13 December 2009

Sylvia Plath's Passport and Travel Documents

or, Liar Liar Pants on Fire

Sylvia Plath arrived in Southampton, England on the Queen Elizabeth on 20 September 1955 from New York via Cherbourg, France. After her marriage to Ted Hughes on 16 June 1956, she traveled to Spain via France for a long honeymoon before returning to England in late August 1956. She spent the month of September 1956 in Heptonstall and Yorkshire. While getting to know her in-laws, she played host to her college friend Elinor Friedman Klein. At the end of September she returned to Cambridge. This is the exceedingly short version of Plath's biography from 1955-1957.

This post will address a couple of details printed in Paul Alexander's biography Rough Magic. The first is that of Kenneth Pitchford's claim that he met Plath on board the Queen Elizabeth in September 1956. The second, related to this, is Pitchford's (and Alexander's) conclusion that Plath was on that ship returning to England after having had an abortion. Neither of these has ever sat well with me, so you'll have to excuse the lengths to which I have gone to straighten the story out for my own peace of mind.

In Rough Magic, Paul Alexander interviewed Kenneth Pitchford, a man he called a "reliable eyewitness". (Rough Magic, 197) Pitchford, on a Fulbright and his way to study at Oxford, claims that he met Plath on this voyage in September 1956. Pitchford arrived in Southampton on the Queen Elizabeth on 17 September 1956, approximately 363 days after Plath (1956 was a leap year). Alexander's narrative before Pitchford's story appears to solidly place Plath in England throughout September. In fact, he relates Plath's activities from the 4th, 10th, 18th, and 21st. Alexander then breaks from his biography of Plath giving Pitchford coverage he never should have received. It was the mention of one word in a journal entry by Plath--abortion--that led both Pitchford and Alexander to speculate that Plath was returning to England from America after possibly having an abortion.

In addition to his appearance in Rough Magic, Pitchford contributed to the Sylvia Plath Forum on 27 May 2003, giving more detail behind his claim that he met on the ship Plath in 1956. In sum, Pitchford says that Alexander compared Plath's passport with his. And, that after the comparison, they found identical customs stamps and dates for their entry into England. Alexander was now on board (pun!) with Pitchford and believed that Plath and his "reliable eyewitness" were on the same ship. The reason, probably, for the similarity or exactness of the stamps in their passports is that it is likely the same stamps were in use in 1955 and 1956. Concluding that they were on the same ship based on the stamps is exceedingly naïve, espeically when considering the following.

I have reviewed the UK incoming passenger lists available through Ancestry.com, looking both at Plath's records, Ted Hughes's, and Kenneth Pitchford's. My focus was specifically Pitchford's ship. Neither the name Sylvia Plath nor Sylvia Hughes appears as a passenger on the ship manifest for the Queen Elizabeth which arrived in Southampton on 17 September 1956. While Pitchford claims that Plath was allowed to ride anonymously and not as a listed Fulbright passenger, are we supposed to believe also that Plath travelled to and from England - on her own passport - and some how managed not to appear on the ship's manifest? How did Plath afford such a trip? The issue at this point is more with Pitchford for making up this story than with Alexander. But I also take issue also with Alexander for printing it. I have examined a copy of Plath's passport and have drawn some factual conclusions that I believe completely discredit Pitchford's statements and Alexander's seeming support of them (by publishing them in his biography).

A detailed examination of Plath's entrances and exits to countries reveals that Alexander's and Pitchford's analysis and conclusion is incorrect. Already I have mentioned that Plath arrived in England first on 20 September 1955 and that Pitchford arrived on 17 September 1956. When one enters the United Kingdom, as a student like Plath did, one is given a stamp giving the passport holder the permission to land in the country. Upon the condition of landing, the stamp states that the person shall not remain in the United Kingdom longer than a certain amount of time. In Plath's passport, the stamp indicates that she had to leave the country after "twelve months", or by 20 September 1956. Each time Plath re-entered England inside of this twelve month period, she received the same stamp but the immigration officer could not write "twelve months" again. Thus, the officer would write in 20 September 1956. Plath was tied to the date of 20 September. Similiarly, Pitchford would have been tied to the 17th. There are no dates in Plath's passport that match Pitchford's landing date of 17 September 1956.

All totaled, there are five of these "permitted to land" Immigration stamps in Plath's first passport. There is the initial stamp allowing her to stay in England for "twelve months" from 20 September 1955 with the added condition that she register with the police, three stamps saying she cannot stay in England beyond 20 September 1956, and a final stamp saying that she cannot stay in England beyond 20 September 1957. Each stamp corresponds either to a visit abroad that Plath made or to other official requirements as a Fulbright student.

