An excerpt from I Didn't Know Sylvia Plath

Janet Burroway

“. . . because to be Jewish—or Irish or Italian or African-American or, for
that matter, a woman of the fifties caught up in the first faint stirrings of feminism—was to be compelled to fake it in a thousand small ways, to
pass as one thing when, deep inside, you were something else.”
 —Malcolm Gladwell, True Colors

The note in my Cambridge Pocket Diary for Saturday, 7 May 1960 reads “Ted & Sylvia dinner,” but doesn’t give an hour or an address. The diary otherwise contains a wonder of information. Two-and-a-half inches by four, its tissue-thin pages massed to a mere quarter-inch, it nevertheless records the hour of every sunrise and -set, dates of eclipses and bank holidays, the schedules of trains, coaches, libraries, botanical gardens and the closing of The Back Gates. It lists academic society meetings for Lent, Michaelmas and Easter terms; the rugby, hockey and cricket meets, the Moveable Feasts, the University Officers and the phone numbers of the colleges—though in my experience no student had a phone. It gives the Order of The Boats. It dates the dread Exams.

My own pencilled entries are more tantalizing. Paging backward from the Ted and Sylvia dinner, I easily recall “(David) Daiches” and “Maggie (Drabble)” and “Eleanor (Bron),” but not “Fenner’s” or “Braithewaite” or “Jack.”  There was a “Commemoration Dinner” on Saturday April 23rd, but what it commemorated I no longer memorate. I remember the meeting with “Dadie (Rylands),” and—here it is: Thursday, April 21st, “Faber—6:0.” 

That was the publisher’s reception at Russell Square where we’d run into each other, and about which Sylvia wrote to her mother and brother on April 26th, excited to be back among the literati, preening at others’ amazement that she had given birth only three weeks before. The tone of her letter is postpartum-manic, the party sandwiched between plans for dinner with the Spenders and the Eliots and new success with her poems at The Atlantic Monthly. She describes me as a “lively American girl” whose novel Faber is publishing and “whose path crossed mine often in America,” and mentions that she has invited me and my Indian poet friend to spaghetti dinner. Then she goes on to boast of her husband’s arty friends, and of drinking champagne while feeling “very grand and proud of Ted.”

The Faber reception took place in the heady spring of the Hugheses’ burgeoning: their daughter’s birth, a book apiece, projects for the BBC, even the flow of a little money. It would be nearly three years before the marriage blew apart, before Sylvia wrote her great poems and committed suicide, and so set in motion a hagiographic industry. At the time it must have seemed that fame could be grasped as an act of will, with no more sturm than ambition had already stirred in them.

But I don’t know that. I didn’t know Sylvia Plath, and this piece is not about her but about me—or about a particular kind of lit-and-print-mad girl of the fifties, whose thwarted hunger augured a shift in what we mean by marriage.

The paths Sylvia mentions had crossed more often than we ourselves had met. I had followed her at Seventeen, Mademoiselle, Mount Holyoke’s Glascock Poetry Contest, and Cambridge University. As winners in that prize round, precursors partly of liberation but also of the brat pack of the eighties, we had lived in separate years at the Barbizon Hotel and at Whitstead House in Cambridge; had at separate times worked under Cyrilly Abels and Polly Weaver at Mademoiselle, studied Tragedy with Kathleen Burton at Cambridge and gone to David Daiches’ lectures on The Modern Novel, published in the university magazine Granta, suffered through Miss Abbott’s stilted teas and Mrs. Milne’s Sunday morning kippers at Whitstead House, and been the token leggy American at the Amateur Dramatic Club. Now I had like Ted landed in the Faber stable, to be curried by the portly editor Charles Monteith, who was both kind and shrewd.

But there were oddities in that crossing of roads-less-traveled. The annual Mademoiselle Guest Editor Contest brought twenty girls to New York for the month of June to work on the College issue of the magazine. I had won this jaunt from the University of Arizona in 1955, two years after Sylvia, and my first assignment was to write a news item on her Glascock Prize. I had never heard of Sylvia Plath. I struggled in a sort of controlled envy to arrange the boring facts. I wrote home, “I’m so sick of writing little news stories and having them edited from bad to worse.” I was taken off that job and set to writing the College Issue’s editorial, the required perky tone of which set my teeth on edge. I complained to my parents, “Couldn’t they just call us something else? So far we haven’t been treated like guests and we certainly haven’t edited.” The interns that year included Joan Didion and Jane Truslow (who became my one confidante among the group, and would later marry Sylvia’s ex-boyfriend Peter Davison), writer Gael Greene and designer Adri Steckling, fifteen others in various stages of anxiety, ambition and self-doubt. I was sometimes dismissive of my fellow GE’s, sometimes grateful; sometimes “Everyone else seemed to know what they were doing and seemed to be getting it done fast and well. . . .” My desert background was a dubious badge; I flaunted it, but deep inside I knew I was a yokel. I recoiled from Betsy Talbot Blackwell, who sailed between the mirrors of the editorial room waving her cigarette holder, adjuring us to “Believe in Pink.” But I admitted in my letters that, “Personally, I think parts of it have been pretty glamorous.” Sylvia’s fictional evocation of the Mlle. month in The Bell Jar was eight years away. We were made gifts of, stuffed into, or ushered along to ogle the fashions that were armored even to their names—stiletto, sheath, cinch. Underneath each of us wore the bra that conjured Amazons and was later resurrected by Madonna as outerwear, stitched in stiff concentric circles to a point. Alternately bored and dazzled at photo ops and Trigère showings, depressed and anxious to impress, I faked it in Milliken plaids and an energy that verged on shrill; and it did not then occur to me that any of the others could be scared and judgmental in equal parts. Nor, certainly, did it ever cross my mind that Sylvia Plath might have written at length to her brother about the elation, depression, shock, revelations, exhaustion, apathy of that month of “living very hard and newly.” 

Sylvia’s letters do not describe the pivotal perk of the Mademoiselle month, the ball on the roof of the St. Regis, but The Bell Jar neatly dismisses its starlit glamour, satirizes the Ivy Leaguers in their “All-American bone structures” on loan to squire the novice editors, and mocks her own fake lamé top above its “big, fat cloud of tulle.”

But I was eighteen, a virginal Methodist Phoenix freshman who had never had a cigarette or a drink, not yet blasé about bone structure, and the occasion hornswoggled me entirely. My bodice was flame-colored nylon shirred onto a big, fat cloud of the same stuff. My letter home, written in the middle of the night after the ball, details my earrings, the chandeliers, hors d’oeuvres (“the cheapest thing on the menu is $5.25 and the steaks are $12.50”), dessert & demitasse, “with a waiter pouring fresh gravy on the meat or filling the water glass every time I took a bite,” and especially the “unpretty intellectual boy who talked fascinating serious politics and Europe and literature all the way through dinner,” a poet on his way to Oxford on a Fulbright Scholarship, who escorted me back to the Barbizon by way of “a ride through Cent. Park in a Hansom Cab. This is the New York I had in mind!”