From the archives: The Living Archive – Jillian Becker’s House

‘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)

dining room
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.’

garden
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.’

bedroom 1

bedroom 2
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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From the Archives: Sylvia Plath’s Death Certificate

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”.

Sylvia_Plath_Death_Certificate

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.

1963_02_16_Plath_Death_Certificate

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.

1963_04_30_Hilda_Farrar_to_Aurelia_Plath_Lilly_p2_crop

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.

SP will entry

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]

From the archives: Sylvia Plath’s names

One feature I love about archival material is being able to see the creative process in action. Poetry drafts, deleted lines, strike-throughs, and discarded ideas. Seeing what Plath rejected is almost as enlightening as what she believed would work. She was undoubtedly one of her own best critics.

One really lovely item in the Smith College Archive is a list of names that Plath gathered with the intention of using them in her fiction. This seems to be a task that she engaged with during 1957-1958 when she was teaching at Smith College and unable to really clear time to write for herself.

On Tuesday 14 January 1958, she wrote in her journal: ‘Name list of queer good names (cf. last page)’ (2000: 312). Here she is possibly describing the two loose pages of name suggestions now held in the Mortimer Rare Book Room. (The previous page in her journal where she invites a comparison is agonising over names and story episodes). Typed neatly on pink Smith College memorandum paper, the list seems to be based on actual names. Although the sheets are undated it seems likely that they originate from her teaching year since typed at the top of the first page is ‘NAMES: (real: Smith Catalogue).’ If this was Plath’s source then people in the Smith catalogue had some spectacular names; Persis Pottinger, Carlotta Wolverton, Nancy Skallerup, Gloria Terwilliger and Blossom Willinger. I’m not aware that any of these full ‘queer good names’ made it into Plath’s fiction – although two first names both spring out – Ariel and Esther.

What is fascinating is to see Plath as a writer noting and drafting ideas, even if they ultimately came to nothing. And as ever with archival traces, those little details that get left behind: the rust at the top and bottom of the first page from a paper clip Plath used to keep the pages together.

 

[Journal quote taken from Plath, Sylvia, Journals of Sylvia Plath (ed.), Karen V. Kukil (London: Faber & Faber, 2000)]

The Letters of Sylvia Plath: A Conversation

The following piece is a conversation between Peter K. Steinberg and Gail Crowther about the research, transcription, and publication of The Letters of Sylvia Plath. Begun in July 2017 after some initial reaction to the UK and US covers of the Letters, the conversation continued throughout the rest of the summer as we continued to ponder what the publication may mean for Plath readers.

GC: The first time I handled an original letter written by Plath was years ago now and I can still remember the feel of the paper and seeing her signature in black ink. I was surprised that she wrote on such thin, flimsy paper. It was creamy-coloured and seemed more like tracing paper than something you would use for correspondence to the BBC. Other letters I saw were typed on clearly ripped in half pieces of paper – and then years later I saw letters written on the pink Smith College memorandum paper. Each letter looked different and letters to different people had different voices. She almost always played up her (already impressive) achievements to her mother; letters to her brother were hilarious; business letters firm and often wry. At the moment you are one of the few people in the world that has seen every letter included in volumes 1 and 2, and transcribed and proofed them for publication. That’s got to feel peculiar?

PKS: Peculiar, certainly, yes in some ways. Like you, I recall my first interactions with the Sylvia Plath archive. I was working at Smith with her journals, some letters, and poetry drafts and each one has its own distinctive characteristics. Like siblings, if you will. As such, each style of writing almost calls for its own way of being read and considered. At the same time, however, each forms a complementary part of a whole thing; kind of like movements in symphonies. What I really feel about these volumes of Plath’s letters though is a sense of privilege and entrustment.

GC: It’s obvious that this has had a massive impact on your life for about eight years now. You’ve been a Plath scholar for decades and published extensively, but why do you think Karen Kukil invited you to be co-editor on this particular book?

PKS: In January 2012 I had both taken and co-taught a course with Karen on ‘Editing Sylvia Plath’s Correspondence’ at Smith College. Later that year, when Karen was issued with an initial contract for the Letters, she asked me to be the lead transcriber. Of course I said yes, but I did so somewhat blindly as at the time I did not have a grasp on how large the project was. I knew of caches of letters from my researches and readings, but then that’s hardly indicative of what was truly out there. I had never made any concerted effort at tracking existing letters or finding new or unknown letters. I think Karen asked me to do this because I took her course, but also for the reasons you state, that I had been working on Plath for decades and had been published. Maybe also because she knew me and trusted me as a researcher and as a person; that my body of work to that point (2012) was something upon which she felt recommended me for the task.

