Aurelia Plath Biography

A Short Aurelia Plath Biography

Aurelia Plath was born Aurelia Frances Schober on April 26, 1906 in a flat on Columbus Avenue in the Boston, Massachusetts neighborhood called Jamaica Plain. Her parents, Francis ("Frank") and Aurelia Greenwood Schober, were immigrants from Austria. They married in Boston in July 1905 and became U.S. citizens in 1909.

Aurelia's father had worked as a waiter and butler in Austria, then in Italy and England before arriving in the U.S. in 1902 and settling in Boston. Until about 1921 he worked in an elite hotel’s restaurant, rising to the rank of headwaiter. Aurelia’s mother, Aurelia Romana Greenwood Schober, only 18 when she married Frank, supervised their children and home. Aurelia Frances, named for both her parents, was five when her younger sister Dorothy was born and 13 when her brother Francis Jr. was born. In 1918 the Schobers moved to Winthrop, a small town east of Boston, to a house that on one side faced Boston Harbor and on the other, the open Atlantic Ocean.

Educated in public schools, at age 14 working part-time in a public library, Aurelia was always an honor student and the first in her family to attend college. She loved reading novels and poetry and hoped to become a writer. Her father sent her in the fall of 1924 to Boston University's College of Practical Arts and Letters, a business college for women, to train to become a secretary. He refused to pay for any other type of college. In two years Aurelia earned her secretarial certificate, then persuaded her father she wanted to be a teacher. After that she took two more years of courses in languages and literature, subjects she loved.

Working a part-time secretarial job at MIT in 1926 Aurelia fell in love with a highly cultured, much older Austrian engineer, an MIT guest professor, and he fell in love with her; they nearly married. In 1928 she graduated as her class valedictorian with a bachelor’s degree in secretarial sciences. After teaching for a year at Melrose High School she returned to Boston University and earned a master’s degree in English and German.

One of her German professors was Dr. Otto Emil Plath, who also taught biology courses. After Aurelia graduated in 1930 he asked her for a date. They married in Carson City, Nevada, on January 4, 1932. On October 27, 1932, the couple welcomed a daughter they named Sylvia. Their son Warren was born in 1935.

The story of Sylvia Plath's life is well known. Her father Otto’s death in 1940, when Sylvia was eight, is often cited as the pivotal event of Sylvia’s life. This loss was a source of unending anger and sorrow. Sylvia wrote, “I was only purely happy until I was nine years old,” the age at which Aurelia had moved the family, now including Aurelia's own parents, out of seaside Winthrop and into a suburb of Boston called Wellesley. Aurelia had friends there, and Wellesley had excellent public schools and a well-known women’s college Aurelia hoped Sylvia could one day attend.

Widowed at age 34, Aurelia returned to the workforce as a middle-school teacher, and in 1942 Boston University hired her to develop a medical-secretarial major leading to a degree. More rigorous than it might sound -- the equivalent today would be "medical assistant" -- Aurelia created and taught in this program, and in 1947 was promoted from instructor to assistant professor of secretarial studies, and promoted to associate professor in 1957.

Sylvia after going away to Smith College at age 18 had struggled with emotional extremes. She confided in her mother and her journal but hid her troubles from her friends. Sylvia became severely depressed and attempted suicide the summer between her junior and senior year: She was 20. Her psychiatrist, Dr. Ruth Barnhouse Beuscher, encouraged Sylvia to say she hated her mother -- at the time, 1953, a popular excuse for self-thwarting behavior and general misery. After Sylvia’s highly publicized suicide attempt, Aurelia continually feared for her daughter’s life. She was quietly relieved when Sylvia married British poet Ted Hughes in 1956 and became her husband’s responsibility, although what happened is that Sylvia took on almost all of her marriage’s responsibilities, including promoting her husband’s writing career – with great success – while managing her own.

In a famous 1958 journal entry, written when she was 26, Sylvia raged at and blamed her mother Aurelia for her writer’s block, her father’s death, and her suicide attempt. Although Sylvia returned to therapy with Dr. Beuscher that year she never processed her feelings enough or gathered enough courage to tell that to her mother's face. Sylvia and her husband moved permanently to England in December 1959. From there, Sylvia wrote Aurelia letter after letter requesting financial and emotional support, and Aurelia continued to be an unfailing supplier.

After six years Sylvia’s husband left her for another woman. Aurelia from the U.S. did all she could to support a devastated Sylvia and her two small children. Again she feared for Sylvia’s life, and although Sylvia lectured her to stop worrying, Aurelia's worries were justified. Sylvia killed herself in February 1963. Aurelia suffered fresh waves of grief and insomnia as Sylvia’s Ariel poems, then Sylvia's novel The Bell Jar, then her journals – all with harsh criticism of her mother -- became bestselling books that won readers and praise from all over the world.

