Upcycled, mixed media artwork by Keely Jane
"Freud famously could not talk about mothers." —Jacqueline Rose
It had been a rainy night in Georgia, and there followed a rainy day. Four miles north of Milledgeville proper and directly across from the Super Inn & Suites, the modest, close-to-earth sign marking the entrance to Flannery O'Connor's Andalusia wasn't easy to spot and required, in response, a hard swerve left across two lanes of oncoming traffic. A narrow dirt road threaded through a quarter mile stand of woods, that last bit of journeying encouraging the visitor to forget the chain motel, four-lane highway, and traffic at one's back the better to appreciate the revelation ahead: Flannery Territory, preserved. The two-story, red metal-roofed farmhouse the writer called home for the last 13 years of her abbreviated life, its front steps and yard immortalized in numerous photos, prime among them Andalusia visitor Katherine Anne Porter in hat and pearls, shoe heels sinking in the grassy dirt as she made her departure amid peacocks. The outbuilding cluster that had formed the set of the PBS production of O'Connor's "The Displaced Person," Mrs. McIntyre made flesh by actress Irene Worth. The front porch/rocking chair vista of pasture, pond, and trees.
The couple pacing near the house's locked back door, starting point for the interior tour, quickly overturned my assumption that most who made it this far nursed an interest in all things Flannery. Allman Brothers fans, they were in town for a concert by sons of the original band members, and their bed and breakfast proprietor had suggested the Andalusia tour as a way of passing time before their evening's main event. While the man of the pair groused and scowled, his female companion took direct action, pounding on the door. It was not the first time she'd pounded and been ignored, she told me, but it was to be the last. The two huffed off to their car.
Hurry gets you nowhere in the South.
Not that I was complaining.
Their high dudgeon exit meant I got a private tour.
Commentators' descriptions of the main house have ranged from "austere" (O'Connor biographer Brad Gooch) to "unpretentious" (Saturday Review) to a "very, very lovely, old southern home" (Sister Loretta Costa, family friend). In the back room that doubled as ticket kiosk and gift shop, the wooden floor slanted, a space heater roared, and damp crept in around the patchily sealed window. Although I felt thoroughly at home, when Regina Cline O'Connor and daughter moved house in 1951 to accommodate Flannery's illness, they must have considered their new lodgings a comedown from the family's in-town setup on Greene Street, often referred to as the "Cline mansion" and once the temporary quarters of a Georgia governor. My tour, conducted by a student at Georgia College, Flannery's alma mater, started in the kitchen, pride of place going to the Hotpoint refrigerator Flannery had purchased for her mother after selling the TV rights to her short story "The Life You Save May Be Your Own." I was more drawn to what perched atop the appliance: a silver-plated bar set with martini shaker and glasses. Well documented: Flannery's end-of-the-day cocktail at Sally and Robert Fitzgerald's home in Connecticut, but did that tradition continue with Regina on the Andalusia porch, sun setting? My tour guide couldn't swear to it, one way or the other, though she could swear, with confidence, that the curtains in the house were all sewn by Regina. In the evenings, after supper, "Mrs. O'Connor's sewing machine" was always "running in the back of the house," according to Mary Barbara Tate. When Regina hung "revolting ruffled curtains" in Flannery's room, her daughter demanded their immediate removal, "lest they ruin my prose." Flannery won that round. Regina's style was markedly frillier than her daughter's—in window treatments and in dress—but, when necessary, as seamstress, she privileged the practical. Also according to Mary Barbara Tate, Regina stitched up a "very handsome... dark green coat, without sleeves but with a cape down to the mid-forearm, so that Flannery could use her crutches more easily."
Andalusia visitors such as myself come primarily to gaze upon one sacred space: the west-side, first-floor converted parlor, which served as both Flannery's bedroom and workroom. The single bed. The books. The crutches. The crucifix. The writing desk shoved smack against the armoire. As in any guided tour, one can't dash off in the interests of getting where she wants to go, though as soon as we exited the dining/reception room, I tried.
"Before we get to Flannery's room," my tour guide said, redirecting my attention to the open door at the back of the hallway, beyond which stood Regina's desk and Regina's desk chair, facing the front porch.
"From where Regina sat, she could see all comers," my tour guide emphasized. "Anyone showing up wanting to see Flannery had to deal with Regina first."