GC: But co-editing must be quite challenging especially if you are not located in the same place and have to discuss over email/phone etc. Also you and Karen are holding down day jobs at the same time. What was the process by which you decided who did what? How was the workload divided up?

PKS: Yes, we do both have day jobs which meant mornings, lunches, nights and weekends for me were more or less (more!) dominated by transcription and all the rest. Thank goodness my wife was patient! I cannot remember really ever discussing who did what. My role was to transcribe so that’s what I did. That being said, the work was essentially divided into two categories: letters held by Smith College and letters not held by Smith College. Karen had students transcribe the Smith letters in the series of courses she taught and she took responsibility for finalizing them. So the non-Smith letters—which amounted to more than 1,250—were up to me.

GC: At some point though you moved from main transcriber to co-editor alongside Karen, how did that come about?

PKS: The sheer volume of the letters lead to an increasing role for me than just a transcriber. In addition to proofing and annotating, I amassed sets of supporting documents such as Plath’s early diaries, calendars, papers, creative works, scrapbooks, and the like to write the several thousand contextual footnotes. I sent out countless inquiries looking for more letters and in the process I located two caches of new letters that are now at Smith! I took on doing these as copies of the letters were sent to me before Smith took ownership. I guess as a result of this effort, my status was elevated from transcriber to that of co-editor. The day Karen insisted my name be first on the title page was one of those fairy-tale days that remains even now, hard to believe. Once the letters were finished, the final task was to assemble them all into a single document for review and submission.

GC: When I was working on Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year’s Turning with Elizabeth Sigmund, we obviously spent a lot of time talking about Plath. It was a privilege to work with Elizabeth who had real insight into Plath as a friend. However, Elizabeth was also a woman with great politics who understood how society and power structures operate and as a consequence of this, how narratives get constructed about people. She was hugely upset at the way that the Sylvia she knew had been portrayed over the years. One of the reasons that she asked me to write a brief biography of Plath’s year in Devon was because she felt it was important that it was written by a woman. She firmly believed that ultimately the best Plath biography will be written by a woman. The Letters of Sylvia Plath has two editors – you and Karen Kukil, do you think this book would have been better edited by two women?

PKS: Oh, I really miss Elizabeth. I am not sure how to answer this question without insulting anyone or coming off as a complete egotist. I believe, firmly, anyone could have transcribed these letters. With all due respect to Elizabeth, it is limiting to judge the work a person does or should be able to do based on their gender. I would only ever ask to be judged on my work. In this case, I believe Elizabeth was always pleased with me and my perspectives. While I think anyone with eyes and fingers could have completed the transcriptions, I do believe—based on my history in working with Plath’s papers—I was one of a very small number of people (including both women and men) that could have handled the extensive annotations. I felt I had both the specific background and the resources to do them properly. While I failed to do everything I wanted with this project, I am nonetheless very happy with the effort and dedication I contributed into the making of The Letters of Sylvia Plath.

GC: I agree. The extent and scope of the accompanying contextual notes and annotations in the Letters required extensive pre-existing knowledge – and you’re one of the few people with that. But I think what Elizabeth meant in terms of biography was that a woman’s lived experience might best be understood by another woman who has to inhabit the same power structures that Plath did. In other words there would be an experiential aspect necessarily excluded from masculine understanding and the more privileged position men hold. Furthermore, I do think it is fair to say isn’t it that generally female writers often get treated differently to male writers? If we take the cover of the UK edition of the Letters book by Faber we see Plath depicted in, as she called it, “a neat two-piece white Jantzen bathing suit”. If we do the usual comparison with Hughes, his Collected Letters show him sitting in a chair by a river, writing in a notebook. If we look at Faber’s edition of T.S. Eliot’s volumes of letters he is shown staring boldly at the camera. Anne Sexton on the cover of her Selected Poems is shown in a swimming pool. There is a huge difference in the way these writers are portrayed on the cover of their books and gender plays a massive part in this. I don’t mean to go down the simplistic line of “women always get shown like this and men do not”. Neither do I want to start finding examples of men in bathing suits or underwear to underscore my point (there are plenty of Joe Orton for example on posthumous editions of his books). It seems to me such comparisons rather miss the point.  There are however lots of pictures of Plath during the years covered in Volume 1 that show her sitting writing or typing or reading or staring in her bold unflinching fashion at the camera. So why do you think designers would choose the picture that they did? And in comparison, the US edition has gone with a completely different cover.

