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 AureliaPlath.info posts, please email Microsoft Word documents to platheducational@gmail.com. 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.