Tuesday, May 30, 2023

From the Plath Archives: Dark of the Moon

In 1926, Aurelia F. Schober, 20 years old, “to make a black day brighter” bought a copy of Sara Teasdale’s newest book of poems, Dark of the Moon. On the flyleaf Aurelia wrote her name and “December 29, 1926.” With an ultra-fine pen she underlined, checkmarked, and bracketed titles, lines, and stanzas. Sprinkled throughout the book’s 91 pages are 14 annotations in the tiniest Gregg shorthand I have ever seen.


Two decades later Aurelia’s daughter Sylvia Plath affixed her bookplate to the same flyleaf, signing it in her distinctive rounded hand and heavy black ink. That ink appears elsewhere in the book only as a checkmark in the Table of Contents alongside the title “Effigy of a Nun.” Aurelia had long before judged that poem as “really very excellent and it’s different.” Sylvia could not read her mother’s shorthand but singled out that poem too.


Dark of the Moon is the only book in Lilly Library’s Sylvia Plath archive claimed and autographed by mother and daughter. [1] Aurelia’s shorthand annotations show her weighing her attachment to “Karl.” My research identified him as a professor of engineering, Aurelia’s first love, 22 years older than she. In October 1926 Aurelia brought Karl home to meet her parents. He also spent Christmas with the family. In his diaries he described these as heartwarming occasions. By December 29, Aurelia’s mother had told her Karl was too old and to tell him goodbye. Privately, in shorthand her family could not read, Aurelia made her own decision, which I transcribed and placed in context in the table below. As a decoy for any nosy parent or sibling, Aurelia wrote one comment in plain English.


Sylvia discovered her mother’s copy of Dark of the Moon at age 14 and exclaimed in her diary, “What I wouldn’t give to be able to write like this!” Teasdale’s poem “An End” frames Sylvia’s first published short story “And Summer Will Not Come Again” (1950). It’s a cruel little tale: Girl meets Boy, then one day sees him with another girl and jealously confronts him. Girl loses Boy and it’s all her own fault. The end of the story quotes the poem:


With my own will I turned the summer from me

And summer will not come to me again.


The first line of Teasdale’s poem “Appraisal” echoes in Sylvia’s early poem “Ballad Banale”:


Never think she loves him wholly.


Others have documented Teasdale’s influence on Sylvia’s poetry, but how and why this book got to Sylvia only the shorthand tells.


[1] There were other such books, not in the Lilly Library’s Plath collection.

Click to clarify and enlarge the transcription table [it has a second page]:

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

About Their Marriage Certificate

Click to enlarge.
Otto Plath got a quickie divorce and Otto and Aurelia married January 4, 1932. In Carson City, Nevada. So what's new? A closer look at the marriage certificate. Both claimed they lived in Reno, but courts winked at lies from out-of-staters as long as they brought money for lawyers, legal fees, and so on. During the Great Depression, Nevada only thrived.

And Otto's divorce lawyer witnessed the wedding. E.E. Roberts happened also to be the mayor of Reno. The judge who had just decreed Otto's divorce married the couple. And the certificate is time-stamped: 1:32 p.m.

Because lawyers don't stay around unless they're paid, and because divorce mills waste no time, I'm thinking the Plaths' civil ceremony immediately followed the divorce. Did Aurelia stand by as Otto divorced his first wife by proxy? (A male lawyer served as the proxy and was paid.) Or did Otto trot down the courthouse steps in the January cold to the car -- Esther Greenwood said her just-married parents got into a car -- and say "Hurry up, I'm divorced, the judge is waiting"? Doubtful.

One indicator says they went after the ceremony to Lake Tahoe, then San Francisco; Otto had to sell a piece of land he owned there. If they went by car, Aurelia's mother drove. Having Mother on a honeymoon fries our minds, but the original "wedding journey" was a dutiful round of visits to relatives and friends unable to attend the wedding, and having parents along was not strange. Otto had relatives in Chicago and Reno, Aurelia in St. Louis and Lincoln, Nebraska. These were along the trio's cross-country route. Serendipitous.

More here about their cross-country trip from Boston by car, and Otto's strategic divorce.

