21 November 2016

Book Review Fronts of Modernity: The 20th-Century Collections at the University of Victoria Libraries

Editor J. Matthew Huculak's Fronts of Modernity: The 20th-Century Collections at the University of Victoria Libraries (2016) is a remarkable work. He, along with the other contributors, survey the important archival collections held at the University of Victoria in Victoria, British Columbia. Published in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the special collections at the university, Fronts of Modernity is a treat for anyone interested in archives, modernism, poetry, literature, photography, art, and more. And if you have not heard of the collections at the University of Victoria, you are missing out.

Fronts of Modernity was printed in limited run (1,000 copies), but is free to download as a PDF. In the book/document, readers are treated to a smorgasbord of archival topics, from collection policies to descriptions of unique manuscripts. Throughout, there is context provided in these cohesive "letters" so that you always know how the materials fit into the mission of what the library collects, preserves, and makes available for scholarly research or personal use. In addition to excellent, riveting essays, high resolution scans compliment the expert texts written by Huculak, Jonathan Bengston, Heather Dean, Nicholas Bradley, G. Kim Blank, James Gifford, Matthew S. Adams, Elizabeth Grove-White, Stephen Ross, Christine Walde, and Michael Nowlin.

The essays are presented in a geographical fashion covering records originators from Canada, Ireland, France, Egypt, England, and America. Within each chapter/letter, there is chronological progression of themes and authors. This is not a book that requires a completely linear reading. As Huculak writes, the collections represented at UVic are an "interconnected ecosystem of material spanning thousands of years across various disciplines" (xv). The University holds papyri, but it's strength is in the modernist moment from Ezra Pound to W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot to Virginia Woolf. There is Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell. As well as Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and the Harlem Renaissance. What I loved particularly were the first essays which detail the genesis of the libraries collecting focus: from the first librarians/archivists/collectors and the players responsible for the foundation of the the university's first acquisitions. They do not forget their roots, which is so wonderful and refreshing. I feel in these pieces the writing is so enticing that if it does not give you archive fever then there is something wrong with you.

It may not surprise you that I gravitated towards Christine Walde's piece "Talking Back to The(ir) Archive: File SC060, or the Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath Collection at UVic Libraries". Christine navigates this important collections with expert precision and care. Acknowledging that the collection is small, she rightly illustrates how these papers "[correspond] to the larger archives of its creators held in other libraries and archives" (102). She asks important archival questions about the conversations that take place on either side of the page: "Did the awareness of the potential value [of their papers] inspire Plath to insert herself further into Hughes' archives? Or, as Plath's fame grew after her death, did he insert himself in her papers to present a picture of himself as poet, husband, father, executor?" In some instances one might be able to determine which came first, but in others it could be virtually impossible.

The illustrations in the book from the Plath-Hughes point of view are wonderful. They show the vibrancy of their manuscripts and typescripts, as well as the chilling realities, such as an unfinished letter from Ted Hughes to David and Assia Wevill. The letter is undated but from the evidence could be assigned to circa 27 June 1962 for Hughes mentions having been in London "yesterday" and seeing the film Last Year at Marienbad (Criterion). Plath and Hughes had traveled to London on 26 June for BBC appointments and other things, and as Mrs. Plath was at Court Green there was little reason to rush back. Last Year played at the International Film Theatre, Bayswater,

I really enjoyed Fronts of Modernity and I hope if you download a copy, or are lucky enough to have the physical book to hold, that you do too.

All links accessed 10 November 2016.

10 November 2016

Sylvia Plath's Wellesley Neighbor in The Bell Jar

One of the other things I learned on my tour of 26 Elmwood Road in August was that I got the house that inspired the description of Dodo Conway's wrong. This new information was alluded to in a post on McLean Hospital last month. I have long known that Dodo Conway was inspired by Sylvia Plath's Wellesley neighbor Betty Aldrich. The Aldrich family -- C. Duane and Betty and their nine children -- lived at 23 Elmwood Road which is across the street at a diagonal to the Plath house. The house I thought inspired Plath's description was a little further down the road. Today, the Aldrich house, like many in Wellesley and other affluent towns, appears to have been greatly improved from the way it looked in the 1950s.

Of Dodo and the Conways, Plath wrote in The Bell Jar:
Dodo Conway was a Catholic who had gone to Barnard and then married an architect who had gone to Columbia and was also a Catholic. They had a big, rambling house up the street from us, set behind a morbid fa├žade of pine trees… (1963: 122)
It was the "up the street from us" that led me to deduce the wrong house… So, I suppose this would be an instance of light fictionalization in the novel because in reality, the house is one house away at a diagonal and across the street.

Plath was not done, she continued:
Her house was unlike all the others in our neighbourhood in its size (it was much bigger) and its colour (the second storey was constructed of dark brown clapboard and the first of gray stucco, studded with grey and purple golf-ball-shaped stones), and the pine trees completely screened it from view, which was considered unsociable in our community of adjoining lawns and friendly, waist-high hedges. (1963: 122-123)
The Aldrich/Conway caricature is one of those instances in The Bell Jar where Plath wrote negatively about a person and family whom, in fact, she regarded quite dearly.

