22 July 2015

A little minus, a little plus: A Review of A Memoir of Ted Hughes by Dr Nathaniel Minton

Review of A Memoir of Ted Hughes by Dr Nathaniel Minton (London: Westmoreland Press, 2015. ISBN: 978-0-9932660-0-3. 43 pages, £4.99. Amazon.com | Amazon.co.uk)

Dr. Nathaniel Minton's memoir of Ted Hughes is brief, but provides an additional perspective to Ted Hughes and the male company he kept. Previous memoirs by Daniel Huws (Memories of Ted Hughes, 1952-1963, 2010) and Lucas Myers (Crow Steered/Bergs Appeared, 2001 and An Essential Self: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, a Memoir, 2010) have also been published since Ted Hughes' passing in 1998. Another American in Cambridge, Bert Wyatt-Brown, published "Ted, Sylvia, and St. Botolph's: A Cambridge Recollection" (The Southern Review, Spring 2004).

In the Foreword written by Minton's daughter Anna, she reveals that her father's memoir was to be part of a planned book of memories to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Hughes' death in 2008. I wonder if Daniel Huws' book was also to be part of that, and if Myers second book from 2010 grew out of that as well. And I wonder how different this memoir would have appeared compiled with others? A Memoir of Ted Hughes was published this year to coincide with what would have been Dr Minton's 80th birthday. Minton passed away in 2012.

Minton, Hughes, Huws, Wyatt-Brown, and Myers along with David Ross and Daniel Weissbort called themselves 'the gang' (6). These were the men behind the now famous Saint Botolph's Review (1956) that set in motion the now even more famous meeting of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath on that fateful February night in 1956. Minton fondly recalls the times spent in the Anchor pub singing, drinking. This activity is in other memoirs of Ted Hughes and seems to have made a significant impression in the bonds of their friendships.

The memoir is brief, just 41 pages with exaggerated spaces between paragraphs. We learn much about 'Than' Minton, perhaps the least known of the Saint Botolph's Review Crew. Minton published a story in the Review entitled "An Impression in Hospital" which was "based on and experience I had after a spell in hospital" (12). He comes across as a nice, gentle man, loyal to his friends. In fact, it seems as though all the people with whom Hughes surrounded himself were like this. Loyalty is an amazing quality and certainly one seeks for that in their friends. Hughes, too, seems to have been dedicated to them as well. I'm sorry, but this has to be said: it is a shame that this sense of loyalty did not transfer to Ted Hughes' relations with members of the opposite sex.

As nice as Minton comes across, some of his comments, particularly about Sylvia Plath, are questionable. Minton visited Hughes at 23 Fitzroy Road at some unstated point between 11 December 1962 and 10 February 1963. I wish it would have been possible to know the exact date. Minton's social call to the flat was to see Hughes as he was fresh back from years abroad. He was given Plath's address from David Ross but it is not made clear why Ross would not have given Minton Ted Hughes' actual address, at that time most likely 110 Cleveland Street. So he was likely lucky to call in at 23 Fitzroy Road at the given hour of a particular day when Hughes happened to be visiting his children and his wife. Minton's description of the flat is at odds with what has previously been reported. The story about Plath's death is that she has safely and securely sealed the door to the kitchen in an effort to control and contain the gas. Minton states that there was an "open plan room on the first floor. Sylvia was standing behind a wooden counter, cutting either carrots or onions with complete intensity" (25). This setting, with the "open plan room" is confusing.