Here is a breakdown of relevant dates in Plath's first passport.

Plath arrives in England on 20 September 1955. (Receives first Immigration stamp)

Plath registers with Cambridge City Police on 5 October 1955.

Plath leaves England on 20 December 1955 from Folkestone to travel in France, Monaco, and Italy and returns on 9 January 1956 via Newhaven. (Receives second Immigration stamp)

Plath leaves England on 24 March 1956 from Dover to travel to France, Germany, and Italy and returns on 13 April 1956 via London Airport. (Receives third Immigration stamp)

Plath leaves England on 22 June 1956 from London Airport to travel to France and Spain and returns on 29 August 1956 via Newhaven. (Receives fourth Immigration stamp)

Plath re-registers with immigration on 10 October 1956 which allows her to stay in England as a student until 20 September 1957. (Receives fifth Immigration stamp)
Plath re-registers with Cambridge City Police on 29 October 1956.

Plath leaves England on 20 June 1957 from Southampton to travel to New York, receiving a stamp on 25 June 1957.

Plath embarked or re-entered from Southampton, Newhaven, London Airport, Folkestone, and Dover, in England. There are 16 stamps for France, Spain, Germany, and Italy; there might be one for Monaco, however, many of the stamps are difficult to read. Based on the above, I do feel confident that in reviewing the stamps in Plath's passport and the passenger manifests available on Ancestry.com, Plath was in England from 29 August 1956 until she departed on 20 June 1957. Furthermore, Pitchford's memory of Plath's last words, "Listen, some day I'll marry a poet like you and kill myself" is far too neat and convenient (similar to having "Edge" be the last poem Plath wrote). It inflates his own poetic reputation to that of Ted Hughes', which it just isn't.

Sylvia Plath's passport was issued on 29 June 1955 from Boston. She traveled under the name "Sylvia Plath" from her first trip to England in September 1955 until she reached Paris, when on 26 June 1956 at the American Embassy, she commenced traveling under the name Sylvia Hughes. Changing her name in her passport might have proved problematic to her status as a student, but fortunately it did not. Remember Plath wanted the marriage to be a secret, fearing her Fulbright would be revoked. As it turned out everything was fine and the authorities were quite supportive. Had Plath married someone from Oxford it is possible she would have been thrown out on her ass.

Although she traveled under the the name Sylvia Hughes upon her return to the United States on 25 June 1957, she did not receive a new passport, under this name, until September 8, 1959 (also issued in Boston). She traveled to England on this passport on the S.S. United States, arriving in Southampton on 14 December 1959. She made two trips to the Continent on this passport: to France in 1961 to eat all the Merwin's food and to Ireland in September 1962. The trip to Ireland was not one in which she received a stamp. Plath's first passport is held in the Plath collection at the Lilly Library at Indiana University; her second passport is held at the Woodruff Library at Emory University.

As for the second part which this post addresses, the supposed abortion... Alexander momentarily critiques Pitchford's story commenting that Plath never discussed this potential pregnancy and abortion with either family or friends. We assume he finds this out of character. However, he brushes these concerns aside immediately and leaps to referencing a rather famous sentence from Plath's Journals, "Paris & Benidorm - to master these places and the people. Abortion. Suicide. Affairs. Cruelty. All those I know." (January 4, 1958, p.307)

Plath had ample experience in college with hospitals thanks to boyfriends such as Richard Norton and Myron "Mike" Lotz. Plath saw live births, cadavers, and a host of other medical things during her relationship with Norton. We know enough about Plath to trust that certain scenes in The Bell Jar actually happened though under the guise of fiction. In Chapter Six, Esther Greenwood recalls one such trip, wanting to see "some really interesting hospital sights." She saw fetuses in bottles in one a hallway that "died before they were born". In all she kept her calm in the face of "all the gruesome things." One of the closest examples of similiar imagery in her poetry appears in "A Life", which like The Bell Jar was written in 1961.

Throughout her life, the medical profession interested her, she says as much in her interview with Peter Orr from 30 October 1962, "
I much prefer doctors, midwives, lawyers, anything but writers." Her poetry is rife with medical imagery and terminology and because her mind was like a sponge, something she learned in 1951 or 1952 may well have been available to her as total recall, or near total recall, later on in life.