In real life, Betty Aldrich (1920-2001) was a 1941 graduate of Radcliffe College. She married C. Duane Aldrich, a lawyer, who was a graduate of both Harvard College and Harvard Law School. So you can see where Plath invented some details in an attempt to mask the real people. You can read about this remarkable woman here.

The Aldrich family moved into 23 Elmwood Road in November 1947. At that time they had three children. Plath took some lovely photographs of "Libby" Aldrich on Elmwood Road circa 1948. These she pasted onto page 9 of her High School scrapbook held by the Lilly Library with the caption: "These pictures of Libby Aldrich, the little girl across the street show how much I wanted to capture moods of a young child. She is my idea of a perfect little girl. I just wish she would never grow up!" The fourth Aldrich child was born in 1949; the fifth in 1951; the sixth in 1955; the seventh in 1956; the eighth in 1959; and the ninth in 1963 after Plath's death. The Aldriches visited Plath in the spring of 1956 while she was a student at Newnham College, University of Cambridge, and were the first Wellesleyites to meet her then new boyfriend, Ted Hughes.

So, when Plath was writing the novel in the spring and summer of 1961, the Aldriches had eight children and she changed this, slightly, to six, with seventh on the way (p. 123). Dodo is a disingenuous name, of course, and may have been used to complement the pure vanilla-ness of the name "Buddy". It also can be used in a hardly flattering way. The use of the name here may have been inspired by many things: from knowing Dido Merwin, and also being an acquaintance Eric White of the Arts Council, whose wife Edith Dorothy went by the name "Dodo". Lastly, Plath's other neighbor, Dorinda Cruickshank, went by the name 'Do'.

Here is a Google Street View screen capture of 23 Elmwood Road:

You can see two of the lone remaining pine trees along Elmwood Road. Also, some of the features on the front of the house do recall Plath's description in the novel but both the stonework and vinyl siding appear newer.There is also a line of pines extending down the eastern border of the property. Here is a view from Plath's bedroom window of the house:

You can see from this photograph, taken from Plath's bedroom window, how the Aldrich house was/is screened from view.

All links accessed 28 August and 1 November 2016.

01 November 2016

Sylvia Plath at the University of Victoria, British Columbia

As the seats in the room began to fill, the nerves left me almost immediately: like morning valley fog burning off when the sun reaches a certain point in the sky. I became instantly happy.

Jonathan Bengston (University Librarian ), Lara Wilson (Director of Special Collections and University Archivist), and Christine Walde (Plath scholar, Awesome-sauce and Grants and Awards Librarian) welcomed the standing and sitting room only crowd to Room 210 in the Mearns Centre for Learning at the University of Victoria in Victoria, British Columbia. Their comments brought the assembled listeners up to speed with the context for the lecture/talk they were about to hear. 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the Special Collections at the university. The library holds some remarkable acquisitions including manuscripts and typescripts by Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, as well as letters by Hughes. Indeed, some of the letters were written by Hughes with Plath in the room with him, giving present, still living action to Plath. Very evocative.

Don't tell anyone, but the fire code set maximum occupancy of 65 persons. 80 chairs, however were set up, and people were seated in a group up front, standing in the back, crowding the doorway. Some were even turned away. Yes, there was cake afterwards, but the UVic media relations did an excellent job of building interest not just in the talk I would give, but more importantly to their latest, fascinating acquisition.

In July I tweeted out a link (above) to a rare, interesting copy of a Victoria Lucas edition of The Bell Jar. It was a first edition, reprint. The provenance of this copy is the stuff of dreams. It belonged to Ted Hughes, who gave it to Nicholas Hughes. Upon his death in 2009, the copy then transferred ultimately to Frieda Hughes. There may have been an intermediary ownership but that at the moment is unclear. The book sustained a heavy trauma at some point, the front board being nearly severed in half. And this creasing extends through the front pastedown, front free endpaper, and into some of the preliminary pages. There are also some tears. Frieda Hughes drew over the heaviest creases: one of a zipper; another of stitches presumably a task undertaken cleverly by a mouse. An alligator nibbles at a small tear. It's one thing to see images of it; another completely to behold it and trace your fingers over it. Christine retweeted it and put a link of Facebook and Lara saw that and very shortly afterwards had secured the book for the Special Collections. Social media working to benefit our cultural heritage.

Christine and Lara invited me out to give a 45 minutes talk on Plath and the topics we agreed upon were textual variations to The Bell Jar, Plath's letters, and her archives. I was surprised at how fun and easy it was to write about these topics, and had enough time to rehearse the talk and be comfortable with the slides. Victoria, BC, is a wonderful city. My first day an unexpected thing happened: the sun was out the entire afternoon so I took advantage of the freedom to use my legs after a long transcontinental flight to explore the downtown area, Beacon Hill Park, and the coast. I gazed across the Strait of Juan de Fuca at the Olympic Mountain range in Washington State and saw snow-capped mountains. A tapas dinner at the Veneto Lounge capped off a very long day. Excellent food and the lovely company of Christine and her husband Paul, as well as a strong IPA (Fat Tug) put me in the mood for sleep. It also put in mind to start my own IPA: International Plath Association! It is another PUI (Plathing Under the Influence) for me.

