The following is a guest blog post by Natalie Hurt, University of Sheffield, on visiting the University of Cambridge and working in with the Anne Stevenson archive. Thank you, Natalie! ~pks
For pretty much the entire time I have been researching Sylvia Plath, the worldwide pandemic has been looming over my head. That has meant no travel and no library visits for me and has limited my experience of archives to purely online encounters – which is still exciting but isn’t the same! So, when restrictions started to lift in the UK, and my dissertation supervisor suggested I go to Cambridge to look at the Anne Stevenson papers in their university archives, I knew I had to go. I’m currently writing my MA dissertation on the Sylvia Plath estate and their efforts to control Plath’s biography, so the Anne Stevenson papers seemed essential to my argument. Cambridge is also one of the many stops that any Plath devotee will make at one point or another, which made going there all the more exciting. The thought of walking through the gardens at Newnham College, the very gardens Plath herself walked amongst, felt surreal. Newnham College was the first stop on my list.
The University of Cambridge is so very different from the university I attend, The University of Sheffield, (Sheffield has its charms but it’s definitely not Cambridge!) so walking through the campus felt, well, strange. Like I was the odd one out, and like someone might notice, as I stared at the map on my phone, that I’m not from here, and that I don’t really know what I’m doing – perhaps Plath felt similarly on her arrival? Though I’m sure she didn’t have Google maps to guide her! It certainly didn’t help that everyone (and I mean everyone) was riding bicycles. I felt rather like Plath did in February 1956 when she wrote in her journal after leaving her bike to be repaired: ‘feeling lost, pedestrian, impotent’. But I didn’t feel lost when I got to Newnham – I’d finally found the place I was looking for. A little bit like when I visited Hebden Bridge, there was this sudden palpable feeling. It’s a feeling that I cannot describe. I think it’s a closeness. When I stood in Newnham gardens, as when I stood by Plath’s grave, I felt so close to this extraordinary woman. I was walking in her steps. Plath wrote to her mother: ‘I walk daily, up & down the formal gravel paths’ and now I have walked that gravel path too! And it was so beautiful. I felt as though I’d stepped into that black and white photo of Plath stood on the field in front of the college holding her books (you know, the one where she’s wearing those excellent argyle socks), and suddenly it had turned to colour!
Spending time in the library doing archival research for the first time was another wonderful, yet rather scary experience. Having only ever had archival material sent to my email inbox before, actually being able to go to the library in person and being able to physically hold the papers was almost daunting. I was worried I was going to do something wrong, hold the papers the wrong way, and show myself to be the archive amateur I knew I was – show myself to be the make-believe academic I was clearly pretending to be. I was in Cambridge for three days in total and I spent most of those days in the library trying to look at as much material as possible, and over the course of those three days, I definitely eased into the role of the reader. I learnt my way to the reading room without following directions, and the person at the reception desk even learnt my name. When I walked into the library on my final day (after waiting for the COVID secure traffic light system to turn green, indicating it was safe for me to enter), the man said, ‘booking for Hurt, is it?’. Yes, that’s me! Suddenly I did not feel like the imposter I first felt I was.
Though I managed to look at all the material I was going to need, three days definitely wasn’t enough time to indulge in all the papers had to offer. I could have spent months there! I went planning to focus mainly on the correspondence concerning Bitter Fame and trust me, those letters did not disappoint. I already had an idea in my head of the sort of thing I’d encounter, as I’d read about this correspondence before, but the real experience is almost indescribable. Holding these fragile pieces of paper, some of them nearly 40 years old, typed out imperfectly, covered in annotations to correct mistakes, to add in thoughts missed – and in Olwyn Hughes’s case, to add in some very formidable digs at Anne Stevenson – I realise I am holding a piece of history. I recently reread Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman in preparation for my dissertation, in which Malcolm quotes Stevenson’s own experience of archival research at the Lilly Library. Reading Plath’s letters, Stevenson writes ‘these letters, these breathing pieces of paper, brought her to life for me’, and this is how I felt in the Special Collections reading room at Cambridge. I know that letters, in some cases, can be the ultimate performance art. They can spread gossip, form agendas, and tell lies (the letters I looked at in Cambridge are prime examples of this), but letters also bring the writer to life in the most remarkable way, in ways that I think other forms of writing often fail to capture. When I read Olwyn and Anne’s letters, I could hear their voices in my head, as I felt the paper breathing in my hands.
On my way back to the train station after my final library visit, I thought I’d try my luck at finding the house Plath lived in on Barton Road, as I’d failed to find it on my initial visit to Newnham on the first day. I was determined not to go home without seeing it. Again, using Google maps to guide me down Barton Road, I almost completely missed it. There was a turn into a field, and I thought, surely it’s not down there, but it was, all hidden and tucked away. I couldn’t believe I’d almost missed it! It was clear that it was still being used for accommodation, so I took care to be discreet with my photo taking, trying not to attract any attention, and I snapped a rather obscure shot of the roof. If anyone else was to look, they’d probably think it was just any old roof, but I knew that wasn’t the case. And as I made my way to the station, I felt very smug about the little journey I’d just taken.