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faded yellow notecard on which a very short comment written in Aurelia Plath's hand remarkably discloses the heretofore unpublished (and made public now for the first time) information that the 1955 Christmas card was found in Plath's handbag after her death.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.
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.
- 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.
- Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
- Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (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. 2000. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books. (Acknowledged in)
- 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.
- "Banking on his passion for Plath" by Melissa Davis Haller. UMW Today. Spring 2005.
- "Sylvia Plath's Three Women to be staged in London" by Alison Flood. The Guardian. 3 December 2008.
- "FBI files on Sylvia Plath's father shed new light on poet" by Dalya Alberge. The Guardian. 17 August 2012.
- "There Are Almost No Obituaries for Sylvia Plath" by Ashley Fetters. The Atlantic. 11 February 2013.