ariel poems, Sylvia Plath wrote the poem “Eavesdropper,” a lengthy, hateful vent about a nosy neighbor caught eyeing and judging the speaker’s property, spying through curtains after midnight, and crouching in the bushes to get an earful. And the eavesdropper was ugly, too! The poem’s final line: “Toad-stone! Sister bitch! Sweet neighbor!”


The “eavesdropper” was a real-life married woman in her fifties, Irene Sampson. Sampson and her husband bought the stone cottage vacated by Plath’s neighbors Rose and Percy Key, making Sampson Plath’s next-door neighbor during the turbulent autumn of 1962. In 2013 Irene’s niece wrote a blog post identifying Irene—who never read the poem “Eavesdropper”—as a much nicer person than the poem says.


Both the Hughes edit and the Plath edit of the book Ariel exclude “Eavesdropper.” Sylvia had submitted the poem in its original form to Poetry magazine, which accepted it and published it in August 1963 with more lines than appear in either Winter Trees (1971) or Plath’s Collected Poems (1982). Plath at the end of 1962 looked it over, deleted some lines and skillfully revised and rebroke others to form the version most of us know. Hughes noted that she made no final copy of the poem.


Poetry magazine’s online archive revealed the vivid line I had long searched for: “Sweater sets and treachery!” Will the forthcoming Complete Poems of Sylvia Plath print both versions of “Eavesdropper”? Even with the ethnic slur? Below, in italics, are the words that were cut. What is below is what followed the original’s stanza 5:


O yellow

Weasel unable

To rearrange the bitchy starvation,

  the dust lust!

I had you hooked.

I called, you crawled out,

A weather figure, boggling,

Chink-yellow, Belge troll, the low

Church smile

Spreading itself, bad butter.


This is what I am in for!

Your bone plates,

Your creaky biscuits,

Sweater sets and treachery!

Come to tea! Come to tea!

I shall stuff you with pillows!

Pillows and pillows of pure silence.

Flea body!

Eyes like mice


Flicking over my property . . .


“Belge troll” refers to Scandinavian legends about trolls crouched in the woods, ready to do mischief or evil.