Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Toxic Handwriting

Sylvia Plath's distinctive handwriting

A professional handwriting analyst in 1953 assessed Sylvia Plath's character through a sample of her handwriting: 

"Strength: Enjoyment of working experience intense; sense of form, beauty and style, useful in fields of fashion and interior decoration. Eager for accomplishment. Weakness: Overcome superficiality, stilted behavior, rigidity of outlook."

Was he right? We can discuss that all day.

There are few online images of Aurelia Plath's handwriting, and as far as I know it's never been analyzed. So here is a sample from her college's yearbook of 1928, when she was Aurelia Schober. On top is a classmate's inscription (to the yearbook's owner), to compare with Aurelia's inscription at bottom left.

The yearbook's owner, named Muriel, asked each classmate to write "something original." Aurelia's text says, "Dear Muriel: It's hard to be original during exam time, so I'll just hope that you'll recover from them & have a delightful summer. Here's to the day when we wear cap and gown. Sincerely, Aurelia."

In Muriel's 1927 yearbook, Aurelia had drawn a pointer to herself in the group photo of the English Club. She printed rather than using cursive, again using very tiny lettering, here taking up 1.5 vertical inches of the page's inner margin.

It says, "Here's to two more years of joy and struggle at P.A.L. Like Browning we must get our joy out of the struggle. Sincerely, Aurelia"

"P.A.L." was short for Boston University's College of Practical Arts and Letters, founded as a women's business and vocational college. To help pay her way, Aurelia after her sophomore year got a summer job as a secretary and translator for an M.I.T. guest professor in his forties. In his diary he noted his young secretary's handwriting. He saw in it "something stiff and sober I cannot well digest.”

He digested it anyway, and he and Miss "Sober" soon fell into a red-hot two-year love affair (described in his diaries) you can read about here. He and Aurelia nearly married. He married someone else. Aurelia on the rebound dated and married Boston University professor Otto Plath.

So, our analysis?

How about: "The Plath women lived in a culture that presumed to judge women through isolated examples of their writings and their effing handwriting."

Notes: The analysis of Sylvia Plath's handwriting by Herry O. Teltscher, 1953, for Mademoiselle magazine, is in the Plath mss. II at the Lilly Library. Quotation from the Karl Terzaghi Diaries, October 1926.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Do I remember the era of “handwriting analysis”! You and I follow both Aurelia and Sylvia in time. Occasionally some beady-eyed person would scrutinize a handwriting sample and make a dire pronouncement: I used a widely varying assortment of handwriting and printings, but never knew how to force my hand into the relaxed, brilliant person that I wanted to be considered ‘way back then. I admit I was anything but “relaxed.”

The guy who put Plath under the microscope at Mademoiselle was, IMO, pretty close on every adjective.

—Cordelia Biscuitbarrel