Thus prompted, I took a moment to appreciate Regina's gatekeeper post and view, desk to porch, my head swiveling to and fro. When again I locked eyes with my 20-year-old informant, she nodded slowly, meaningfully.
Everybody's got one.
Mary Flannery O'Connor got Regina. Sylvia Plath Hughes got Aurelia.
Regina Lucille Cline, born in 1896 in Milledgeville, grew up in a prominent blended family, the seventh of Peter James Cline's nine children with Margaret Treanor, whom he married after first wife Kate, Margaret's sister and the mother of seven of his children, died. Regina's father made his money in the dry goods business and once served as Milledgeville's mayor. In Brad Gooch's description: "As a young daughter of a first family in town, Regina was often sassy" (Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor). A less even-handed biographer would label Regina an entitled brat. As a child, adolescent, and young woman, Regina Cline expected to have her way. After graduating from boarding school in Augusta, she returned to Milledgeville and met her future husband at her brother Herbert's wedding to Edward O'Connor's sister. Both Regina and Edward were on the rebound, Regina's previous suitor withdrawing from the field because his Protestant family objected to her Catholicism. Engaged less than three months after meeting, Edward and Regina wed in the fall of 1922, both twenty-six.
A World War I veteran, Edward tried to make a go of it in real estate and in Savannah established the Dixie Realty Company. The couple lived in a modest apartment until Regina's family saw fit to upgrade their housing to a townhouse on Charlton Street, where Mary Flannery, as Regina persisted in calling her daughter throughout her life, was born in 1925. Flannery called her parents Ed and Regina. It is the opinion of Sister Loretta Costa that "Miss Regina knew early on she and her husband would never have another child," knowledge that contributed to Regina's overprotective behavior towards her only child. What Costa called overprotective, others called snooty. The littlest O'Connor attended adult mass with her parents. She was driven to and from school, and Regina decided which children Flannery would play with and which she would not. To improve the family's financial situation, Edward took a job as a real estate appraiser with the Federal Housing Administration, employment requiring a move to Atlanta. Regina did not take to living in Atlanta. In short order, she and Flannery returned to Milledgeville, sharing the Cline house with three women relatives. On weekends Edward made the commute to Milledgeville until, in declining health due to lupus, he joined Regina and Flannery at 311 West Greene Street full time. Three years later he was dead. Age 15, Flannery lost a father. Age 45, Regina became a widow.
Aurelia Frances Schober Plath, the eldest of three children, was born in 1906 in Boston and named for her mother. Her father, Frank Schober, and Aurelia senior were both born in Austria and had married in Boston in 1905. Frank worked as an accountant, his income sufficient to relocate his family to the coastal suburb of Winthrop before trouble came calling in the form of disastrous stock market investments. Thereafter, Aurelia senior handled the family's finances. Because of that shift in familial dynamics, Aurelia junior, in her own description, "grew up in a matriarchy." The salutatorian of her high school class, Aurelia the younger longed to attend Wellesley College but settled for a bachelor's degree at less costly Boston University instead. Pursuing a master's degree in English and German, also at Boston University, she took a Middle High German class taught by Otto Plath.
In her introduction to Letters Home, the volume of daughter Sylvia's familial correspondence she edited with vigor, Aurelia Plath hints at a pre-Otto romantic attachment to an MIT professor with whom she'd worked on a translation project. Because the two "worked into the early evening... we often had dinner together," she writes, describing how she "listened, fascinated" to her tablemate, "fully realizing I was in the presence of a true genius in both the arts and sciences." Whatever the genius's feelings for Aurelia, the relationship didn't pan out. Otto, 22 years older than Aurelia, stepped into the breach, inviting her on a weekend getaway to his colleagues' farm, where he confessed to being a husband of 14 years who'd not seen his wife in 13 of them. In January 1932, Otto obtained a Nevada divorce and, Aurelia at his side, remarried the same day. The newest Plath couple was keen to start a family right away. Sylvia was born in October 1932, brother Warren in 1935. Far less keen to quit her teaching job at Brookline High School to become a fulltime homemaker, Aurelia, as she writes, "yielded to her husband's wish." Thereafter, in Aurelia's introduction—composed "in answer to the avalanche of inquiries" about Sylvia and providing Sylvia's mother the opportunity to disclose the "crucial decisions and ruling forces" in her own life—husband Otto loses even more of his sparkle. His childrearing notions were outdated. As a couple they had no social life. He hogged the purse strings. At home, he assumed an "attitude of 'rightful' dominance." Despite worsening symptoms of diabetes, he refused to see a doctor. A stubbed toe became infected. Gangrene set in, requiring the amputation of his leg. Illness increased his tyrannical tendencies. He died from an embolism in the lung. Aurelia was 34; Sylvia, eight.