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Next Tuesday: "Diary of an Aurelia Plath Researcher"

Ever wonder what a Plath-minded independent scholar does? I experiment! Next week I will post a part of my recent Plath research diary that I think might interest you. I do this, exposing missteps and honest thoughts, because I am at no risk of losing my job. The post includes new research and, of course, endnotes.

Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Gender-Swapper Aurelia Plath

Researching Aurelia Plath's life means seeking unconventional sources, and more than once I've hit the jackpot on eBay whence came the above press photo from a dealer unaware that it pictures Sylvia Plath's mother. Then college sophomore Aurelia Schober is kneeling in a scene from the German-language play Das Ganschen von Buchenau ("The Little Goose of Buchenau").

College German Clubs liked to perform Ganschen, which in 1926 -- when Aurelia starred in her college's production -- was a two-act chestnut everybody loved. Harvard performed it in 1893.  Radcliffe's program [pictured] from 1904 includes the following synopsis:

"Fink has been sent by his uncle to woo Agnes, but having been told by Silberling that she is coarse and stupid, "ein Ganschen," he behaves in the rudest manner possible, hoping to have his suit rejected. Agnes's grandmother, disgusted by Fink's boorishness, urges her to accept Silberling, a dandy of the town. In spite of all this, Agnes falls in love with Fink. He soon learns how he has been deceived as to her, but not before her hand has been promised to Silberling, who wishes to marry her for her dowry. Agnes discovers how matters stand, and in order to make Silberling free her, pretends to be not only brainless and awkward, but poor as well. Her ruse succeeds. Silberling's true character is exposed; Agnes bestows her hand on Fink, with the full approval of her grandparents."

Aurelia played von Fink. You didn't need to know German to like what I hope was a broadly acted farce and big fun.

Aurelia was the leading "young man" in three annual Boston University College of Practical Arts and Letters German Club plays, Ganschen the first. In 1927 she was lovesick poet Strubel in Die Ferne Prinzessin ("The Faraway Princess"); then Prince Goldlande in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1928, years before the Disney movie. 

Tall and big-boned ("statuesque") Aurelia also had a resonant voice comparable to Sylvia's BBC-recorded voice; at least two people who know have said so. Publicity photos exist for Ganschen and Die Ferne with Aurelia and her leading lady in much the same pose. Notice how if Aurelia had stood up she would have towered over her Ganschen co-star, Selma Orlov.

Their college's German Club was no slouch about publicity and distributed press releases and professional photos to newspapers -- which published them, including a headshot of Aurelia Schober as herself, headlined "Star in B.U. Play," and a headshot of Aurelia as mustachioed von Fink. The von Fink headshot, identified as "Miss Aurelia Schober," appeared in Florida and Oklahoma small-town newspapers, evidently for the entertainment value cross-dressing could provide. Aurelia never again looked so rakish in any photo I have seen. 

Aurelia wanted to become a writer, but her artistic talent was for acting, or the stage. That was attested by her peers not only at her college but at Brookline High School, where Aurelia performed as a female with other teachers in the modern comedy The Show-Off in 1930. A very sedate cast photo ran in the Boston Globe. Aurelia wrote that an agent in the audience told her she had talent and mentioned Broadway. Like several anecdotes showing Aurelia as a person who had any talent or success, that anecdote was cut from her preface to her selection from daughter Sylvia's letters, Letters Home (1975).

One of my Shakespeare professors made a career of spinning Shakespeare's cross-dressing characters into transgressive gender-benders (a male actor playing a girl playing a guy!). There might be a Ph.D. in studying Sylvia Plath's mother -- a single mother -- whom Aurelia and Sylvia said had the burden of being, in real life, both a woman and a man.

[Notes: Das Ganschen von Buchenau by Wilhelm Friedrich Reise, c. 1830; "Harvard performed it," Crimson, 3 March 1893; "In 1927," "German Club to Present Play at B.U. Tomorrow," Boston Post, 3 February 1927; "Star in B.U. Play" with photo, Boston Transcript, 12 January 1926; "appeared in Florida," this blog 10 September 2020; "Boston Globe," 8 December 1930 p. 22.]