Plath and abortion came up as a discussion topic on the Sylvia Plath Forum about a year before Pitchford's post. On 5 June 2002, Kate Moses points out that "Plath makes a reference to 'Elly's abortion' on p.404." Amy C. Rea points out that abortion might also have figured in "Three Women" had she "known" about it in the same way that the first, second, and third voices "know" about their experiences with pregnancy and childbirth. See her post from 3 June 2002. Unless someone can find the lost manuscript of "Four Women"... Elsewhere in her poetry, plath uses each of the following words only once, "aborted" in "Totem", "abortions" in "Winter Trees", and "aborts" in "Thalidomide". All instances occur quite late in her poetry, between November 1962 and January 1963.

So much of Plath's imagery comes from her own experiences - this doesn't make her confessional as such, just exceedingly resourceful. Her journals acted as a drafting board for her creative writing; they also, in 1959, captured very detailed notes of her "interviews" with Dr. Ruth Beuscher. One would think that this sort of experience may have been mentioned had it happened, especially given the difficulty she had in conceiving a child.

It is possible I haven't gone as far with this aspect of Pitchford's and Alexander's claims as I could have, but I generally feel uncomfortable about the subject. I do feel though that Plath's knowledge of abortion stems from earlier experiences with budding (pun!) doctor boyfriends and not from direct, personal experience.

I'd like the thank the archivists at the Lilly Library at Indiana University and the Woodruff Library at Emory for their assistance regarding Plath's passport. I'd also like to thank Gail Crowther for reading an earlier draft of this and suggesting a few things.

10 comments :

panther said...

Abortion in both Britain and America at that time was illegal but could be obtained illegally if one knew where to go. Safe abortions at least were not cheap. Given that SP was a student, married to TH who was on a basic wage (I believe) it would have been a massive struggle just to pay for the op, let alone a transatlantic crossing as well.

Paul Alexander's book is grubbing and unpleasant. Not the first time I've thought so.

Peter K Steinberg said...

There is so much that doesn't add up about this and it has always been unsettling.

What's frustrating is that there is some really great stuff in Rough Magic but it's so completely tainted by other stuff.

I met Pitchford in 2003; am thankful too as he introduced me to caviar. We went to see Alexander's Edge, on in the Village at the time. Alexander had NO idea who Pitchford was and I left unconvinced.

Left out, inadvertantly, that I contacted Elinor Klein about her visit to Yorkshire in September 1956, which roughly co-incides with when Plath is purported to have been travelling to and fro. She told me that there was nothing in her demeanor that would indicate she was recovering from an abortion; that they were all so full of life and giddy from it.

Catty said...

I'm not sure how long it took you to suss out the Passports and Visas aspect of this research, but it strikes me as odd that Alexander didn't do that and report on it in his book... Memory is, after all, unreliable.
I suppose it's better to earn back your advance by EXCLUSIVELY REVEALLING PLATH MAY HAVE HAD AN ABORTION!!! to ensure serialisation in the press etc etc than actually fact check what is learned in an interview.

Anonymous said...

Super sleuthing Peter - fascinating stuff!
~VC

Anonymous said...

Appreciate and am thankful for your excellent research skills. Shame on Alexander.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Peter!

Esting all the Merwin's food - I love it!

Re: abortion. I doubt Plath herself had one, based on what we know. She may have known someone at school who did have one. As far as 3 Women, it seems clear to me that one of the women is talking about her abortion. I suppose some could surmise she is talking about a miscarriage, but that is not the sense I got from the piece. In any case, it does not mean that Plath herself had to have an abortion in order to write about it. kim

Peter K Steinberg said...

Thanks for your comments. The documents available through Ancestry.com are really amazing. I got access to them through one of my employers.

Catty, In all I spent a couple of weeks going through the documents slowly. I waited a month or so for images of Plath's passport (not bad in digital imaging request time). Writing everything took a while; then there was the time last Thursday when I lost the whole sodding document and needed to start over from an earlier
version saved in October...

Kim, I'm glad you commented on the eating all the food bit!

panther said...

I'm just wondering if she uses the word "abortion" in her journal to mean "miscarriage". Which oddly enough is how the medical profession use it (or certainly did then).

I know her own miscarriage came later (in 1961,an experience she evokes so well in "Parliament Hill Fields") but, as is pointed out, she did have various friends who were doctors/medical students. And she does like medical terminology.

George Fitzgerald said...

I wonder, Peter, if, when you met Pitchford in 2003, you asked Pitchford if he really had said these things to Alexander, or perhaps you hadn't gathered your own thoughts on the matter at the time?

Anyway, your excellent digging skills remain impressive and appreciated!

George Fitzgerald

BridgetAnna said...

Oh my God, Peter, I snorted out my coffee when I read about eating all of the Merwin's food. Very funny stuff! (I know that I'm reading this entry belatedly by several years; was just directed to it now.)

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Publications & Acknowledgements

Interviews