‘Past, present and future give the house different dynamisms which often interfere, at times opposing, at other stimulating one another.’ Gaston Bachelard ([1958] 1994: 6)

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Jillian Becker’s house, Islington.

The home is a powerful place. For Gaston Bachelard, people need houses to dream, in order to imagine. Houses are important vehicles for traces too, a strange domestic space in which time refracts creating a melding of past, present, and future. The idea of a tidy temporal chronology usually dissolves in a home as the past makes itself known in the present, and the future is never far away, yet remains that elusive moment that we never quite reach.

Houses are important types of archives too. They hold objects and memories and traces. Often of past or present inhabitants. In literary heritage, houses play an important role in allowing us to see where certain writers worked. The view from their window, their desk, gardens, carpets, inkwells, the everyday objects that clutter homes over time. Where I live in the North of England there are three main literary homes open to view: The Brontë Parsonage in Haworth, John Ruskin’s Brantwood on the shores of Coniston, and Wordsworth’s cottage in Grasmere. Writer’s homes often allow us some physical link to the writer despite the temporal distance.

What I enjoy about visiting homes is the experiential aspect of somehow wondering what influence the place may have had on the writer. Did it feature in their work? Can we look somewhat voyeuristically through their eyes and see how they transformed a place, a space into a poem or a story or a novel? Can we try to insert ourselves into that creative transformation?

In These Ghostly Archives, Peter K. Steinberg and I wrote in some depth about Plath’s domestic and creative spaces and tried to highlight the links between the two. But there are other places Plath stayed that may also have impacted on her poems. During the last weekend of her life, from Thursday 7 February until Sunday 10 February, Plath stayed with her friends Jillian and Gerry Becker in their home in Islington, London. Plath had been introduced to the Beckers by their mutual friend Suzette Macedo in late 1962. Although they had not known each other for very long, during the last few days of her life, it was the Beckers that Plath turned to when she struggled to cope alone in her Fitzroy Road flat.

In Giving Up: The Last Days of Sylvia Plath, Jillian Becker recalls this weekend stay and she offers some insight into how her home and the location and conversations that took place there fed into Plath’s imagination. What is especially poignant about Becker’s memoir is that it is as much about forgetting as remembering. The day before Plath died, they all ate a large Sunday roast dinner around the dining table in a room that was then wallpapered with red and gold stripes. One wall was taken up with framed Gibson Girl cartoons from Punch. Lingering over cold coffee cups for an hour they talked about ‘something’ that for Becker ‘has not left a trace of a memory.’ (p. 9)

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Dining room

Other snatches of conversation, Becker remembers well recalling one evening sitting looking out across the garden and quoting to Plath a Louis MacNeice poem: ‘The sunlight on the garden hardens and grows cold/ you cannot cage the minute within its nets of gold.’ They both spoke about how they liked the internal rhyme. Then they became pensive as twilight fell, darkening the room until only the glint of the silver teapot was visible. Becker believes it was this moment that Plath brought to mind when she wrote the lines of one of her final poems ‘Edge’: ‘…as petals/ Of a rose close when the garden/ Stiffens and odors bleed/ From the deep sweet throats of the night flower.’

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The garden

Becker writes of feeding Plath chicken soup, large rump steaks, creamy mashed potatoes, and salad (‘Like most Jewish mothers I believed in the therapeutic powers of good food.’ (p. 4)) She describes sitting in a low Victorian grandmother chair at the side of Plath’s bed well into the early hours, comforting her through her distress, waiting until her pills took effect. It is hard not to see Becker’s presence in the poem ‘Kindness.’

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The bedrooms where Plath and her children stayed 7-10 February

When Plath insisted on leaving that Sunday evening, Becker stood in the porch way and waved until Plath was out of sight. She could not have known what was about to happen. Neither could she have known that her home would retain the traces of Plath who had stayed there, talking about poetry, thinking about poems. Becker left the house many years ago, other inhabitants have come and gone. Bachelard links poems and houses – he says both allow us to daydream, and that houses ‘cling’ to their inhabitants (p. 45). In this way they defy time and they defy space transforming into a sort of domestic archive where memories and stories are housed just as effectively as files and manuscripts are stored in a reading library.

‘A house that has been experienced,’ wrote Bachelard, ‘ is not an inert box. Inhabited space transcends geometrical space.’ (p. 47).

Maybe even people do, too .

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Books cited:

Bachelard, Gaston, 1994. (1st published 1958). The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press.

Becker, Jillian, 2003. Giving Up: The Last Days of Sylvia Plath. London: Ferrington.

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