13 June 2012

A double Sylvia Plath did you know...

Did you know that in The Bell Jar, Esther Greenwood & her fellow guest editors do not work at/for Ladies’ Day? The name of the magazine where they did work was never actually named. The most we are told is that, "We had all won a fashion magazine contest...and as prizes they gave us jobs in New York for a month" (1971, 3). And, in the text of the novel, whenever Ladies’ Day is named, it is actually quite clear that the guest editors are visitors there, or that they are visiting a separate location.

The first mention of Ladies' Day comes in Chapter Three. From the way Greenwood describes it, Ladies' Day is "the big women's magazine that features lush double-page spreads of Technicolor meals..." (27-28). Then, on page 30, Greenwood says, "None of our magazine editors or the Ladies' Day staff members..." which further illustrates the point. Lastly, when recovering from ptomaine poisoning, "Those dodos on Ladies Day" sent the interns get-well cards and copies of The Thirty Best Short Stories of the Year (52). This might be generally known, but in my itinerant interneting - and in some published sources - I have seen it stated that Esther works for Ladies' Day, and it just is not so.

Plath herself confirmed that Ladies’ Day was not where the heroine of her story worked. In a letter concerning libel issues that Plath sent to her editor (James Michie) at Heinemann on 14 November 1961--which is now held as part of the Sylvia Plath Collection at Smith College--Plath states this quite clearly. Unfortunately it is not possible to quote from the letter, but if you are interested in reading it, the good people in the Mortimer Rare Book Room can make a photocopy for you.

The autobiographical source for this ptomaine poisoning scene took place on 17 June 1953 when Plath and her guest editors visited the advertising agency Batten, Barton, Durstine, and Osborn, which was then located at 383 Madison Avenue. (Here is a link to an page from an oldish advert for BBDO.) The building now is a modern office tower, as can be seen below...

And so clearly, Plath fooled around with the actual elements of this incident in her novel, transforming (masking) what took place at BBDO by setting the scene at the offices of a magazine.

Did you know that the June 1953 ptomaine poisoning was not Plath's first experience with the ailment? For her novel, there is no evidence Plath was drawing on an additional, previous experience in the ptomaine scene; however, on July 3, 1946, while she was at summer camp, a quarter of the camp, including five people in Plath's Cove unit, became ill after eating bad fish. The counselors had to spent their time tending to all the children who were fed soup to settle their stomachs. Read more about Plath's time at Camp Helen Storrow in 1945-1946 in my paper "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow."

All page number references to The Bell Jar in this post come from the 1971, Harper & Row edition.


Natalie_vintage_girl said...

Awesome! I love learning little bits of trivia like this. You said that the name of the magazine was not disclosed. I think I read in an article in RUSSH Magazine that Sylvia Plath interned for a Magazine called Mademoiselle.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Hello Natalie_vintage_girl!

Yes, in real life Plath was a guest editor for Mademoiselle magazine. But in the novel the name of the magazine for which Esther Greenwood is working is not named.


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Publications & Acknowledgements

  • BBC Four.A Poet's Guide to Britain: Sylvia Plath. London: BBC Four, 2009. (Acknowledged in)
  • Biography: Sylvia Plath. New York: A & E Television Networks, 2005. (Photographs used)
  • Connell, Elaine. Sylvia Plath: Killing the angel in the house. 2d ed. Hebden Bridge: Pennine Pens, 1998. (Acknowledged in)
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives, Redux." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 232-246.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 3." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 119-138.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012: 11-56.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 5: Reanimating the Past." Plath Profiles 6. Summer 2013: 27-62.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • Death Be Not Proud: The Graves of Poets. New York: Poets.org. (Photographs used)
  • Doel, Irralie, Lena Friesen and Peter K. Steinberg. "An Unacknowledged Publication by Sylvia Plath." Notes & Queries 56:3. September 2009: 428-430.
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
  • Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, acknowledged in)
  • Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (Acknowledged in)
  • Holden, Constance. "Sad Poets' Society." Science Magazine. 27 July 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women, Motion Picture. Directed by Rachel Talbot. Brookline (Mass.): Jewish Women's Archive, 2007. (Photograph used)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Karen V. Kukil. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. (Acknowledged in)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath. London: Faber, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
  • Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
  • Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'I Should Be Loving This': Sylvia Plath's 'The Perfect Place' and The Bell Jar." Plath Profiles 1. Summer 2008: 253-262.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "This is a Celebration: A Festschrift for The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3 Supplement. Fall 2010: 3-14.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.