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. Matthew and I realized it is a small world and discussed our common acquaintance with Amanda Golden. 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.


A Piece of Plathery said...

Congratulations Peter, sounds like it went brilliantly!

Peter K Steinberg said...

Thank you Melanie! I think yes it went well. No one walked out or threw anything at me. Phew.


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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.
  • 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.