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.


A Piece of Plathery said...

Thank you for the photos here to Peter as well as your usual interesting information :)

Peter K Steinberg said...

Thank you for your comment, Madame Plathery!! It's nice to see a quasi Plath's-eye view, no? ~pks

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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.