Sylvia was only 30 when she died. Her focus on her struggles and inner pain had blinded her to all that her family and numerous mentors had done to make her achievements possible. Sylvia also had the burden of mental illness. Her death came just a few years before before the feminist movement began forcing changes in the legal, medical, financial, and other roadblocks and disadvantages women had to cope with.

After Sylvia's death, Aurelia Plath longed to become her own person and fulfill her own professional, personal, and spiritual goals. In poor health while Sylvia was growing up, in Aurelia’s later years she concentrated on her job of educating young people and on her relatives and friendships. She retired from teaching in 1973 to edit a selection from Sylvia’s nearly 700 letters to her family, published as the bestseller Letters Home (1975). When Sylvia Plath’s fans wrote Aurelia letters or came uninvited to her door, Aurelia responded with especial compassion for troubled young women who reminded her of her daughter. In 1984 Aurelia sold the house in Wellesley and moved into a senior-living complex, where she died of Alzheimer's disease in 1994.

For reasons yet to be explained, no Plath biographers ever researched in any depth Aurelia’s background or her professional and personal life, instead devoting their efforts to finding out every detail about Otto Plath and, of course, the charismatic Sylvia. Interview notes and tapes show interviewers neglecting to ask Aurelia about her own life. So most published material about Aurelia's character and her role in Sylvia's life is based on what Sylvia wrote about her mother. This has led to what is was named by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie a "single story" about Aurelia Plath: the unquestioned acceptance of Sylvia's most critical words about her mother as the bedrock truth and final word about her mother's life and character. Maintaining this single story required a complementary belief: that in hundreds of letters spanning 25 years, whenever Sylvia wrote affectionately to her mother, she was faking.

© 2023 Catherine Rankovic




These printed books and articles or online resources discuss or feature Aurelia S. Plath in some substantial way. Thoroughly Freudian discussions, being fanciful, are not listed.

Reviews of Letters Home are grouped under their own heading.

Bernard, April. "My Plath Problem." Parnassus, Vol 18-19, No. 1, 1993, pp. 340-357.

Brain, Tracy. The Other Sylvia Plath. Harlow: 2001. Pages 33-36 discuss Aurelia Plath's annotations on Plath's letters.

Helle, Anita. "'Family Matters'": An Afterword on the Biography of Sylvia Plath." Northwest Review, Vol. 26, No. 2, 1988, pp. 148-160. The author is Sylvia Plath's second cousin.

Hughes, Ted. Selected Letters of Ted Hughes, Christopher Reid, ed. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007.

Moses, Kate. “The Real Sylvia Plath.” Retrieved 21 Nov. 2019.

PBS, "Voices and Visions: Sylvia Plath," video, 1988.

Perloff, Marjorie. “Sylvia Plath’s ‘Sivvy’ poems: a portrait of the poet as daughter,” in Lane, Gary, ed. Sylvia Plath: New Views on the Poetry. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979. 

Plath, Aurelia S., ed. Letters Home by Sylvia Plath: Correspondence 1950-1963. Harper & Row, 1975.

Plath, Aurelia S., "Letter Written in the Actuality of Spring," pp. 214-217 in Ariel Ascending: Writings About Sylvia Plath, Paul A. Alexander, ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.

Plath, Aurelia S., under her maiden name Aurelia F. Schober, "The Paracelsus of History and Literature," M.A. Thesis, Boston University, 1930. Retrieved 7 December 2021.

Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. Heinemann, 1963; Harper & Row 1971.

Plath, Sylvia. The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume I: 1940-1956. Eds. Kukil and Steinberg, Faber and Faber, 2017. 

Plath, Sylvia. The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume II: 1956-1963. Eds. Steinberg and Kukil, Faber and Faber, 2018.

Plath, Sylvia; Aurelia S. Plath, ed. Letters Home by Sylvia Plath: Correspondence 1950-1963. Harper & Row, 1975.

Rankovic, Catherine. "Aurelia Plath Shorthand Transcriptions.", 2020. 

Tretheway, Rachel. Mothers of the Mind: The Remarkable Women Who Shaped Virginia Woolf, Agatha Christie and Sylvia Plath, The History Press, 2023.


Letters Home Reviews

Brans, Jo. "The Girl Who Wanted to be God." Southwest Review, Vol. 61, No. 3 (Summer 1976), pp. 325-330.

Duffy, Martha. “Two Lives.” Time, Nov. 24, 1975, p. 101.

Howard, Maureen. "Letters Home." New York Times Book Review, December 14, 1975, page 1. 

Perloff, Marjorie. "Review" (untitled).  Resources for American Literary Study, Vol. 7. No. 1 (Spring 1977) pp. 77-85.


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