14 November 2017

Letter in November: A London Postscript to the Sylvia Plath Conference

[This blog post was mostly written after/during too much to drink, at nearly "Midnight in the mid-Atlantic" on my flight back, back, back to Boston (not "On Deck", but far, far, back in coach...) ~pks]

I am so stupidly happy. After leaving Belfast, after such wonderful days at the Conference, after too many night of getting too little sleep, after meeting so many wonderful people and after having so many wonderful conversations, I had a long, six-hour layover in Heathrow airport before my connecting flight from Belfast to Boston. The idea of spending just about as much time in the airport as I would in the plane was unpalatable; so I decided it was worth the effort to zip into London for at least two hours; to make my way of course to Primrose Hill; to walk around and be beaten by wind, rain, air, sun: whatever the elements were offering that unknown day in the future when plans were made.

After learning that someone whom I have wanted to meet for years was unable to make the Sylvia Plath Conference in Belfast, Nick Smart and I coordinated to meet for a little walk about and lunch. Nick was at the Plymouth Uni talk back in March 2013 that Gail Crowther and I gave but had to bolt immediately after as he had traveled a long way to attend and have a long evening's, a long night's drive back home. To my delight Nick brought his wife (and most definitely his better half, sorry, Nick), Kathrine, and we three met at 3 Chalcot Square. A more perfect postscript to Maeve O'Brien's conference could not have been planned.

Plath's plaque is still very English Heritage blue; but the house is now pink. Previously yellow, lavendar (sic., to spell it like Plath did), and ages ago white, this soft color is the most, perhaps, befitting Plath's memory in the memory of the house. Having been previously in the flat I pointed out the bedroom window as well as the two living room windows. We walked the very short walk to 23 Fitzroy Road; now free of the scaffolding that enfolded it on my last couple of visits. The brick work is clearly clean; and the mid-autumn weather and sun could haven't been better than it was on this Remembrance Sunday to remember Sylvia Plath. The golden hue of the trees at Primrose Hill in at the end of the street were like a shock of daffodils, in a way.

We lunched at the Princess of Wales on the northeastern corner of the intersection of Chalcot Road and Fitzroy Road. A superb meal with excellent gossip and conversation about the conference --- oh! wouldn't you like to know! (like Plath's "Mirror"; I was "not cruel, only truthful")--- (As an aside, the Camden Pale Ale is brilliant).

After lunch we were going to re-stalk both Plath houses when I decided to slightly trespass at 3 Chalcot Square. I had remembered from my previous visit with Gail on 8 February 2014, that "Morton" was still listed as the occupant on the door buzzer for the attic flat. Morton being the surname of Mary, who is memorialized in several of Plath's letters but also perhaps more poignantly in Plath's "Leaving Early". I scooched up the walkway to the door and then exclaimed, "She's still listed"... though long deceased... and Nick and Kathrine came to look...

It was then the front door opened and the owner of the house appeared before us. Dr. Glover was as I remembered him from my first two meetings: jovial, friendly, welcoming. As it turned out, the flat on the second floor (third, American) was vacant and he invited us actually to tour the flat! He disappeared to find the keys and left us on our own. This feels like one of those strange Plath convergence-coincidences that I suspect we have all encountered at one time or another? And so, like the panther of "Pursuit", we three started "Coming up and up the stairs."

We unlocked the door and were faced with a nearly empty flat; barren of evidence of the lives I last encountered. It looked, as such, both bigger and smaller. We toured each room, looking at walls, ceilings, floors, windows, the pink flamingo shower curtain. The dust show where the tenants never cleaned; the floorboards creaked, the sun dazzled in the south facing kitchen windows and the Square burst with color of trees and grass and the painted faces of houses. It was a most unreal, but a very real experience to be back in these rooms in a situation that could never, ever, have been imagined after the last memorable time.

Stairs from ground floor

Stair landing

Bedroom doorway into hall,
where TH set up a card table to write


Bedroom (living through door on right)

The living room

Living room from Kitchen
Kitchen from hallway, ©Nick Smart

Kitchen, ©Nick Smart

Nick and me
Dr. Glover came to check on us as only was right to do as we had been in the flat, flabberghasted with confused surreal delight, for 15 or so minutes. In the back of my mind was "I have to get back to Heathrow", but it was the last thing I could for myself to do, to willingly leave this space. He told us a few anecdotes and then we descended the carpeted stairs, in shock, in awe, in the aura of Plath. I was kindly driven to Paddington (after too kindly being treated to lunch) where we said our too-soon goodbyes. But it was perhaps the best possible, most purely lucky postscript one might get to what was a impossible to believe dream of a conference in Belfast.

Left view from living room window

View looking straight down from living room window

Right view (towards Fitzroy Road) from living room window

Work, the next day, within twelve hours of touching down at Boston Logan, was an insult.

What I hope though, is that these photographs and this exceedingly dodgy video, conveys some of the space of this house, of this ghostly, living archive...

Here is a two or so minute video from inside the flat. I apologize if the quality is awful:

All links accessed: 14 November 2017.


Kristina Zimbakova said...

This is absolutely surreal to occur after the conference! Synchronicity is a small word to contain it.

Anna said...

OMG! This is giving me the chills! What an amazing postscript! For you, and in a way for all of us, as the video was the best idea ever! Thank you so much for this!
Also, you couldn't have put it better... today's work was such total insult! How can I do all these down-to-earth things, while my mind is still in a parallel Plath universum???

rdalpay said...

This gave me goosebumps. Thanks so much for posting.

Anonymous said...

This is incredible! Thank you.

Rehan Qayoom said...

Definitely a Plath "convergence-coincidence" as well as a sort of two thumbs up from Plath from the beyond to conclude the conference with.

Eva Stenskar said...

I agree; what a wonderful end to the conference for you!

Amy Rea said...

Wow wow wow! Thanks for having the presence of mind to take the video! I think I would have been so gobsmacked that it would never have occurred to me.

The Plath Diaries said...

Just unbelievable Peter!!!

The kitchen is nothing like I imagined it!!

Anonymous said...

I am practically screaming with delight! So giddy at seeing the pics/viewing the video. Love it. Thank you so much for this post.


Peter K Steinberg said...

Thank you everybody for your kind and thoughtful comments. I'm not sure why that door really opened and allowed us in but I'm certainly happy that it did. Really was the icing on the proverbial cake. And I love cake. ~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.
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 2, 1956-1963. London: Faber, 2018.
  • 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.