10 August 2014

Sylvia Plath & The Mystery of the Ad in the Paper

3 Chalcot Square, London
In August 1961, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes were preparing to move from their tiny 3 Chalcot Square flat in London to the spacious Court Green in North Tawton, Devonshire. When they took the flat in February 1960, they had signed a three-year lease which included the option to sublet should the need arise. The flat was so small that for much of the time one or the other would go elsewhere to write. Ted Hughes first used the flat of W.S. and Dido Merwin nearby at 11 St. George's Terrace; Plath used this space too when she was not writing in their living room. In addition, Hughes also used the small attic flat above theirs rented by "Mrs. Morton" (Mary K. Morton), a character in her own right who became the subject of Plath's September 1960 poem "Leaving Early".

On 13 August 1961, Plath wrote to her mother: "We put an ad in the paper for our flat (with a $280 fee for 'fixtures and fittings' to cover the cost of our decorating, lino, shelves, and solicitor's fees, and to deter an avalanche of people---the custom here) and had eight responses and two couples who arrived and decided they wanted it at the same time" (Letters Home 423).

As you know, I enjoy a good mystery. Particularly when it involves the use and reuse of archives; searching in boxes and folders not regularly cited, explored, or examined; as well as some good old-fashioned searching through microfilm; hoping that simply casting the line into a pond of blind faith will return a respectable catch. In my mind I liked to call this clue from Plath "The Mystery of the Ad in the Paper". This was one such instance where all these challenges combined and led to a glorious outcome.

The advertisement Plath mentions is something I have wanted to find for a long time. I visited the Microtext Department at the Boston Public Library and used their holdings for both The Times and the Manchester Guardian. But, to no avail. I knew that Plath's use of $280 for the fixtures and fittings would not appear in the advert as it was in an English newspaper, and based on other letters she wrote during this period, she generally said that £1 was equal to $2.80. Even I can do this math: $280 = £100.

Mortimer Rare Book Room
Smith College
On a visit to Smith College late last year, I had the opportunity to look through the Financial Materials series, which is largely composed of checkbook stubs. These documents are fascinating; there is the chilling stub for the purchase of her gas stove in December 1962; and there are more mundane, everyday use things such as writing a check to self for cash, or paying for clothing and food among other necessities. When I was perusing the August 1961 stubs, I was excited to find that on 18 August, Plath paid by check the sum of £1.17.6 (if I am reading the stub right, there are many computations occurring on this particular stub) to the Evening Standard for the advert. The check number is 198089 and is contained in the book covering the dates 24 June 1961 – 1 September 1961. O.K., so part of the mystery was solved.

Armed with this knowledge, I had to set about trying to find a microfilm copy of this newspaper. I knew the British Library has it, but it is roughly 3,269 miles away from me. So… not that easy to get to in a flash. I put in a request through the Boston Public Library for an inter-library loan of the microfilm of newspaper from August 1961. Luckily, a copy was located here in the States, and about two months later -- in early 2014 -- the box of microfilm arrived from the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. I had prepared to spend my lunch hour going over every single day looking for an advert that included the only few details that I knew: fixtures and fittings, £100, and I also figured something about the location of the flat would be present: either NW1 or Chalcot Square or even Primrose Hill.

I started at 1 August even though I held little hope it would have appeared that early, mostly to familiarize myself with the layout of the newspaper, the general location therein of the classified ads, the language and abbreviations generally used, and the like. I felt too that this is something Plath and Hughes might have done -- both at this time from house-hunting but also from their earlier massive search for a flat in December 1959 and January 1960 which landed them 3 Chalcot Square in the first place -- as they constructed the language: something akin to what she did in studying the short fiction and poetry published in magazines in order to write something that stood a better chance of being accepted as it fit the right formula and was aimed at the right market. I also knew that the advert would likely not appear after the date of the letter (13 August) as Plath used the past tense "We put an ad in the paper … and had eight responses". So there was really just a short window of time in which I needed to look.

