Sylvia Plath’s study in Court Green was a large room with a red carpet and two windows. One overlooked the side of the house and a small peach tree. The other overlooked St. Peter’s church and the churchyard, including a wall of old gravestones that separated the end of Plath’s garden from the churchyard itself. A boundary wall of the dead. A large yew tree dominated the scene above crooked, lichen-eaten headstones. It was this tree that often snagged the moon in its branches, pointing upwards. “It has a Gothic shape” wrote Plath (Collected Poems, 173).
Above Plath’s great elm writing desk in her study, she had a wall of faded, yellow newspaper cuttings. One was a story from an American newspaper describing a young man whose mother had died. He kept her corpse in the bedroom, trying to bring her alive again with electric shocks. Or at least he did until the neighbours began to complain about the smell…
Another clipping was from an American magazine about extreme plastic surgery. Written by a woman who had paid $30,000 for a face lift, the article outlined the hellishness of the experience; flaps of skin, swelling, stitches, intense pain, scars tucked under hair. The writer advised all women to go out and do the same, the pain was well worth it.
Another photograph tacked up on the wall was of a railway accident.
Sylvia Plath’s love of the macabre was documented fairly well in her journals. In March 1958 while teaching at Smith College she recounts, “One night, late, we walked out and saw the lurid orange glow of a fire down below the highschool. I dragged Ted to it, hoping for houses, in a holocaust, parents jumping out of the window with babies…” (Journals, 356). She continues speculating on her love of disaster, “The fire was oddly satisfying. I longed for an incident, an accident. What unleashed desire there must be in one for general carnage. I walk around the streets, braced and ready and almost wishing to test my eye and fiber on tragedy – a child crushed by a car, a house on fire, someone thrown into a tree by a horse.” (357).
Despite being perceived as odd, this love of horror and gruesomeness does serve certain social functions according to sociologists. It can partly be about indulging fantasies which act as a sort of cathartic outlet for our darkest thoughts. But some psychologists feel it gives us an opportunity to suffer death from a distance, to get as close to it as possible, without being engulfed ourselves. This is why, following, say, a road accident or a terrible house fire, people gawp, hoping to catch a glimpse of horror or carnage. Plath even put this into her poem, “Aftermath” — “Compelled by calamity’s magnet / They loiter and stare as if the house / Burnt-out were theirs, or as if they thought / Some scandal might any minute ooze / From a smoke-choked closet into light…” (Collected Poems, 113).
Murder, death, crushed bodies, charred, smoking houses, the gothic, the extreme. Elizabeth Sigmund noticed that often Plath found amusement in what other people might find gruesome. And this gallows humour certainly seems evident in some of the Ariel poems and sections of The Bell Jar. In fact, what struck me about the newspaper cuttings tacked above the desk in Court Green was just how very Plathian they were. The themes surely crept into her poems. Dying and being brought back to life by electricity, burnt along all your nerves, the horrific sight of a head swaddled in bandages after a face lift, peeled away to reveal lineless skin, the desire for disaster, to witness some scandalous tragedy as if it were one’s own, but with the safe distance of it very much not being.
About twenty miles away from Court Green, lies Princetown, a small hamlet in the middle of Dartmoor dominated by the high granite walls of a prison. It is a grim, foreboding building and each time I have visited the weather has been suitably fitting – thick fog rolling across the moor, dark clouds, splatters of rain. Princetown has a long history dating back to 1809, but became a civil prison in the 1850s. A classic, looming Victorian presence, all jutting chimneys and towers. It has housed some notorious murderers and criminals over the years and has a history of prisoners escaping, trying to find their way across the moors. Such stories featured in the Sherlock Holmes books, and more recently in the James Bond film Spectre. Plath was aware of this brooding presence just across the moor from her containing exactly the sort of people she was fascinated with. When she was living alone at Court Green in late 1962, she wrote that she heard a window smash during a storm and called the police thinking someone was breaking in. One imagines she did this with a combination of horror, fear, maybe even a slight thrill? Or was this disaster perhaps too close to home? “Dartmoor convicts keep escaping on these black nights & I keep an apple parer ready and the doors bolted” she wrote to Ruth Fainlight on November 20th (Letters Vol. II, 915). It is unnerving to think of Plath alone in the house with the children, wind and rain whipping up the trees outside, a branch breaking the window, her yellowing newspaper cuttings tacked up in an empty study in the early hours of the morning, with their lurid headlines blaring to no one in particular.
On a recent visit to an old shop full of various jumbly bits of treasure, I came across this vintage postcard of the prison at Princetown from the mid-1950s. On the back a daughter has written a message to her mother: “Dear Mum / Sunday / We went to Princetown and saw Dartmoor Jail / It has been a lovely day.” I think Plath would have loved the humorous irony in this. In some sort of perverse homage to her, I now have the postcard tacked above my writing desk.
The photograph of Court Green is taken from the book by Edward Butscher, Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness (Tuscon: Schaffner Press, 2003).
The photograph of the Princetown postcard ©Gail Crowther.
The details of the cuttings above Plath’s desk can be found in Box 1, Folder 18, Rose Library, Emory University.