20 January 2018

Sylvia Plath Collections: Susan Fromberg Schaeffer papers at Boston University

Not truly a Sylvia Plath Collection, but....

Recently I visited the Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University which is really close to my work. The reason I went there was that they have the papers of Susan Fromberg Schaeffer who knew Ted Hughes, Olwyn Hughes, as well as to a lesser degree Frieda and Nicholas Hughes and Carol Hughes. In 2006, Schaeffer (1941-2011, obituary) published a novel called Poison which is about the most apt name possible for this labored, lumbering 608 page thing. It is a trial to read it, but it is of interest as the novel is loosely based off of the story of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, as well as the death of Ted Hughes and the 2002 legal battle over Hughes' will. The story is of Evelyn Graves (Plath) and Peter Grosvenor (Hughes), of Elfie (Assia Wevill), Sigrid (Olwyn), Sophie (Frieda), Andrew (Nicholas), Meena (Carol), Penelope (Dido Merwin), Julie (Susan Fromberg Schaeffer), and Clare (the woman with whom Hughes was reportedly involved with when he passed away).

There are some Evelyn Graves/Sylvia Plath details in the novel that are so specific that it does make you wonder what coloring Schaeffer provided as she wrote, or if in fact it is actually something closer to the straight truth. A couple things that immediately come to mind are the suicide preparations Evelyn Graves took in her flat, Evelyn's suffering a miscarriage after being hit by Peter Grosvenor related by Penelope, and a brief scene that sort of depicts "Last Letter". Of course there is much more because the other people portrayed are undoubtedly the victims of private information provided under the guise of friendship being made public. Poison represents a betrayal of the highest magnitude.

I was curious to see if there were letters from the Hugheses to the Schaeffers, to see if there were research notes on Poison that might have recorded conversations, and the like. I did not find anything like this. This is not to say they are not in the collection: I am unfamiliar with how Schaeffer worked.  The period in question here, 1999-2002/3, is right when laptops were becoming more and more of a thing, so it might be that she took notes on the computer. I do not think BU had electronic files.

I found four letters from Ted Hughes, five letters from Olwyn Hughes, and one letter from Frieda Hughes. Below is a list of letters with brief annotations about their locations in the collection and their contents.

From Ted Hughes:
1) Ted Hughes to Susan Fromberg and Neil Schaeffer, 23 June 1983
From Box 49, Folder 9, ALS, blue aerogramme letter, postmarked 29 June 1983, North Tawton, Devon: Offering to help them find lodgings on an upcoming visit to England, mentioned a garden flat in London where Nicholas Hughes lived. Briefly mentioned paperbacks of his books.

2) Ted Hughes to Susan Fromberg and Neil Schaeffer, 27 July 1983
From Box 49, Folder 9, ALS, blue aerogramme letter, postmarked 28 July 1983, North Tawton, Devon: Giving directions from Heathrow to Court Green and a stay at their farm cottage. Mentions his forthcoming trip to Africa to visit Nicholas, and that an adaptation of Letters Home on the T.V. that night.

3) Ted Hughes to Susan Fromberg and Neil Schaeffer, 3 March 1984
From Box 49, Folder 9, ALS, blue aerogramme letter, postmark date illegible, North Tawton, Devon: Mentions a cottage to rent in Zennor that's next door to where, at different times, D.H. Lawrence and Katherine Mansfield lived.

4) Ted Hughes to Susan Fromberg and Neil Schaeffer, 4 January 1988
From Box 49, Folder 10, ALS, white paper, no envelope: Apologizing for silence following 1987 Janes Anderson/Bell Jar trial and discusses Linda Wagner-Martin's biography and that Anne Stevenson wants to write one, too. Discusses other things.


From Olwyn Hughes:
1) Olwyn Hughes to Susan Fromberg and Neil Schaeffer, 5 February 1999
From Box 48, Folder 13, ALS, postcard with enclosure, envelope postmarked 6 February 1999: Thanking Schaeffer's for their kindness following the passing of her brother, saying "I've been totally desolate-- a hard time." Later Olwyn Hughes send the Schaeffer's a programme from the Ted Hughes memorial service at Westminster Abbey (held in Box 48, Folder 12).

2) Olwyn Hughes to Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, 7 August 2002
From Box 48, Folder 14, ALS, card, envelope postmarked 9 August 2002. Card design: Brushstroke by Hiroshige. About the brewing legal controversy between Carol Hughes and Frieda and Nicholas Hughes, mentions publication of Waxworks.