There are lots of confusing, contradictory reminiscences and thoughts in this visit to Fitzroy Road section of the book. As for Plath's treatment of him: Minton said he felt unwelcome, regretted turning up, and left almost immediately seeming to recognize something was amiss though not knowing at the time the nature of the situation; that Plath seemed "irritated"; and that she "may have been on the edge of a psychotic, agitated depression" (25, 26). A friend of Minton's said that "Sylvia should have asked me to stay for supper" but then admits that he had turned up "uninvited" and that Plath "seemed to be emotionally overwhelmed" (26, 27, 26). At least he had the sense to leave the two alone. While Minton was a trained psychiatrist and psychotherapist, he does what many do and assigned a posthumous diagnosis to Sylvia Plath to try to explain her decision to commit suicide (she "may have been on the edge of a psychotic, agitated depression"). This is not only dangerous, it is unfair. His conclusion may be applying general theory on what defines depression or suicidal tendencies but I imagine a reputable diagnosis is only possible if it is about one's own patient based on sustained and involved therapy and notes. Minton met Plath only a couple to a handful of times which is not sufficient to make such a statement.

With many of the memoirs about a person, there is the sense of dedication to their friend that leaves one seemingly to overlook flaws or to make excuses for behavior not directed explicitly towards them. In the case of friends of either Plath or Hughes, there are clear sides taken and blind-spots. Minton writes that Hughes "was not a cruel uncaring man without feeling, but a deeply suffering and tormented man with a poignant range of feeling" (36). But of course there are multiple sides to people, and Minton was fortunately on the side of Hughes that one can admire.

Handsomely produced and reasonably priced, I came away from A Memoir of Ted Hughes liking Dr Nathaniel Minton quite a bit. He appears to have lead a good life, and was devoted to friends and his family.

15 July 2015

Sylvia Plath: Did you know...

The Bell Jar, published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, received mixed reviews when it was published on 14 January 1963. Within a month after Plath's death, Ted Hughes gave Heinemann permission to publicly release Plath's name as the author. That did not stop Heinemann from releasing a book club edition of Victoria Lucas's The Bell Jar under the Contemporary Fiction imprint in 1964. Strangely, though, on the back of that dust wrapper it reads, "Victoria Lucas is a pseudonym, and we are not in a position to disclose any details of the author's identity."

Do you know what's on the inside flap of the dust wrapper of the first, Heinemann edition (pictured left)?

"Esther Greenwood's story began before her visit to New York, but it was during those strangely unreal weeks - when with eleven other winners of a fashion magazine contest, she was offered the riches of the city as a gift - that her growing feeling of unease an inadequacy began to oppose her. Life for Esther had been a history of success: at school, at college, even with Buddy Willard, that superb, all-American symbol of success; but the value of these achievements seemed now to retreat from her, leaving her to focus on those vast territories where she would never tread with confidence of anything but failure. Back from New York, cramped by her mother's sympathetic watchfulness, Esther felt herself withdrawing into a private world, and in chapters of wonderful lucidity and vividness the author describes that borderland between sanity and insanity, whose only promise of escape is violence and death.

"This is a remarkable first novel by a young American woman - remarkable both for being a novel which uses detail and imagery to evoke a concrete, recognisable world and never to obscure it, and because it treats the subject of break-down with unusual directness and understanding."

The front and rear flaps of The Bell Jar (Heinemann, 1963)

Swell! This is a summary of the novel before the legend of Plath was widespread; before the nearly one to one association of Plath's biography to the novel. I have often wondered if Plath wrote this, or someone at Heinemann?

Just to round out the dust wrapper, designed by Thomas Simmonds, the back of the dust wrapper lists recent Heinemann fiction publications.

The front and rear covers of The Bell Jar (Heinemann, 1963)

These titles, in order of appearance, are:

Michael Noonan - The December Boys
Paul Smith - The Stubborn Season
Alison Lurie - Love and Friendship
Anthony Burgess - The Wanting Seed
Edward Upward - In the Thirties
Barbara Comyns - The Skin Chairs
Alfred Grossman - Many Slippery Errors
Jerome Weidman - My Father Sits in the Dark
Eric Ambler - The Light of Day
S. J. Perelman - The Rising Gorge
Paul Gallico - Coronation
Anthony Powell - A Dance to the Music of Time

Though I have never checked with any systematic focus or determination, I have often wondered if The Bell Jar by "Victoria Lucas" is listed on the back(s) of any Heinemann publications.

