12 August 2015

'The Perfect Place': Sylvia Plath’s Whitby

The following is a guest post by writer Gail Crowther and artist Anthony Cockayne. Please read more about Crowther and Cockayne's collaboration: The Collusion of Elements.


Sylvia Plath, 'The Perfect Place',
My Weekly, 28 October 1961
On 28 October 1961 Sylvia Plath was published in a UK women's magazine called My Weekly. This, she hoped, would be the start of a career in which she would break into the 'slick' women's magazines and hone her skills writing playful short stories alongside her poetry and novels. As she stated in a letter to her mother on Christmas Eve 1960, 'The wonderful thing about these stories is that I can do them by perspiration, not inspiration, so I can work on them while Frieda is playing in the room . . .' (LH p. 403) The story published was called 'The Perfect Place' (working title 'The Lucky Stone') and the genesis of this piece can be found in an earlier blog post by Peter, and in his Plath Profiles essay, "I Should Be Loving This: Sylvia Plath's 'The Perfect Place' and The Bell Jar" comparing elements from this story to her first novel. Peter argues that since this was among one of the last stories that she wrote before launching into The Bell Jar, certain characters and aspects of the story were almost a trial run for what was to come.

'The Perfect Place' is set in the seaside town of Whitby on the edge of the North Yorkshire moors. Plath had visited this area for a day and a night with Ted Hughes, Frieda and Hughes' cousin, Vicky in August 1960. She was not impressed. In a 27 August letter to her mother she stated: 'There is something depressingly mucky about English sea resorts' (p.391). However, Whitby gets much better treatment in 'The Perfect Place', with the protagonist of the story, Joanna, looking across the vista of the town:
"How I’d love a summer place here!" Joanna sighed, taking in the angular red-tiled gables of the tiny houses crowding the opposite shore, their yellow, pink, and blue plaster walls gleaming like freshly washed-up shells. (p.4)



The story recounts the orphaned Joanna visiting Whitby with her boring and domineering fiancé, Kenneth, and while there, falling in love with an artist called Simon who owns the boarding house in which she is staying. Some of the scenes in the story are funny (Kenneth falling over on the beach rocks in his expensive London suit), some of them are predictable (it is obvious Joanna will end up with Simon from the first moment he appears in the story). However, there are flashes of classic Plath throughout this piece, the use of certain words and startling phrases that somehow lift the story just above the formulaic.

In June I visited Whitby with the painter Anthony Cockayne to start work on a bigger project between writers and artists. While there, we decided to trace Plath around Whitby and explore some creative responses – Tony painting scenes from the story, me taking photographs and writing notes. In many ways, seeing the places that Plath describes always brings them alive and illuminates the creative process that must have taken place between Plath's observations and her written page. Using extracts from the story, we hope to recreate Plath's Whitby for the reader in a sort of visual pilgrimage.

In an early morning scene, Plath describes the sleeping town just beginning to awaken, the fishing boats still anchored quietly under the dominating presence of the ruined abbey:
It was early still, with a pale, rinsed sky. The few remaining visitors hadn't yet come down to stroll along the harbour front where the fishing fleet anchored, or across the bridge leading to the old section of the town under the ruined abbey perched atop its headland like a great, grey seabird. (p. 4)
The Bridge by Anthony Cockayne, Oil on paper
The Ruined Abbey by Anthony Cockayne, Ink, gouache & charcoal on paper
As the two protagonists in the story head towards the beach, Plath describes the somewhat flatness of reflections on the water:
As they crossed the bridge, Joanna gazed down at the reflections of boats and houses sparkling on the dull, green water... (p. 4)


And as they approach the beach, she writes of the sudden jutting off from the narrow, cobbled main street where the beach starts just below the 199 steps that lead up to St Mary's Church and the ruined abbey.:
...the cobbled lane petered out in a flight of rough stone steps leading to the beach. (p. 5)

While on the beach, Joanna meets Simon who is painting a seascape on an easel above the rockpools. He points out starfish and crabs in the pools and takes Joanna to look for lucky stones, finding one which is deeply purple and ringed with white.

Later in his studio, he shows Joanna his paintings of the town and the sea and she finds herself 'lost in the dark vaults and moon-blued arches of the ruined abbey.' (p.6) The town, is full of stories and myths.

Simon explains that, 'The churchyard is full of stones in memory of local captains who went down with their ships. On a windy night the air fairly vibrates with voices.' (p.6)


In this haunting scene as night falls, Joanna breaks off her engagement with Kenneth and flees to the abbey in moonlight. Hearing someone behind her she spins around to find Simon has followed her. In the pivotal moment of the story:
...she thrust her hands into her pockets. Her right hand encountered a round, hard object. 
      Curious, she drew it out and examined it in the glow of the abbey lights. 
      It was the lucky stone. (p. 31)
The Lucky Stone by Anthony Cockayne, Oil on paper
The lucky stone in Plath's Whitby story echoes back to Plath's own childhood on the beaches of Winthrop, where she would search for purple stones ringed with white. In the final scene of 'The Perfect Place', it is the discovery of the lucky stone in her pocket that leads Joanna to finally realise her feelings for Simon. The note of hope is unmistakable:
Calmed and encouraged, she turned to meet the figure, still veiled in rain, coming towards her out of the dark. (p. 31)

Copyright:
All illustrations © Anthony Cockayne. Must not be reproduced without permission.
Web: anthonycockayne.com

All photographs © Gail Crowther. Must not be reproduced without permission.
Web: gailcrowther.com

All links accessed 5 August 2015.

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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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