Working through each day, I grew a bit anxious. Would I find it? Recognize it? Skip over it by accident in the blur and smudge of questionable quality microfilm or in my own lunch hour restricted haste? Would I then have wasted a month of lunches searching in vain? Would I run out of time before the microfilm was due to return to its home in Washington, D.C.?

Nothing on the 1st of August. The 2nd of August turned into the 3rd, 4th, the 5th, the 6th, the 7th, the 8th, the 9th… Nothing!

Until the 10th. 10 August 1961*. The one and only day on which the ad ran!

The full page of the 10 August 1961
Evening Standard

So much hinges on that chance day: 10 August 1961. On that day, David and Assia Wevill probably sat in their flat located at 10 Addison Gardens** located in the Shepherd's Bush/Hammersmith (W14) neighborhood of London. Who spotted the advert? Who responded? Why were they looking to move? Was it David Wevill or Assia Wevill who picked up the phone to call? In A Lover of Unreason, Koren and Negev say it was Assia Wevill who called but it is not known whether it was Plath or Hughes who answered the phone to set up the appointment? Koren and Negev also publish that it was in the Evening Standard that the Wevill's saw the advert, so clearly either I should read some of these books more carefully or remember what I read a little better...

The column in which the ad appeared
The Evening Standard. 10 August 1961. On page 17. In the fifth of six columns, in the top third of the listings, there it is: "PRIMROSE HILL". The first thing that attracted me to the listing was not the bold font PRIMROSE HILL. No, it was something small and more recognizable to me: the telephone number: "PRI 9132".

The full ad:

And, transcribed, it reads:

PRIMROSE HILL Unfurn. 2 rms. k. & b
6 gns. p.w. F. & F £100. 17 mth lse.,
renewable. PRI 9132 after 6 p.m.

Plath and Hughes would have used abbreviation to cut down on cost. And, it is possible my transcription is inaccurate as regards punctuation; neither the film with which I worked nor the printout were the greatest. However, spelled out the ad says the flat consists of two unfurnished rooms with kitchen and bathroom at six guineas per week on a renewable 17 month lease, plus a fee for fixtures and fittings (improvements) at £100.

As silly as it might seem, I felt and still feel an immense relief at finding this advert. It puts a piece of the puzzle together. Fills in a gap that I had always felt existed during this period of Plath's biography.

* 10 August 1961 was also the 20th anniversary of Plath's first appearance in print when her short poem "Poem" was published in the Boston Herald. Hard to fathom: 20 years!

Former residence of the Wevill's
10 Addison Gardens, London W14
(now 10 Lower Addison Gardens)
**The Wevill's address is from Sylvia Plath's address book, held by Smith College. Plath and Hughes had dinner at this house, pictured left, a few days after they met the Wevill's, and it was also likely where Hughes went to collect a dining room table the Wevill's gave them to help fill out Court Green. At the present time there is no longer an address of 10 Addison Gardens. There is, however, a 10 Upper Addison Gardens and a 10 Lower Addison Gardens. According to this map of the neighborhood from 1940, it appears that the present-day Lower Addison Gardens formerly did not have the prefix "Lower" and in 1940 there was a clearly marked "Upper Addison Gardens".  Furthermore, with thanks to Gail Crowther we can confirm that through at least 1965, there was no "Lower Addison Gardens" according to the official Electoral Registers. So at some point after 1965, while the house numbers appear to be the same, the section of Addison Gardens between Holland Road and Holland Villas Road was renamed to Lower Addison Gardens.

All links accessed 5 August 2014.


BridgetAnna said...

Gak! This was so AWESOME to read! You, Peter, are a *master* detective.

I've always said to myself, if only we had set PKS on researching and proving the JFK assassination conspiracy theory(ies) we'd know the truth about that day in Dallas!

So great to check into your blog after taking a Plathing-break of my own for a while and read this fantastic detective story.

Keep up the good work!!


Rehan Qayoom said...

Now that's what I call scholarly research. A treasure.

George Fitzgerald said...

Excellent sleuthing skills Peter!

Peter K Steinberg said...

