Almost all of my favourite pieces from the Sylvia Plath archives are connected to her work – poetry manuscripts, short stories, The Bell Jar drafts, and journal entries. These all give a clear insight into her creative processes and poetical imagination. However when Aurelia Schober Plath and Ted Hughes sold Plath’s items to a number of archives, they also included plenty of biographical material – her address book, her bank book, bills, financial lists. I suspect they perhaps understood the importance in years to come of being able to place her accurately within her social, cultural, and historical context. Sometimes reading this stuff can be uncomfortable, can feel a little intrusive, and certainly there are items and stories that should not be published yet. But like everybody else who has lived and died, Plath also has an official biographical trail – birth and death certificates, those documents that we can all access about anyone. This post is about the official record of Plath’s death in the archives, and as you can see some of the mistakes that can easily be made in recording the details of someone’s life.
The following features a contribution written by Peter K. Steinberg with some additional details added by me at the end.
PKS: Gail’s monthly feature of a Sylvia Plath archival document I think is a wonderful idea. It’s an engagement with files that one might not normally visit or that one might have even forgotten they had! The other day I was going through some of the files on my computer and I came across two ‘certified’ copies of Plath’s death certificate. One was published, in minute facsimile fashion, in Linda Wagner-Martin’s Sylvia Plath: A Biography. But these two copies that I have images of came from two different places. The first from Smith College is a copy that was made on 27 September 1973. The second comes from my own files from an online order to the General Records Office in London on 22 August 2005.
The copy held by Smith was handwritten from the original and has a rather embarrassing error. In the “Cause of Death” column, it ends “did kill himself”.
The 2005 copy from the GRO has some computer generated metadata at the top; however, the rest of the certificate is a true facsimile of the original.
The death certificate was made official at Plath’s inquest on 15 February 1963, 55 years ago, when it was signed by George M. McEwan and it was officially registered the following day by Alice K. Kimmance.
Sylvia Plath was laid to rest in Heptonstall on 18 February 1963. Since we’ve mixed our archives already, combining a document at Smith with a document from the General Register Office, let’s add at least one more archive into the mix.
On 30 April 1963, Hilda Farrar, Ted Hughes’ aunt, sent Aurelia Schober Plath a letter. Farrar wrote about a visit she and William Hughes made to Plath’s grave a week earlier. Mr. Hughes tidied up the grave and Farrar commented that the gravesite would not receive a headstone until the ground settled some. Aurelia Schober Plath notes: ‘(They waited seven years! asp)’, meaning that Plath did not receive a headstone until circa 1970.
GC: Reading Peter’s comments about Plath’s death in official documents and letters reminded me that I had a copy of the public details of Plath’s death and effects that were published sometime around May 1963. The document was contained in a book which was scanned in an online ancestry archive. Again we have an embarrassing error; ‘Plath’ becomes ‘Platch’ and the place of death is listed as University College Hospital. We know that Plath died in 23 Fitzroy Road and her death certificate states ‘dead on arrival’ at the hospital, though perhaps this is where she was officially declared dead. It is not quite clear. The entry shows that Ted Hughes was the sole beneficiary of her effects which amounted to £2147 4s. 2d. Converted into today’s value that amounts to £42,081. 20.
As the anniversary of Plath’s death approaches, I always like to remember just how much she achieved and left behind in her thirty years; poems, letters, journals, novels, short stories, drawings, teaching notes, reading books, hand-painted furniture, a radio play. And luckily, for us, the archives are seething with it all. At this time of year I also like to remember her words from ‘Context’:
“I am not worried that poems reach relatively few people. As it is they go surprisingly far – among strangers, around the world, even. Farther than the words of a classroom teacher or the prescriptions of a doctor; if they are very lucky, farther than a lifetime.”
[Quote from ‘Context’ taken from Plath, Sylvia, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams London: Faber & Faber, 1988: 93]