06 July 2015

Guest Post: An Interview with Karen V. Kukil

The following is a fourth guest blog post by Annette Stevens. Previous interviews with Elizabeth Winder, Andrew Wilson, and Peter K. Steinberg appear on her Mademoiselle Women website.

Hello Karen, thank you for agreeing to this interview. When did you first become interested in Sylvia Plath and why?
Thank you for inviting me. I first became interested in Sylvia Plath when I took an English seminar on ‘Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath’ with Professor Dianne Hunter at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, during the spring 1974 semester. I remember that my final paper was about Sylvia Plath’s influence on the poetry of Ted Hughes, particularly Ariel’s influence on Crow. This particular English course changed my life Please could you describe your job and duties at Smith College?

For the past twenty-five years, I have curated the papers of Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath in the Mortimer Rare Book Room at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. My official title is Associate Curator of Special Collections, which means that I work in all sections of special collections (Mortimer Rare Book Room, Sophia Smith Collection of Women’s History Archives, and the Smith College Archives). There are about 45,000 rare books at Smith and 20,000 linear feet of manuscripts. I teach classes and provide reference service to scholars around the world using all this material. I am also on the faculty for our Archives Concentration Program at Smith College.

Have you ever worked previously in the publishing industry, prior to the publication of the Plath Diaries you edited?
My first job when I graduated from Trinity College in 1975 was as a typesetter and graphic artist for Belle Typesetting Company. I remember that I designed a yoga book as one of my first assignments. From 1976-1986 I worked for Yale University at the Lewis Walpole Library, an estate library focused on the work of British, eighteenth-century writer Horace Walpole. It was my privilege to assist the great collector Wilmarth S. Lewis and the editors of the Yale Edition of Horace Walpole’s Correspondence. I learned many of my editorial practices from Wilmarth S. Lewis who was a superb writer and editor. I also took a useful indexing course when I was in graduate school at Southern Connecticut State University where I received my M.L.S. in 1982. The unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath were published in London by Faber and Faber and Anchor Books in New York in 2000. In 2003, I co-hosted the Thirteenth Annual Conference on Virginia Woolf at Smith College and edited a volume of Selected Papers published by Clemson University Digital Press in 2005. When Stephen Enniss acquired the Ted Hughes Papers for Emory University, we co-curated a joint exhibition in New York at the Grolier Club in 2005 with a catalogue on ‘No Other Appetite’: Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, and the Blood Jet of Poetry.

Would you ever consider writing a book about Plath yourself?
I am currently editing Sylvia Plath’s Letters with Peter Steinberg for Frieda Hughes. Plath’s letters will be published in London by Faber and Faber. I am also co-curating an exhibition with Dorothy Moss on Sylvia Plath for the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. One Life: Sylvia Plath will open in 2017. I love bringing Plath’s original manuscripts and letters into broader circulation. But as for your question, I have no plans to write a book about Sylvia Plath.

There's debate online about whether manuscripts not intended for publication-i.e letters and diaries-should or shouldn't be published. What do you think?
Sylvia Plath’s copyrights are owned by her daughter, Frieda Hughes. It was Frieda Hughes who asked me to edit her mother’s journals and her mother’s letters. Since the family made this decision after careful consideration, I never questioned their choice. I am fascinated by the complexity of daily life that women writers need to navigate in order to succeed. I am grateful that Virginia Woolf’s diaries, for example, have been published in great detail. They were an inspiration to Sylvia Plath and the journals of Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf are an inspiration to me and to other writers.

Do you think it would be fair to say that Sylvia was a 'victim of her era' ?
I don’t think of Sylvia Plath as a victim. She was resilient and fearless in spite of family traumas and the medical treatment she received, such as poorly administered electroconvulsive therapy, dangerous insulin injections, and Parnate for depression, which has all sorts of side effects. Although her life was short, Sylvia Plath had an incredibly rich experience (Books, Babies, and Beef Stews) and wrote some of the best poetry and prose of the twentieth century that is as fresh and honest today as it was over fifty years ago.