Wednesday was a frenzy. I had the morning to myself and it was raining, meeting my expectations. Christine and I had lunch at the University Club with Christopher Douglas, an English professor who teaches The Bell Jar, and two Ph.D. students (Erin & Alyssa) which got us in the mood for the media. Lara Wilson and I gave a radio interview with Pamela McCall of CFax, but I have to admit the story before ours -- a couple returned home from a five-week holiday to discover squirrels had wrecked their house -- was frankly more exciting. It was, however, great that there was so much interest in the university's acquisition. We also met with a student reporter as well as Richard Watts of the Times Colonist. I had dinner on my own that night and worked on the final preparations for my talk.

It was during the media portion that I was able to see some of the library's Plath books and hold their new Victoria Lucas copy of The Bell Jar. I also got to work with their Plath and Hughes collection (SC060). THE BOOK was quite amazing to hold; and nothing compares to seeing poetry drafts and letters in person. A selection of books were going to be on display in the front of the lecture room. In addition, I was able to look through letters from Ted Hughes to Robin Skelton from circa 1961 to circa 1964.

Also on Wednesday, items were selected to be on display in the entrance area to the library.

The day arrived. Thursday, Plath's Birthday. It had the perfect set-up for disaster. I woke with a migraine, sore throat, and sinus pain. A pre-dawn run along the coast did little to make me feel any better and so I resorted to a hour long nap and ibuprofen to try to get a handle on myself. Somehow, I woke clear headed. Lunch at Thai Lemongrass at Yew Tree Corner(!) with Christine, complete with a beer called Dark Matter followed by chocolate cookies from the Dutch Bakery and coffee from Kicking Horse clarified any remaining fogginess, and I felt ready to give the talk.

Sitting in the staff lounge before the talk, looking at a large crow in a tree, I calmed myself thinking about 210, the room number where the talk was to be held. 210: Plath was born at 2:10 in the afternoon. Plath's mother saw the 2:10 showing of A Queen is Crowned in Boston on 24 August 1953. 210. Plath signed the contract for The Colossus on February 10 (2/10), 1960. My favorite typo in the first edition of The Bell Jar is page 210.  February 10, 1963: Plath's last full day of life.

Students, teachers, and townies were lined up outside the room at or before 4 o'clock. A full half-hour before the start time! We were flabbergasted that upon welcoming them at 4:15 to take seats the room was more than half-filled within minutes. More and more and more people filtered into the room and it was quickly realized that media outreach was working for this event.
After the three welcoming comments, one of which was captured above by Matt Huculak, I took to the podium and tried my best to follow the script I had prepared. I lost my place one or twice and tried to look up from the paper a couple of times per page and make eye contact. It was hardly perfect but I hope it was done well enough.
I had prepared a slideshow of 48 slides for the talk. Thanks to Claire S. Kanigan for her tweet, above. This meant there was more than one per minute, but the way it worked out some slides were up for a while, and some for too short a time. Life isn't fair. The topics upon which I spoke were: 1) the history of The Bell Jar and edits made to the novel after Plath's death; 2) working with her letters for the Letters of Sylvia Plath I co-edited with Karen V. Kukil, and 3) working with Plath's archives, which lead to the book of essays I co-wrote with Gail Crowther, These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. I think I could feel a genuine feeling of attentiveness from the audience, and there were certainly some things I discussed that I knew were so new, that I truly hope I stumped them silly. We had a good question and answer session afterwards, followed by a ridiculous crowding at the front of the room for people to see Victoria's Victoria Lucas Bell Jar.

It was determined there were at least 100 people in the room, and I was told that no event had had such a turn-out as that. Well, after all, there was cake.

Thank you again to Christine, Lara, Jonathan, and to fellow post-talk dinner attendees Matthew Huculak and Iain Higgins. Dinner at the Ferris' Oyster Bar was lovely and conversation great. In honor of Plath I had mushroom ravioli. A parting gift of a print copy of Huculak's recently edited Fronts of Modernity: The 20th-Century Collections and a UVic Libraries coffee mug and flash drive were very sweetly received. The book contains wonderful essays about their special collections, high resolution scans, and is freely available to download. I highly recommend you get a copy for yourself -- and not just for the Plath and Hughes! Also scored a doughnut from the Sidney Bakery, which, when consumed at 32,000 feet above Sault St. Marie tasted mighty fine.

Again thank you to all the students and faculty and staff and general public of Victoria for attending the event. I was spoiled rotten this week. Thank you thank you.

All links accessed 29 October 2016.
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