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 FamilySearch.org, 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 Press.com UK ISBN: 9781803991894

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