These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath by Gail Crowther and Peter K. Steinberg

Reviewed by Karen Langley

You could be forgiven for thinking that the last thing the world needs is yet another book about the poet, writer and artist Sylvia Plath. She’s one of my favourite authors and I have shelves of books by and about her, yet there are probably more that I don’t have than I do. So you might ask what makes this new work from Fonthill Media so special; because special it certainly is, throwing fascinating light on Plath’s life, work and what she left behind when she took her own life in 1963.

Crowther (based in the UK) and Steinberg (based in the USA) are notable Plath scholars with much experience working across the range of Plath’s archives. Both have been involved in publications of all sorts about Plath, but the focus of this book is unusual and interesting. When you think about an author’s archive, you think of a repository of some kind, a room or a library where things are stored carefully in boxes and files for researchers to access. You visualise it in a single, confined location, but an archive is not always, as might be imagined, held in one place.

As becomes clear from reading this book, Sylvia Plath’s archive stretches far and wide. She was a prolific writer, and her journals, letters, drafts and working papers are held in a number of organisations all over the world, most notably her alma mater, Smith College. However, there are also items held in private collections; materials that the BBC holds from her involvement with their radio broadcasts; and the authors even extend their definition of an archive to include echoes of Plath that can be found in physical items and places, creating a particularly individual and distinctive ‘collection’ which builds up a very nuanced image of the writer.

The book’s chapters are mostly set out as a kind of transatlantic dialogue between the two authors, as each pursues a different yet related strand of research, and it’s an absolutely fascinating way to present a book. Each section focuses on a different aspect – the BBC archives, physical items like Plath’s clothes and hair, Smith College and her time there, photographs, lost novels and journals – and the authors relay their findings as they explore these specific items within the various archive sources. They reveal the existence of some fascinating misplaced Plath items, including unseen photographs and lost poems, as well as hovering tantalisingly on the subject of Plath’s missing second novel and also the lost journal entries from her final years. By examining carbon paper used by both Plath and Hughes, they discovered some unseen poems which is a very exciting find. It would have been nice to see some of these poems in the book, but their absence is probably down to Plath’s estate.

The chapter on the physical objects in the archive – hair, prom dress, slippers – addresses head on the issue of whether it is seemly or not to engage with a dead person’s relics, and points out how it is only in modern, Western culture that we’re uncomfortable about such things. Certainly, both authors seem to respond positively to encounters with personal objects owned by, and once part of, Plath and feel that it can bring about a closer understanding of one’s subject by contact with their ephemera and personal possessions. Objects themselves can have an intrinsic presence and importance in an archive, and Plath’s hair in particular seems to have a very strong symbolic value.

However, as well as detailing their exploits within the various branches of Plath’s archive, this fascinating hybrid work also questions the whole nature of an archive itself. The authors examine the sociological aspects of an archive, considering the effect that rummaging in the past, and in what is in effect another person’s personal belongings, can have on the researcher. The book makes it very plain that researching an archive consists of a lot of detective work, piecing together, jigsaw-like, scattered elements from disparate sources that only actually make sense when juxtaposed. I ended up wishing that all of Plath’s papers could be gathered in one place so that scholars could really delve in depth into the nuances of her working life and the development of her poems, in particular, and also track down some of the items which have gone astray.

As for the title of the book, well, that ties in with the whole discussion of the nature of an archive; certainly both authors had a strong sense of Plath’s presence when holding materials she had held and working with physical relics of hers. The authors in some ways haunt the archive themselves, and the study of Plath’s work and life almost becomes a dialogue between past and present as the boundaries between the two become blurred.

These Ghostly Archives was a really fascinating read. The book features some marvellous photos in its plates section – unseen images of Plath, memorabilia, pictures of significant places in her life – all of which can bring us closer to the real woman and artist. There is obviously a significant amount of material in Plath’s archives which has never been seen by the general reader, and I (as one of those) would love to be able to see more of the unpublished photos, poems, letters and journals. Until more of these are released, however, this book is an excellent exploration of some of the materials in the archive, and gives a deeper understanding of Plath’s life and work.

Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and has often been haunted by thoughts of Sylvia Plath.

Gail Crowther and Peter K. Steinberg, These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath (Fonthill Media, 2017). 978-1781555941, 191pp, paperback.

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6 Comments

  1. This looks really interesting, I shall add it to the list. I’ve only read The Bell Jar and read a little bit about her online, but what I have read of her work really touched me, so painfully honest and vulnerable.

  2. I was thinking just that question – Does the world need another book on Sylvia Plath – as I started reading your review and you’ve completely convinced me. This book looks brilliant. Something about Plath seems to encourage biographers to write slightly unusual biographies that range beyond a straightforward examination of the writer’s life to something larger – have you read the Janet Malcolm one, I forget the title (ha, I bet you have!)?

    1. Despite there being such a plethora of Plath books, this is definitely worth seeking out. And yes, I own the Malcolm book but I really can’t remember if I’ve read it!!!

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