PKS: I agree there is difference in the way female and male writers have been depicted and Plath herself has an interesting marketing history as Tracy Brain discussed in her ‘Packaging Sylvia Plath’ section of The Other Sylvia Plath (2001). Marketing and advertising decisions cannot be easy ones to make and likely go through a number of different stages and channels before being finalized. And this is the way it works for the publishing houses in any country, which I think explains the difference between covers for the UK and US edition of Plath’s letters. We provided a number of photographs of Plath that fit the time period represented in the volume. Selection was then made and approved by people at the publishers and the Plath Estate.

As for Sexton, one might be able to argue that cover image pays homage to several of her poems, for example, ‘The Nude Swim’ and the more famous ‘Music Swims Back To Me’ and more generally her love of swimming (she used a grant she was awarded in 1961 to install a swimming pool at her house). That’s hardly addressing your point, but I think in some ways may help to explain why this photograph of Plath was used.

The photograph gracing the Faber cover is actually a well-known, well-published, and already iconic photograph of Sylvia Plath. I believe it was first published, although in black and white, in Letters Home in 1975. And it has probably been reprinted in any number of books and articles about Plath since then. A colorized version was used in 1980s and a 1990s paperback editions [http://www.sylviaplath.info/thumbsbooks.html#johnnypanic] of Faber’s Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams. However, the main difference between then and now is that it is now in full, original color, the way Lameyer took the original when he and Plath visited Chatham, Massachusetts on 24 July 1954. I cannot state with authority why this particular photograph was chosen over the others. Aesthetically I conjecture the image worked best for their design team and it offers ample space for text to appear. The red lettering matches Faber’s most recent cover of the Journals, and any reader of Plath should appreciate the colour red from how Plath used it in her life: from her clothing to her lipstick to her poetry.

Plath’s smile is radiant. She is captured here at the beach, in the sun, less than one calendar year after her first suicide attempt, resplendent in life, enjoying a day-trip to the beach with Gordon Lameyer, and away from the rigors of Harvard Summer School. She is at the ocean, just down from Nauset, which she loved more than anything and from which she drew so much energy and inspiration. It is so Plath. That being said, just about every photograph of Plath would find its reflection in any of the letters. I feel that this particular photograph of Sylvia Plath complements the Sylvia Plath that readers will find when they read her letters, and let’s face it, all the negative comments were made before the book was published. I can’t help but think of the command made by many parents to their children: ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’. Doing so is disrespectful and in a sense silences her. It draws attention away from Plath’s own words which is where the focus of her readers should be and where the direction of discussions should lead.

The HarperCollins cover could not be more different. Plath here is depicted standing up, holding library books, wearing a shocking number of layers of clothes. She stands in a field between Whitstead and Newnham College circa winter 1955-56. She appears strong here; confident, looking into the distance (and maybe wondering why she chose England over a warmer climate!).

Both images are Sylvia Plath. She is the woman who loved the beach and loved books; she was studious and intelligent, but relished downtime in the sun by the ocean.

GC: Ok I see what you mean about capturing a particular moment and a favourite place for Plath that represents her at that time. I guess I have conflicting feelings about it really.  One criticism of this image is that it sexualizes Plath. While I don’t read this as a sexual image, (and like you I feel it represents a particular moment in her life) I still feel it needs to be placed in a wider context. That summer was an important one as she moved into recovery from her suicide attempt, the peroxide hair, feeling reborn etc. She writes so eloquently about it. What I like most about the picture is not only that it captures Plath as a young woman (before she became the poet we all know and love) but that we see her in an informal setting, relaxed at the beach. It’s good to move away from the usual gloomy picture of her that often accompanies books and articles. Photographs are so powerful and seeing a smiling, informal Plath seems to really reflect the content of some of those letters written by her younger self. However, another factor to consider here despite what we as readers may think or like or want is perhaps to try and consider what Plath might find appropriate, or indeed how she might want herself to be represented. If we look through her work it’s really hard to find a fixed concrete answer to that question. For example, she gives very open reasons for her ‘Platinum Summer’ look and equally when she got over that gave equally good reasons why she dyed her hair brunette again. But then years later while living in Boston (1958-1959), she decried her whole brunette look as ‘mousy’ and boring and lamented she couldn‘t afford a decent hair cut or colour.  In 1962 she hated her overly long skirts and wanted a more updated, daring look. Perhaps the pertinent, yet unanswerable, question is what would the 84 year old Plath today think about the way in which she is represented? Because she changed her mind so much throughout her life, I think we simply cannot know with any certainty. And since we cannot get a definitive answer from the words Plath left behind, where does the final responsibility lie for Plath’s representation? With her Estate? These are difficult and pretty uncomfortable questions. All that said, I still think the representation of female writers is often different (and not in a good way).  You do mention above though a sort of multi-faceted Plath, having fun on the beach at Cape Cod, bundled up with books in Cambridge, so do you feel the two volumes of letters show a fuller version of Plath’s voice than we have seen before?

