28 June 2012

Plath Profiles 5 Preview: Guest Post

The following is a guest post by Bridget Anna Lowe, who contributes "Burning Free: Sylvia Plath's Summer 1962 Bonfires and the Strange Case of the Surviving Christmas Card" to Plath Profiles 5, due out sometime in the near future.

Devon, England: Summer, 1962
It was a hellish summer for Sylvia Plath.

In the early summer of 1962 her husband of six years, the poet Ted Hughes, began an adulterous love affair with another man's wife; in July, a furious and unforgiving Plath discovered the affair. Shortly after her discovery of Hughes's infidelity, and with a rage fueled by her well-honed direct access to heightened emotion, Plath created a succession of three retaliatory bonfires in the backyard of the thatch-roofed home she and Hughes shared with their two young children in Devon, England. In her violent trio of bonfires—one fire each to burn her own, her mother's, and Hughes's important and irreplaceable papers—a manic and vehement Plath incinerated sheaves upon sheaves—ultimately more than a thousand pages—of valuable paperwork and letters.

These three bonfires, which were conceived by Plath in her rage and constructed with her passionate desire for revenge, burned approximately eight months before her suicide in London on February 11, 1963, aged 30.

Until now, Plath biographers and scholars have been under the impression that Plath had burnt all of the hundreds upon hundreds (in fact, upwards of a thousand) of letters her mother, Aurelia Plath, had sent to her over the course of thirteen years (Aurelia Plath wrote Plath on average one letter every week); as I would discover during my visit to Indiana University's Lilly Library in the autumn of 2011, however, Plath had quite strangely spared one particular piece of correspondence from the bonfires: a Plath family Christmas card sent to her by her mother in December 1955.

The bizarre case of the surviving Christmas card becomes even more fascinating: I had found, tucked inconspicuously behind the Christmas card, an unlined, faded yellow notecard on which a very short comment written in Aurelia Plath's hand remarkably discloses the heretofore unpublished (and made public now for the first time) information that the 1955 Christmas card was found in Plath's handbag after her death. Given this revelation from Mrs. Plath, and combining it with the information we know about Plath’s last night alive (in the late night of the day preceding her early-morning suicide, when she went downstairs from her flat to her neighbor’s to buy a few stamps from him, Plath ostensibly handled her handbag in order to grab some cash) we can surmise that Plath had the Christmas card in her thoughts and hands days, if not hours, before her death. Clearly, Plath had an exceptional attachment to this Christmas card, for not only had she not burnt it in her wild bonfires, but she had also kept it safe and close to her in her handbag (on the last day of her life, no less).

In my paper “Burning Free: Sylvia Plath's Summer 1962 Bonfires and the Strange Case of the Surviving Christmas Card” (to be published this summer in Plath Profiles 5), I address two questions that had arisen for me from the puzzling existence of the Plath family’s Christmas card: first, what motivations were present in the summer of 1962 to incite Plath to create the holocaust of a bonfire in which she burnt so many hundreds of the letters her mother had written to her? And second, if Plath had actually preserved this Christmas card by design and not accident, what was it about this card that compelled her to save it and set it apart from the hundreds of other letters from her mother that she didn’t save?

Note: To view the images of the 1955 Plath family Christmas card, as well as Aurelia Plath’s accompanying notecard, please read the full-length version of this paper in this summer’s Plath Profiles 5.


Marion McCready said...

How intriguing! Can't wait to read Plath Profiles 5!

Peter K Steinberg said...

It is an intriguing paper; quite well written and researched. Oh, I feel bad having read it and you not having read it! The wait won't be long now...


Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

Oooh! Can't wait for this one!

Peter K Steinberg said...


Can't wait! Sorry, but you have to...


Rehan Qayoom said...

How fascinating! Really looking forward to Plath Profiles 5.

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