18 April 2015

The Cradle Sylvia Plath Painted

By mid-October 1961, Sylvia Plath was already thinking about Christmas as she and Ted Hughes were hard at work making Court Green in North Tawton not just their own, but also livable. She mentioned in letter dated 13 October that year of her desire to make her daughter Frieda Hughes a doll's wood cradle. Christmas likely sprung into her mind as she had recently received a from her mother mentioning that she would be sending her granddaughter a doll for Christmas. The subject of the cradle was mentioned in general in subsequent letters to Aurelia and Warren Plath on 18 December 1961 and to her Aunt Dorothy Benotti on 31 January 1962.

In "These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England", Plath scholar Gail Crowther discusses this very doll's cradle (see pages 44-47; an image of the cradle appears on page 45). Working with the documents Plath and Hughes created is one thing: particularly those which bear evidence of both the poets such as poetry or fiction manuscripts or their address book. But this cradle is also something to which both Plath and Hughes contributed. Hughes made the cradle and Plath enameled and painted it. In Birthday Letters, Hughes called these items a "Totem", writing: "You painted little hearts on everything . . . Sometimes, off to the side, an eight-year-old's bluebird . . And on the cradle I made for a doll you painted,/Hearts" (163). As Gail stated in our paper, "Such items, we feel, belong in an archive because they are able to bring Plath alive in a unique, multi-dimensional manner. In many ways they do not feel 'of the past,' but rather very much of the present" (46-47).

In a second installment to a letter Plath wrote on 29 December 1961, she discusses a little more about the cradle, and from where the design and inspiration came. The part where Plath writes about the cradle was was edited out of Letters Home and so therefore cannot be quoted. But, the original letter is held by the Lilly Library for anyone who visits to read.

In this 29 December 1961 letter, Plath mentions that Marion Freeman sent her some copies of Woman's Day magazine which left her with a nostalgia for American-market women's magazines. Marion Freeman, sometimes called "Aunt Marion", was the mother of David and Ruth Freeman. Ruth, fondly called Ruthie in Plath's letters and diaries, was Plath's best childhood friend from Winthrop. In one of those issues of Woman's Day, Plath found the ideal design and pattern for a cradle made of wood.

In a letter to Marion Freeman dated 31 January 1962, Plath thanks her for the Woman's Day magazines and mentions how a design in one of the issues was just right for a doll's cradle they made for Frieda for Christmas. She mentioned too that that she got inspiration for the imagery she painted on the cradle -- hearts and flowers (and birds) -- from the quilting section.

This got me thinking: which issue of Woman's Day was it? I found via a search on eBay that the November 1961 issue had a big Christmas section in it, and so started there. By chance (or luck), I had to look no further as the seller of the item confirmed to me that the November 1961 issue had the instructions for building a cradle.

The quilting section Plath referred to was on page 39; a photograph of a cradle on page 44; and the instructions on cutting the wood and assembly on page 105. As you will see in the images below, Plath made her own of the flowers and used the colors and general shapes to inspire the hearts, sun, and decorative flourishes, but the bluebird is just about spot-on.

Page 39, note blue bird and flowers at right
Page 44, see cradle at left-center
Page 105, instructions

Plath also painted hearts and flowers on a chair, a wastebasket, and table. These four household items are held by Smith College; and a color image of them was recently reproduced in Elizabeth Sigmund and Gail Crowther's Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning (2014).

Seeing the cradle in the Mortimer Rare Book Room at Smith College and holding it is truly a wonderful experience. For me it ranks up there with seeing a poetry manuscript, her journals, a typescript of The Bell Jar: really anything Plath created. "Realia", can be classified perhaps as a more fetishistic object than a manuscript would be: certainly this kind of thing falls out of the traditional purview of academics. But it is an important product and relic regardless. It is something, like a sketch or drawing Plath made, to which she temporarily devoted all of her mind, creativity, and energy towards completing. Plath said as much in a letter to her husband Ted Hughes on 7 October 1956. On drawing teapots, shoes and chestnuts, she said, "it gives me such a sense of peace to draw; more than prayer, walks, anything. I can close myself completely in the line, lose myself in it" (Sylvia Plath: Drawings, 3). And seeing the original issue of Woman's Day that gave Plath her idea's is also fascinating. It felt surprisingly unreal, if you catch my meaning. And stepping back like that into November 1961 was quite interesting for the advertisements and articles. Those are long gone days. You can see how Plath took something she studied and transformed it into a veritable timeless work of art: much the same way you can find nuggets real people and experiences metamorphosed in her poetry and prose.

All links accessed 6 March 2015.

3 comments :

Melanie Smith said...

I do love the photos of the cradle, thank you for the extra information Peter.

Rach said...

I just recently found your site...I read many of your messages on the Sylvia Plath Forum, which I found just days before the conversations came to and because of Elaine's passing...Im sure you have heard this before, but that forum was unbelievably great and its a huge loss to no longer have that outlet..I would have loved to have a chance to contribute, and so many things have happened or been published...
There isn't too much out there by way of filling this void..This page is so informative and interesting...I was wondering if theres any way to get a similar discussion forum going in somewhat the same vein on here? Do any of the contributors from that site come around here an comment? I asked myself if everyone has maybe just dispersed and moved on but that would be incorrect as the interest in Plath is forever...
Anyway I apologize for my rambling...

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this excellent post that breathes new life into the objects that bore witness to Plath's own life and creativity.

Please forgive a naïve question, but why are you unable to quote from unpublished letters? In any case, I am looking forward to your edition of these letters.

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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.

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