PKS: Absolutely. I think there are an infinite number of ways to interpret Sylvia Plath because everyone who reads her is different. We each find something in Plath that reflects back on us. One gets, I feel, a much truer sense of her complexity, how she interacted with her correspondents – and by extension how she may have been to be around as a person. These letters will complement Plath’s unabridged Journals in new, interesting, and intersecting ways. Experiences she relates also directly tie-in with dozens of her creative writings, from poems, to stories, to novel(s). The Sylvia Plath present in these letters is quite a different one than was given to her readers in 1975 when Letters Home was published. We witness quite a comprehensive, but still incomplete, growth and development of the woman and the writer. We see, freshly, the startling nuances of her life. We see Sylvia Plath, both on the cover of the Faber edition and in the letters printed between the boards, in full colour.

GC: What I find exciting about the scope of this project is that we get to move through Plath’s life with her. So we can see the inconsistencies, we can see how she changed and developed, her plans that never happened, we see her changing her mind, changing her opinion, that normal general business of living that we all do – sometimes being hugely decisive, sometimes indecisive. In this sense do you think it is fair to say that there is no ‘authentic’ Plath, no ‘true self’ to uncover here, but rather like the rest of us, a woman going through her life in flux?

PKS: In a way yes, I do. Working so closely with Plath’s letters and all the other supporting material was really educational as I saw firsthand how ‘human’ Plath was. And I do believe it’s important to remember that she was just like many of us in many ways. Or, to put it another way, because most of her readers never knew her they naturally consider her as kind of other-worldly. We all interpret Plath differently and accept her writings—in any genre—with varying degrees of trust. But it is up to each of us on our own to determine who Sylvia Plath was. No one should dare have either the audacity or the arrogance to dictate how one reads, interprets, and appreciates Sylvia Plath.

This blog post appears simultaneously on the Sylvia Plath Info Blog:

http://sylviaplathinfo.blogspot.co.uk/2017/10/the-letters-of-sylvia-plath-conversation.html

 

 

 

The Biography of Material Culture: Dusty Springfield’s Dress

‘A crucial area of thought in all the social sciences at present is the relationship between people and things.’ (Gosden and Marshall)

Handling peoples’ clothes in an archive or a museum, particularly clothes that belonged to dead people, can be a powerful experience. They are not simply empty, discarded pieces of material, but rather retain their meaning and impressions depending on the person they once belonged to. Gosden and Marshall refer to this as the ‘cultural biography of objects’ – in that material culture can form its own value and create its own life story depending upon who once owned it and the life processes that it may have passed through. For me, clothing also offers some link to the physicality of a person, especially if they are now gone.

In the old Cunard building in Liverpool, the British Music Experience has on display in a glass cabinet some dresses that belonged to Dusty Springfield. One is full length and turquoise; the second is short, pink, and silk. It is odd seeing these dresses suspended on headless mannequins when they are so familiar to anyone who has seen them featuring in footage of Dusty performing. I was particularly drawn to the turquoise dress which was rather plain apart from the beaded neck and hemline.