When her father died, Flannery retreated to the attic to draw and write. Sylvia made grand pronouncements: "I'll never speak to God again." Flannery did not speak of her father. Sylvia did not write of hers in her 1940s journal, nor did she mention Otto to her best friend at the time. Two heartbroken, daddy-less girls, their wellbeing now reliant on the survival skills and fortitude of single mothers in a working world that did not favor females. Given the unhappy state of her marriage, Aurelia might have felt relief at escaping the bonds of that entanglement if not for the financial strain a partner-less existence imposed. Otto had no pension. The payout to his modest life insurance policy was quickly spent. More than 35 years later, Aurelia remained aggrieved and resentful of her circumstance, telling interviewer Linda Heller a variation of what she'd said on record many times before: "Here I was, a widow with two young children to support. I had a man's responsibilities, but I was making a single woman's salary." Aurelia worked first as a substitute teacher, then snagged a full time position at Winthrop Junior High School. She left that position when Boston University hired her to teach medical secretaries in its College of Practical Arts, after which she sold the Winthrop house to buy where once she'd hoped to matriculate: Wellesley, Massachusetts. To save on expenses, she and her parents merged households. Aurelia senior took care of the housekeeping and cooking; Frank Schober contributed to the income pool by continuing to work as a Brookline Country Club waiter during the week and rejoining his family on weekends.
When Edward succumbed to lupus, Regina's family also stepped up. Brother Bernard Cline arranged for Regina to take bookkeeping instruction so she could manage the 550-acre dairy farm, the current Andalusia, he had purchased in the early 1930s, thereby providing his sister with an income. Regina took to her new responsibilities with gusto. As farm manager, she handled milk orders and billing, oversaw building improvements, and directed the farm workers, the once "comely Southern belle" now "feisty, formidable widow" proving herself to be a "natural" at the job (Gooch). As joint inheritor with brother Louis of the farm and business, Regina continued to improve the bottom line. She converted Andalusia from a dairy farm to a more profitable beef farm, regularly bid and won at all-male auctions, sold timber rights for $25,000 more than expected and, once she and Flannery moved onsite, drove the property in her stick-shift Chevy, keeping an eye on one and all.
As a widow, Aurelia Plath had a harder time making ends meet—a hardship her daughter perceived and internalized. (As a scholarship student at Smith and earlier, Sylvia scrupulously accounted for every expenditure.) Indisputably, the widow O'Connor held the professional advantage, breaking barriers and accumulating dividends. But as a mother, Regina O'Connor knew she lived on borrowed time, acutely aware that the same disease that had killed her husband would kill her daughter and likely kill her soon.
Aurelia, in her own reporting, went out of her way to pass along her own literary tastes and ambitions to Sylvia and nurture her daughter's interest in writing. "From the time Sylvia was born I recited poetry... to her. She grew up in rhythm," she told a New York Times reporter in 1979. In the O'Connor family, Edward counted as the artistically-inclined parent. Having achieved her own success, Flannery confided to correspondent Betty Hester: "Whatever I do in the way of writing makes me extra happy in the thought that it is a fulfillment of what (my father) wanted to do himself." In Edward's absence, however, Regina made sure her artistic daughter secured a spot on the Peabody High School newspaper and found a public platform for her cartoons and prose. As Peabody's art editor, Flannery gained experience and confidence that funneled her toward the editorship of her college's literary magazine, which also featured her sly cartoons. For those determined to regard Regina as a "benighted... philistine," Creating Flannery O'Connor author Daniel Moran advises a rethink. "She supported Flannery in her habit of art throughout her life, a life which she lived with Regina for all but five of her thirty-nine years."