Bridget, Rehan, and George - Thank you three for your very kind comments on this blog post. They are much appreciated.


Anonymous said...


As a fellow detective, may I say how I thoroughly enjoyed reading this piece. I absolutely love finding stuff like this in boxes, microfilm, etc. It's fun to do and you're right...it fills the puzzle. Thank you for the hard work.


Anonymous said...

Nice job, Peter!


Anonymous said...

A.MA.ZING job,as usual!,Peter! U're the biggest detective ever ;-)
It's great how we can enjoy and learn from your studies and discoveries all the time about Sylvia and to may enrich our knowledge and studies about her through u and your researches.Again big thank u. And since im also a "detective"myself (well,i love solving puzzles and struggle every time till i dont get to the solution)and only about Plath,and if u have/or for when u have some spare time u wanna have fun in, im launching u this challenge im currently involved with a friend: we're trying to understand/discover if Sylvia was a "fan",if she used to watch the tv-series "The Twilight Zone",since we seem,while re-watching the whole series in these days, to be finding far way too many associations/resemblances/affinities/ with some of the episode,and we dont know if Sylvia ever owned a tv set,but we're almost certain she watched the series or at least she knew some way about it because some of her short stories(and even some names she used for her characters,as Millicent and others) and poems seem very mich similar to some of those episode or/ and inspired by them. We found also a strong influence/inspiration/resemblances/ with the episodes about the double/doppel in the episode "Mirror Image", with her double topic and with the "Mirror"poem,Millicent was also the name of one of her character,then there are far way too many similarities with one episode and her"Daughters of Blossom Street" and well,with many others.We strongly are starting to believe that she was aware of the existance of that series or that she watched it and she liked it as well. Would be nice to hear your opinion about it or if u already know something about it that we dont. And if u like the "challenge" it'd be great u to join it in trying to solve this other fun puzzle. In the meanwhile we thank u again for the amazing job u're doing about Sylvia and for the "pearls" u're giving us all the time thst go straight to enrich our humble knowledge about Sylvia and her works. Again thank u, keep it up with it, and us waiting for more pearls and have a great summer and join this challenge about The Twilight Zone if u like it too or if u have some spare time. We find it very interesting. Many many dear greeting from Italy, Alessandra+Nina.

Anonymous said...

Sorry!! Errata Corrige: And since im also a "detective"myself (well,i love solving puzzles and struggle every time till i dont get to the solution)and *NOT only about Plath,and.....

Tiffany McCunn said...

Peter, that is just amazing! What a thrill it must have been when it caught your eye.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Thanks everybody for your comments and kind words. It's fantastic to know I'm not alone in wanting to know as much as possible. Even the little things have profound meaning.

Alessandra & Nina: Plath generally had disdain for the television; however, she did love the cinema. It is a difficult call as the American television series began in 1959. According to it's Wikipedia page, The Twilight Zone premiered on 2 October 1959, smack in the middle of Plath's being at Yaddo. I doubt it could have had, therefore, any influence on "The Daughters of Blossom Street" as that was written before the series started. Oh, I feel like a jerk. And, by the time Plath wrote "Mirror" in 1961 she was in England.

It is possible that the creators of the shows were interested in the same kinds of psychological literature that Plath was. The writings and cases of Jung, Freud, and the like. It may be just coincidence that there are similarities between the television show and Plath's writings. It might be that both were a cultural byproduct of that time period, too.


Anonymous said...

Yes definitely.We hadnt thought that that could be the only explanation.Anyway Thank u Peter for everything and for having taking your time to reply and explain.
Again big hug and have a nice sunday.
...although the day today is not one of the happiest... 24 august.... mmh... :'(

i'll be vising here later to see your new blog post about 24.8.


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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 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, Redux." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 232-246.
  • 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: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017.
  • 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. 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, Volume 1, 1940-1956. 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. "'A Fetish: Somehow': A Sylvia Plath Bookmark." Court Green 13. 2017.
  • 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. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
  • 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. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "The Persistence of Plath." Fine Books & Collections. Autumn 2017: 24-29
  • 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. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.