Dustydress

The sleeves feature turquoise bows set amongst flowers and crystals and elaborate hemming. It falls, from an empire neckline, straight to the floor. Despite being especially designed for Dusty there was a curious homemade feel about the dress. Information to the side of the display claimed that Dusty always wanted attention drawn to her face when she was on TV and so often the necklines and bodices of her dresses would be embellished to draw the eye upwards. While it was possible to see the material and dimensions of the dress, it was not possible to see how the dress moved. I started to look for footage and pictures of Dusty wearing the dress and managed to find some, though it is brief and grainy, further highlighting the somewhat spectral nature of her absence. In some ways that is the melancholy of clothes in a museum, they serve to highlight that the owner is not there. I was surprised how fluid the dress looked, how loose the beading was, and its shimmery-ness, despite the film being black and white.

dustydress2
Footage taken from soundhound.com

Yet as a cultural object, the dress contains a history. It has survived and outlived Dusty herself. It is a link to the past, but the dress now also has a significance and life of its own. There is an immediacy about it too – unlike a flat photograph, a three-dimensional object can evoke and invoke the physical in different ways. We see the dress and think of Dusty. The past and the present become drawn together and with an object preserved in a museum there is a certain amount of security about its future too. I like the play of presence and absence. I also like objects, even when – perhaps especially when – they are melancholy objects.

 

The British Music Experience, Cunard Building, Liverpool L3 1DS

Website: http://www.britishmusicexperience.com

Entering These Ghostly Archives

The following is a guest blog post by Peter K. Steinberg discussing the story behind our new book, These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath, published this month by Fonthill Media. You can read a companion piece by me on Peter’s website here: http://sylviaplathinfo.blogspot.co.uk/2017/05/these-ghostly-archives-power-politics.html

When I met Gail Crowther in 2007 at the Sylvia Plath 75th Year Symposium at Oxford, I never could have imagined the future work we would undertake which culminated in our recently published book of essays, These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath (Stroud: Fonthill, 2017).

tga cover

The following year, Gail was in the throes of working on her PhD thesis (which itself became a book published earlier this year entitled The Haunted Reader and Sylvia Plath) and I was in the first year and webmaster and future co-editor of Plath Profiles. In the fall of 2008, Plath and her archives was a well-established passion. In addition to having made regular visits to Smith College and Indiana University, I was in the process of acquiring photocopies or scans of as many archival documents as I could. Poems, prose, photographs, letters – everything. In the US, it is largely easy to obtain copies. In the UK, however, I was often put in the situation of needing the Estate’s permission and these requests were seldom grants for various reasons.

So, since Gail was (and is) based in England, I sent an email to her asking if she could visit the BBC Written Archives Centre in Reading and transcribe the letters that they hold. Thus was borne a dual archives fever that swept us both up in its fury. Gail’s reaction to handling Plath documents for the first time in her emails to me was a passionate, emotional one. It was something I easily understood and recognized. Reading about her experience in an exchange of emails I felt as though I had been with her in the room. In my role as then-enthusiast for Plath Profiles, I asked her if she wanted to write something about it for the journal. It turns out that we both had a lot to say.

WAC Front_1

Over the next five years, Gail and I visited separately or in one case together, Smith, Indiana, the British Library, the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, the University of Maryland at College Park, and Cambridge University. We “visited” other archives too in a virtual sense, by reading catalog records and requesting copies. In those five years we produced five papers for the journal. Based on the feedback we received from readers, scholars, and friends, as well as our own belief that we had a strong foundation for a book, we decided to adapt the essays, write new ones, and try to find a publisher.

From when we started the series in 2008 through to publication, we found that at times writing was a challenge because it was not the case that we could dedicate 100% of our time to the essays and then the conversion to the book. Gail had other responsibilities like teaching, and oh, in the meantime, she co-wrote a book with the lovely, late Elizabeth Sigmund: Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year’s Turning. And in addition to my job, I was transcribing more than 1,200 of Plath’s letters and preparing them as co-editor with Karen V. Kukil for The Letters of Sylvia Plath. Not to mention of course other obligations. We all, I think, know how busy life is.

Gail had a vision for the layout of the book and took the original essays and cut them up. She identified which sections or stories had to go, which needed adding to, and which could be merged. Her work on this aspect of it was truly amazing. The good news is, though, that the original papers are still live, and can be accessed via the resources page (http://www.sylviaplath.info/resources.html) on my website for Sylvia Plath.