Much has been made of Regina's and Flannery's differences in temperament, particularly Regina's garrulousness versus Flannery's close-mouthed, watchful silence, not to say sullenness, in the presence of certain company, leaving the public performances to her mother. (Many a Southern daughter has ceded the same.) In a Southern Quarterly article, David Davis pegs Regina "a gregarious, overbearing extrovert," Flannery, "a sarcastic, intellectual introvert." Family friend Cecil Dawkins spins the dynamic a bit differently, giving props to "great raconteur" Regina, who would regale her audience with "all she had seen and heard that morning in town," Flannery absorbing the details for other use. The social maven had given birth to a child "never... sweet or docile," according to Margaret Uhler, another family friend. Nor did Flannery grow "sweeter" with age. Of the adult O'Connor, poet Alfred Corn observed: "If she had something to say, even though it might not seem all that nice, she said it... She was quite sharp... not easily tolerant of people's foolishness." For someone coping with unremitting physical pain, tolerance might not have seemed worth the effort.
Aurelia Plath believed, and fervently argued, she and her daughter were kindred spirits. Between them existed "a sort of psychic osmosis." They "shared a love of words," "enjoy(ed) long talks about books, music, paintings," discussed how works of art made them "feel," preferred to convey "words of appreciation, admiration, and love" in writing rather than "express these emotions verbally." The "remark" of Sylvia's she "most treasured" and carefully reproduced in her own journal, was a comment uttered by Sylvia, age 15: "'When I am a mother I want to bring up my children just as you have us'" (Letters Home). As a 30-year-old mother herself, Sylvia thought differently, writing to psychiatrist Ruth Beuscher of her "fear" of "being like" Aurelia: "I don't want Frieda (Sylvia's daughter) to hate me as I hated my mother."
What Georgian Regina O'Connor and Bostonian Aurelia Plath held in common was a certain gendered attitude. Both prized conformity. Both towed the social line. And both—despite Regina's involvement in the rough and tumble business world—thought of themselves as "ladies" and comported themselves accordingly. Aurelia applied that same standard to her prose—with unfortunate results, in the opinion of Letters Home reviewer Maureen Howard, who considered Aurelia's prologue: "so lady-like as to be maddening." The Regina quote that most bolsters her philistine reputation, supplied to posterity by Flannery's editor, Robert Giroux, also concerns decorum: "Mr. Giroux, can't you get Flannery to write about nice people?"
The writers in the family went their own way. Again from Maureen Howard's review of Letters Home: "Sylvia Plath's triumph is that in her best work she freed herself of the refined... niceness expected of her." Confirming that breakout trajectory: the poet herself. In a 1962 radio interview with Peter Orr, Sylvia announced with what sounds very much like defiant pride, "I'm not very genteel." That same year, asked about her "relationship with Milledgeville," Flannery O'Connor replied, "If I cared what they thought about what I write, I'd have dried up a long time ago."
Sylvia passed on her mother's favorite, Wellesley College, to study at Smith—close but not as close. Flannery walked down the street to what was then called Georgia State College for Women but ventured farther afield for graduate school. After earning her MFA at the University of Iowa in 1947, she accepted an artist residency at Yaddo in upper state New York, where she became embroiled in Robert Lowell's mad campaign to oust director Elizabeth Ames. Back in the city, she lived briefly at a YWCA and later in a furnished room on West 108th Street. She made friends with Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, who invited her to board with them in Connecticut while she finished Wise Blood. Only illness returned her to the South and Milledgeville. After college, Sylvia landed a Fulbright scholarship to study English at Cambridge in 1955 and there met and married Ted Hughes. Husband in tow, she returned briefly to her home state to teach at Smith but loathed the classroom grind. Pregnant with her first child, she and Ted returned to England and there remained.
Physically apart from their mothers, the daughters faithfully corresponded. As Sally Fitzgerald confirms, in Connecticut, Flannery wrote to her mother and her mother to her "every single day." The earliest of the 600+ letters Flannery mailed to her mother, archived at Emory University's Woodruff Library, were posted from Iowa City. As a graduate student, Flannery also wrote to Regina daily. She missed mayonnaise. Would her mother send her some?
Originals for nearly 700 letters, Sylvia to Aurelia, reside in the Lilly Library, University of Indiana. More easily accessible to the curious public: the batch included in Aurelia's Letters Home (a testament, in Aurelia's words, to Sylvia's "merry, witty" side) and the non-bowdlerized Letters of Sylvia Plath, volumes 1 and 2, that restored what Aurelia had seen fit to cut, restorations that included the "barbed emotions, the volatile wit, the interior darkness" also part of Sylvia's personality (Hudson Review).