3) Olwyn Hughes to Susan Fromberg and Neil Schaeffer, 14 December 2005
From Box 49, Folder 11, ALS, greeting card, postmarked 15 December 2005: Troubles in the Hughes family reported; a difficult letter to read, mentioned holiday in Portugal. Expresses genuine sentiments about missing them, suggesting that Olwyn Hughes felt they had developed a deep friendship...

4) Olwyn Hughes to Neil Schaeffer, 2 July 2006
From Box 33, Folder 16, TLS, 3 pages: Reading Poison and taking much exception to it: "I'm reading POISON – in bits – as much as I can stand at a time. It has made me ill. I considered you and Susan good friends so the book is nightmarish.." A very colorful letter, full of Olwynian venom, correctly placed, and offers some factual corrections.

5) Olwyn Hughes to Neil Schaeffer, 7 September 2006
From Box 33, Folder 15, ALS, postcard, JMW Turner, Venice, the bridge of Sighs: Ending friendship because of Poison which she called an "infantile willful atrocity".


From Frieda Hughes:
1) Frieda Hughes to Susan Fromber Schaeffer, 6 April 1994
Box 33, Folder 9, ALS, 3 pages, no envelope: Written from Wooroloo. About the move, setting up, life, paintings, children's books.


There are several drafts of Poison and I flipped through one of them but was just trying to get an understanding of what was there and frankly, I do not really want to spend more time on that book than I have to! The first draft of the novel appears to have been completed in May 2003 with the first revisions completed in May 2004. Revisions continued into July 2004 and September 2004. The collection also has page proofs of the book from 2005. If you are interested in this, I strongly suggest referring to Jonathan Bate's Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Biography. See pages 302, 432, 548-52 of the US edition. The range of pages 548-52 relate specifically to Poison. See also Luke Ferretter's review "A Fine White Flying Myth of One’s Own: Sylvia Plath in Fiction – A Review Essay" published in Plath Profiles (2009).

One of the more interesting documents I stumbled on was Schaeffer's copy of her Affidavit re: Anderson v Avco Embassy Pictures in box 19. Schaeffer submitted the following: "real people inevitably become the inspiration for my fictional characters. Some traits of theirs impresses me, and soon a cocoon of imaginings wraps itself around this kernel. In the end, a single fictional character is really a crowd of people, some real, some imaginary, each of whom contributes some piece to the single fictional whole. Since The Bell Jar is a work of fiction, I am certain that Sylvia Plath also created her characters in this way."

The collection started to be acquired in 2005 and had several annual accretions in 2006, 2007, and 2008. It is unprocessed, but there is a preliminary finding aid available for it on site only. Bizarrely, Boston University does not publish their finding aids. I wish they did as even in its current, preliminary state, the finding aid has a lot of information that would help with people discovering it. A case is point is that when I arrived the Director asked me why I was interested in the collection, stating openly that there has been quite little interest in the Schaeffer papers before. It is a case where the obvious solution (publishing the finding aids) may be the most difficult to enact because of resources. This is perfectly understandable, however, they could always get student interns from BU itself, or from the library school at Simmons, to assist with preparing the documents for the web. Oh, and discovery and use. Put a PDF online and let Google do the rest! There are letters from many other famous writers and poets, and even one (that I saw) from Stanley Kubrick.

Frustratingly, they make you wear white cloth gloves while working with the papers. This is not smart as you cannot feel the papers as you are flipping through them and increases the likelihood that you may rip one. Gloves are fine for photographs as you do not want the oils on your skin to transfer to the photographs, but with paper? With paper that is housed in folders and boxes in temperature and humidity controlled storage? No, this is not good. It also makes it difficult to type (and they do not allow photography). The staff was all nice and helpful, though strangely at least two of them were loudly eating in the reading room behind their desks.

All links accessed 17 January 2018.

3 comments :

Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

Very interesting. Thanks for sharing.

Annika J Lindskog said...

I agree that Poison is a piece of betrayal - can really understand Olwyn's anger! It's also a bad novel. Unabashed self-promotion: I also discuss Poison in my 'Stasis in Darkness: SP as a Fictive Character' (English Studies, 2009).

Project Plath said...

Gossip or factual - there's another volume to acquire for my shelf. Thanks for the interesting post!

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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.

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