We largely merged the first two papers to make a more solid archival story. Additionally, we were able to infuse more recent archival experiences throughout the chapters, such as the finding of two lost Sylvia Plath poems. What we hope These Ghostly Archives shows, in part, is that one research trip to work with Plath’s papers can be insufficient to fully comprehend how the many pieces fit together in Plath’s life and her creative works. As more people write about Plath, and as more of her work is published and made available, the greater the need to revisit her archives. Taking aspects from the other three papers, we re-crafted our “conversations” to fit larger themes like unrealized collections, the archive at Smith College, photographs, and places. Gail and I both had ideas for separate chapters that we had been longing to write for years. The result was Gail’s “‘The body does not come into it at all’: Material culture of the dead” and my “‘What’s been happening in a lot of American poetry’: Sylvia Plath as editor and reviewer”. Running on the fumes of enthusiasm and adrenaline, we wrote a last chapter in a feat of masochism on lost archives. We felt it was important to consider these because what is more ghostly than an archive (or documents) that once existed, might still exist, or no longer exist?

By Elizabeth Sigmund and Gail Crowther, Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year’s Turning (Stroud: Fonthill Media, 2015) https://www.amazon.co.uk/Sylvia-Plath-Devon-Years-Turning/dp/1781554374/

By Gail Crowther, The Haunted Reader and Sylvia Plath (Stroud: Fonthill Media, 2017) https://www.amazon.co.uk/Haunted-Reader-Sylvia-Plath/dp/1781555478/

By Gail Crowther and Peter K. Steinberg, These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath (Stroud: Fonthill Media, 2017) https://www.amazon.co.uk/These-Ghostly-Archives-Unearthing-Sylvia/dp/178155594X/

The Letters of Sylvia Plath: Volume 1. Edited by Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil. London: Faber and Faber, 2017. (Available 5 October 2017) https://www.amazon.co.uk/Letters-Sylvia-Plath-1/dp/0571328997/

The Letters of Sylvia Plath: Volume 1. Edited by Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil. New York: HarperCollins, 2017. (Available 10 October 2017 for Kindle, and 17 October 2017 in hardback) https://www.amazon.com/Letters-Sylvia-Plath-Vol/dp/0062740431/

All links accessed 15 and 20 March 2017.

‘Is my life so intriguing?/Is it for this you widen your eye-rings?’: Sylvia Plath, conflict, and privacy

Letters_2_Rosenstein_Archive

In recent weeks a new collection of Plath material was advertised for sale, owned by Harriet Rosenstein, an early Plath biographer. The archive consists of Rosenstein’s research notes, recordings of people she interviewed for her book, and unseen photographs of Plath (provenance as yet unknown). However, other material included in the sale were the coroner’s report from Plath’s inquest, medical notes from Plath’s stay in McLean Hospital after her first suicide attempt in 1953, and letters written to her therapist, Dr Ruth Beuscher, between the years 1960 – 1963. The hospital notes were stolen by Beuscher from McLean who eventually handed them onto Rosenstein.

In recent days the British media have picked up on some of the content of these letters (which were previously thought destroyed), namely allegations of domestic abuse by Ted Hughes. Some articles link one instance of this happening to just two days before Plath miscarried their child in 1961. There are so many issues to consider here that it leaves one a little bewildered.

However, what this media attention has highlighted, yet again, is the extent to which Plath is a cultural figure who unnerves and challenges. There are issues about conflict, access, and privacy.  Should somebody be allowed to sell hospital notes that were stolen? Should readers be able to access the private correspondence between a therapist and her patient? Do the dead have any rights at all? What consideration do we have to give to surviving family members and those drawn into Plath’s story? How soon is too soon to publish personal letters and journals? Should they even be published at all? These are ethical questions that constantly trouble scholars and readers of Plath, and there are no easy answers.

