Cambridge can be cruel in the Winter as Sylvia Plath tells us in her letter of January 1956: “the atrocious food, the damp cold & the unsimpatico people” . During the worst of times then, meeting up with the archivist at Newnham College recently (we became friends after finding much in common after my first visit to the archive) she told me that because of building work that had taken place at the college, she had uncovered a file which might cheer me a little. As luck would have it, Anne Thomson found the file of alumna, Sylvia Plath, who had attended the college as a Fulbright student from October 1955 to June 1957. Anne read through the file and appreciating that it contained very personal information, consulted with the college records board and suggested that she advise Frieda Hughes, Plath’s daughter, of the finding. Frieda looked at copies of the file and found it poignant; she agreed that it could be viewed by Plath scholars, but because of its intimate nature, she asked that copying and photography should not be allowed. Later then, in February, Anne allowed me to see these papers as she knew that my thesis on the Cambridge of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes would benefit from such material. She was right.
The file comprises a college registration form, completed in October 1954, with the date of intended entry to Newnham being the following year. Anne had arranged the enclosed documents chronologically; inside this form and apart from letters of reference from Smith and a statement of purpose by Plath as she applied for her funding, there are three letters which are not included in the excellent Letters of Sylvia Plath. One is to Edith Crystal at Newnham, (dated October 20 1954) requesting affiliation to the college; the second is six months later to the Principal of Newnham at the time, Ruth Cohen and the third, just a month later is again to Ruth Cohen. However, as Plath had now heard that she had been accepted to the college, she is now eager in this letter, to gain suggestions for summer reading and to wonder whether in her room she will need to sort, “bookcases, or lamps.” In her statement of purpose she writes, “I plan to become a college teacher upon completing graduate work abroad and I hope to share and interpret intelligently the knowledge and experience acquired in England by bringing back to America a rich, vital appreciation of British culture as well as British literature.” Plath shows the foresight and determination to achieve her goals that we see of her again and again when she looked, for example, for publication of her work or her husband’s Ted Hughes (she met Hughes in Cambridge in February 1956; they were married in June of the same year.) She gathers together some of her most positive contacts and requests they refer her to Newnham; she also asks that in a medical reference, that the Smith doctor, Marion Booth is brutally honest about the applicant’s attempted suicide in the late summer of 1953. Booth writes that the McLean hospital cites “delayed adolescent turmoil” as the cause for her depression and that the prognosis for recovery is “excellent.” She refers to Plath, saying that she was keen for her to be straight-talking with the university as she wanted “consideration of her to be made ‘with their eyes open.’”
The academic and character references are even more poignant: Evelyn Page from Smith writes, “Her fault is to demand too much of herself and to react too intensely”, but she finishes that she has, “no reason to qualify my respect and admiration for her.” Ruth Beuscher, Plath’s psychiatrist claims that during the summer of 1953 Plath was, “suffering from a state of mental turmoil which is highly unlikely ever to recur” and Elizabeth Drew from Smith tells the admissions office at Cambridge: “She is outstanding in both personality and intellectual gifts.” Mary Ellen Chase calls her a “literary artist” and Marion Booth, writing in her medical capacity, but also from knowing Plath from the Student Honor Board at Smith, states that she is “not psychotic” and that she had made a sustained recovery, whilst Gladys Anslow, Director of Graduate Studies at Smith, believes Plath to have the ability to check her own mood and “that she would be the first one to recognise any difficulties and to take measures to offset a recurrence.”
When from Cambridge Plath applies to renew her Fulbright scholarship, Irene Morris, Plath’s tutor at the time, describes a student who has settled well, made friends and is, “very easy to deal with; she is reliable and considerate and has an engaging friendly manner. She is an asset to the College.” The college secretary completes the file, updating Irene Morris of Plath’s progress through Newnham; she finishes: “As you remembered, she had a room at the top of the house which she liked very much and she was very thrilled with the view from her window over the gardens.”
Some of these documents will not be new to scholars who have studied Plath in the archives of America, but it is important that the file has been uncovered in the college here in England, which Plath describes as the “home of the writers I most admire.”
My thanks to Anne Thomson for allowing me to study the file and also of course to Frieda Hughes for the permission to use such personal and sensitive material about her mother.