For anyone who wishes to follow in your footsteps, do you have any advice? Robust education, continual professional development, and constant deep learning are very important to me, but it is also essential to risk and embrace challenge. I certainly don’t see myself as particularly extroverted, but I was able to give my first public lecture about editing Sylvia Plath’s Journals to English PEN in 2000 at the CafĂ© Royal in London and my first PowerPoint lecture on ‘Sylvia Plath’s Women and Poetry’ at Oxford in 2007 It is also important to surround yourself with good people. I am particularly lucky to have a supportive husband, Bo, and incredibly knowledgeable colleagues and mentors who have helped me along the way.

01 July 2015

Guest Post: An Interview with Peter K. Steinberg

The following is a guest blog post by Annette Stevens, who recently interviewed me (!) for her blog, Mademoiselle. You'll remember that two previous interviews, of Elizabeth Winder and Andrew Wilson also appeared on both her blog (Elizabeth, Andrew) and mine (Elizabeth, Andrew). Tune in next week for a fourth interview with Karen V. Kukil, editor of The Journals of Sylvia Plath (aka The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath) and a forthcoming edition of Sylvia Plath's letters.

Peter K. Steinberg is a Sylvia Plath scholar, who runs two online resources, and is currently co-writing a Plath letters collection with Karen Kukil. Here, you can read what he has to say about Sylvia Plath:

Hello Peter, thank you for agreeing to this interview.
Hello Annette, it’s my pleasure! Thank you for asking me to participate.

What initially sparked your interest in the work of Sylvia Plath?
It started as a junior in college last century. I was in an introduction to poetry course and when we got to Plath I was captivated by ‘Lady Lazarus’. When I asked my professor for more information about her he was not encouraging at all. So, at the suggestion of a friend I went to the library and checked a few of books out (Collected Poems, The Bell Jar, and Paul Alexander’s Rough Magic, because I liked the title better than any other biography available at that time). Hooked.

Out of all her poems and prose pieces, do you have any particular favorites?
The Bell Jar is my favourite prose by Plath. Love that book so so much. There are a number of poems I could not live without including ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree'; ‘The Night Dances'; and ‘Sheep in Fog’.

You also have two websites, dedicated to Plath. What inspired you to create them both?
The website ‘A celebration, this is’ [Click here to view] I started because when I was first introduced to the web there was really nothing about Plath online. I was interested in seeing the places in which she lived and about which she wrote. But there was nothing. So I started traveling to these places, taking photographs, getting the films developed, scanning the images and putting them online. It was a sort of niche-thing. But I quickly realized I was not the only one interested in this and so developed the website more fully. I remember back in 2002, a Chinese Plath scholar was effusively grateful for the photographs and that really struck a chord that the website and its content was reaching people.
There are a number of poems I could not live without including ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree'; ‘The Night Dances'; and ‘Sheep in Fog’.
That sounds like a great occupation. How did you go about creating your Sylvia blog?
Like with the website, there wasn’t really a ‘blog’ dedicated solely to Plath so I just kind of made it up without really knowing the direction it would go: both content-wise, but also successful or not. The ‘Sylvia Plath Info Blog’ [Click here to view] grew out of an inability, for boring reasons, to update my Plath website. I had tons of new information but no way to get it online. And it developed from there into the beast that it is today.

In future, would you ever consider creating a Plath app?
No. And that stems from a lack of technological skill, but also a lack of time. I’m surprised my wife hasn’t left me yet. I think for the most part all the content I have online is accessible via 3G, 4G, wifi, etc. and that should suffice any users, I hope!

Yes, it probably does. Are you currently working on any other Plath projects?
Yes. I’m working on an edition of Plath’s letters with Karen V. Kukil of Smith College. After that, there are two books that I would like to do but this is kind of so new I shouldn’t discuss it. What I can say is that they’ll both be about Sylvia Plath.