Perhaps first of all it may be helpful to unpack the media framing of this new material which has certainly inflamed the situation. Knowledge that there was physical violence in the Plath/Hughes marriage is not new at all. In fact it is already there in her published journals, mostly graphically when she describes a fight on her last day teaching at Smith College in 1958 (pages 386-392). But also prior to the marriage too after a night spent together in London in March 1956 (p. 552). For those of us who have been privileged enough to work in the archives there is more evidence. The University of Maryland holds the papers of Plath’s American editor Fran McCullough. In her notes she recounts a visit to Devon in the mid-1970s when she found herself showing Ted Hughes a manuscript of Letters Home and observing his reaction to reading it. According to McCullough, he left the room, upset, and then later drove her out for dinner and made the claim that Plath had a ‘demonic side’ like ‘black electricity’ that would explode. McCullough writes:  “He said he used to try slapping her out of her rages but it was no good. And once she turned into his slap and got a black eye and went to Drs and told him that Ted beat her regularly. But then as it began to heal she decided it looked dramatic and began to mascara the other eye to match.” There is a lot of information to unravel here, but what we do have is a direct admission from Hughes that he hit Plath and then his subsequent justification and negotiation about how he dealt with that (for example, blaming Plath herself for ‘turning’ into his slap and apparently ‘liking’ the look of her black eye). While the ethical dimensions of domestic violence are straightforward (it’s wrong and unacceptable), the details of personal relationships are not.  By this I do not mean to negate the power an abuser has over the person they abuse, or that the violence within the Plath/Hughes marriage did not cause Plath considerable distress. Of course it must have done. But in 1961, as today, women find themselves situated in a cultural and historical moment that does not care about them. They exist and struggle within a society and within institutions that make escaping such relationships difficult to say the least. That a man may physically abuse a woman is one demonstration of power, but it would be a lot less powerful if women found it easier to escape. Structurally nothing is on their side to walk away. In this sense testimony becomes important and women’s voices need to be heard. In 1961, Plath would have become a single parent living in a rented flat in London with no stable job or income. In 1962 when the marriage finally did break down and she was then left the single mother of two children, she was upset that the villagers in Devon speculated she had never been married in the first place because she received so much mail addressed to Sylvia Plath, not Mrs Hughes. Yet it was exactly these structures and attitudes that Plath attacked in her writing. Her journals are a long consideration of societal double standards. The Bell Jar depicts vividly and with razor-sharp commentary on what it was like to be a young woman negotiating life in 1950s America. Plath’s Ariel poems, a direct response to her disintegrating marriage, bristle with resistance to, and fury about, physical, psychological, and emotional abuse. Plath was not silent. She has never been silent, though at times she has been silenced.

This silencing has been justified in a number of ways – issues of privacy and taste, consideration for those who her words may affect. Female anger makes certain people uncomfortable. Critics refer to Plath as ‘shrill’ and ‘hysterical’ – gendered language to say the least. However, in my research, one of the overwhelming positive features that readers gain from Plath is her openness about her personal experiences. The genius of Plath is that she used this to universalise, so reading a Plath poem is not like reading a diary entry, but it is about emotions that at some stage may affect us all, situations that we may all experience. Plath is a source of strength for many of her readers. One response to this could well be, just because Plath gave us these poems, does it give us the right to read her personal correspondence? It’s a powerful question and raises many issues about access, privacy, and rights. First, the archive tells us that Plath certainly had an eye for publishing her own letters at some stage in the future. We can’t fully know which letters and how many, but the evidence is there. Second, once someone is dead, then that decision falls elsewhere. With Letters Home, it was Plath’s mother; with the first edited Journals it was Ted Hughes, and with the unabridged Journals, Plath’s children Frieda and Nicholas. The forthcoming complete Letters to be published in two volumes by Faber necessarily has the support of Frieda Hughes (she owns The Estate of Sylvia Plath, the letters could not be published without her sanction). So, as scholars and readers, can we be guided by this? If Plath’s daughter supports the publishing of her mother’s letters should we feel okay to read them? It is a slippery path to negotiate and I do not know what the answer is, or even if there is one. Readers may remain divided about this. As a researcher who has spent many weeks in Plath archives, there are times when I have felt very uncomfortable. It can feel invasive. I wonder what Plath would make of it all. I constantly unearth things that I would not dream of publishing. Some stories feel too soon, others too disruptive for people who are still alive. But they are my own ethical boundaries. Luckily, however, archives are permanent. The material is not going anywhere and so the stories can be told at any time.

As a female cultural figure, Plath troubles and agitates. This makes her powerful because she undermines those very structures that seek to put her down or silence her. When Plath is presented as just another ‘crazy woman’ she shows up societal stigma and disdain towards mental illness/health. When she is written off as a miserable, doomed, suicidal poet, she exposes all the ways in which structures, such as masculinity, patriarchy, and misogyny, try to depoliticise or write-off any female voice of resistance. That Plath ultimately killed herself does not negate any of her power. We cannot judge a life lived on a decision she made in her final day(s). That is unfair and does her a great disservice. But we can listen to her – and that is not always easy. What voice should we listen to? What voice of hers do we have a right to listen to? In some ways it feels like a mire of sticky ethical quicksand, but that is no reason to back away from it. For therein lies the beauty of Plath – she forces us to face up to these issues, unflinchingly. And in a world that badly needs female voices of resistance, that can be no bad thing.