Would you ever consider writing a Sylvia biography?
I did! But you might mean a full-length? Full-length: no. The more biographies of Plath there are ad the more independent research I do in the archives, the more I realize the best way to know the life of Sylvia Plath is to visit the archives and read Plath for one’s self; to reconstruct her life that way. It mightn’t be an exact chronological biographical portrait, but it would allow the person to discover Plath in phases as they are ready. Each biographer – most of whom I like, have tremendous respect for, and have benefited from their work – has a bias and an agenda, so it’s Plath’s life filtered through that distorted lens. I’m guilty of this to a degree in my 2004 biography, but I tried very hard to write it sans bias. It might make for drier reading, but I’m interested in the facts.
I’m working on an edition of Plath’s letters with Karen V. Kukil of Smith College.
Yes, I did mean full length..Do you think that Sylvia could be classed as ‘a victim of her time’?
That’s tough to say, but I think probably yes, she could be. I’m wary of taking Plath out of the context of her own time by applying modern or recently modern theories or definitions upon her. She’s isolated in the period of time covering the years 1932 to 1963. Certainly in that time period she was living a more, ahem, advanced lifestyle than some of her contemporaries, illustrated I think in Andrew Wilson’s wonderful Mad Girls Love Song.

What do you think was the main effect on Plath’s writing by Hughes and vice versa?
There was a mutual influence there, explored successfully by Diane Middlebrook (Her Husband) and Heather Clark (The Grief of Influence). Both of these books should be required reading. I’m not sure either would have been as successful without the other, but that’s getting into hypothetical s which are a dangerous game to play.

Do you think that we will see another poet like Sylvia again?
I’d like believe that we will not see another poet like Plath again. I feel like Plath and her life and story and her writings are so unique as to be unrepeatable.

Do you have any tips for anyone who wishes to follow in your footsteps?
I’m a little surprised there aren’t more Plath websites out there. There are plenty of hosting options these days that won’t cost money (or cost too much money). If someone is passionate enough about Plath they should consider making a website or doing a Thesis or just simply writing articles. I do not speak a foreign language (unless as an English woman you find my American language strange), but I feel like this is an area that appears completely untapped: Plath in German, Italian, Spanish, etc.
I feel like Plath and her life and story and her writings are so unique as to be unrepeatable.
I didn’t even know that she wrote like that. Where do you carry out your Plath research?
I’ve spent years collecting information (notes, photocopies, etc.) from the archives and buying or receiving as gifts books, getting copies of articles from journals, newspapers, etc. So, most of my work can be done from home. There is no place like the archive. Plath’s papers are quite dispersed so it takes effort, and a little money, but it’s something worth being poor for. But there is something to be said for email, too, because it’s really easy to write an archive or a friend for something that I might be missing or something on which I am less well versed. But the archive is my favorite place to be. Every single trip – first time or a return visit – is illuminating. One can look at the same document over and over and get something new from it based on the perspective of having seen it before, having kept it in mind, and having learned more about Plath since the previous excursion.

For any Plath fan, the archives sound amazing. Are there any manuscripts that Sylvia left unpublished?
Bunches and bunches and bunches. Not even considering papers written for courses, there are dozens if not hundreds of poems, and dozens of stories and other prose pieces. Plath did publish more prose (both creative writing and non-fiction, journalistic writings) than was collected in Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, and it would be for me a dream come true to help bring out a fuller edition of her prose works.

What was it like when you were first quoted as a Plath expert?
Well, that’s difficult. It’s humbling and reassuring; and I hope certainly something I have earned. I have dedicated more than half of my life (!) to learning about Plath and it’s always been my motivation and guiding principle to give of myself completely to anyone that asks a question. I haven’t been able to please everyone (sometimes you simply don’t take a shine to someone), but even still I have always tried to do what my college professor mentioned above could not: encourage and answer and to try to be resourceful. I can think of no better way to honor Sylvia Plath.

And one random question-as you may get bored, asked constantly about Plath:

Do you prefer books or television?
Books. But I prefer chocolate to all.

I think the majority of us do.

Thank you Peter for answering our questions!
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