For all that, we outsiders are afforded only a one-sided glimpse. Sylvia reportedly burned her mother's letters, perhaps during the same period when she torched the manuscript of her second novel and whatever writings her husband had unwisely left on his Devon desk before scooting off to rendezvous with Assia Wevill. Regina's letters to Flannery are also missing in action. Perhaps Regina burnt the lot herself.
Between rare visits to England, Aurelia relied on her expat daughter's reporting of events: Sylvia's publication news as well as Ted's, the grandchildren's growth and progress, the family's settling in at Court Green, the gardening, the beekeeping, the amassed evidence Sylvia had achieved the trifecta of poet/wife/mother she'd set out to achieve. Regina's curiosity about Flannery's doings could be satisfied by a short stroll down the hall. To Betty Hester, Flannery wrote, "I suppose I divide people into two classes: the Irksome and the Non-Irksome." Safe to assume, for Flannery, her mother toggled between those two categories. Brad Gooch describes Regina as "both a godsend and a challenge" for her daughter. In the documentary Flannery: The Storied Life of the Writer from Georgia, Louise Abbot emphasizes Regina's and Flannery's mutual surprise at finding themselves later-life roommates: "Flannery and her mother never expected to live together as adult women."
That being the case, after moving to Andalusia, they developed a routine, breakfasting together and attending early mass at Sacred Heart Catholic Church. Back at the farm, Flannery wrote from nine until noon "everyday," as she told a TV interviewer, "even on Sundays"; Regina took care of farm business. They returned to town for lunch at the Sanford House Tea Room, where fellow patron Dorrie Neligan recalls, "Flannery mostly ate in silence, while Regina visited with everybody she knew." For dessert, Flannery favored the establishment's peppermint chiffon pie. After lunch, they took a breather and both "rested." When visitors—the scheduled, welcome kind—arrived, Regina served meringue kisses and coffee on the porch. Flannery mixed her coffee with Coca-Cola. For dinner Regina cooked what Flannery requested; Flannery did the washing up, never stacking cups and plates beforehand because, as she pointed out to Margaret Uhler, stacking "made the bottoms dirty and that made more to wash." The dishwashing also helped to soothe what Flannery, for several years, believed to be her rheumatoid arthritis, the original diagnosis of her illness. To Regina's great annoyance, Flannery's growing flock of peafowl decimated Regina's Herbert Hoover roses. Regina was also not fond of the peafowl's "screaming." Her daughter was. Flannery won that standoff, too. The peafowl at Andalusia multiplied and flourished.
Almost to the end of her life, Sylvia continued to share poems with Aurelia, her earliest critic, though by then the sharing was a sharing of achievement, not an invitation to critique. Flannery also shared her work with Regina, but on surviving evidence, did so with less investment in the reaction, content she liked her stories "better than anybody," as she wrote to Robie Macauley, adding: "I read them over and over and laugh and laugh." In letters to others she joked about Regina's preference for "books... with a lot of wild animals" and described her mother's slow-crawl through The Violent Bear It Away: "She reads about two pages, gets up... comes back, reads two more pages, gets up and goes to the barn." Flannery reckons Regina, instead of reading her daughter's novel, would rather "be in the yard digging." Regardless, Flannery wasn't about to take writing—or market—tips from her mother. When Regina inadvisedly inquired why her daughter didn't use "the talent God gave her" to "write something that people liked instead of the kind of thing" she did write, Regina got this response: "If you have to ask, you'll never know" (O'Connor letter to Cecil Dawkins).
Judging from Sylvia's response, as late as October 1962, Aurelia Plath was also proffering prescriptive advice. Sylvia's reply: "Don't talk to me about the world needing cheerful stuff!... It is much more help for me... to know that people are divorced & go through hell than to hear about happy marriages. Let the Ladies Home Journal blither about those" (The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 2: 1956-1963).
Experiencing new symptoms, Flannery had returned to Georgia from Connecticut in December 1950 to see her doctor of record. On the train, she had become sicker. During her subsequent hospitalization, the true cause of her illness was confirmed. Regina, in consultation with her family, withheld the lupus diagnosis from Flannery, fearing its effect on her daughter. She also hid from Flannery her own anguish. Lupus, as Regina well knew, was not a curable disease. At the time, Sally Fitzgerald agreed with the concealment; later, "following much inner struggle," she told Flannery the truth. As Fitzgerald described the moment to filmmaker Christopher O'Hare, a shaken Flannery thanked her for the disclosure, but asked Sally, in turn, not to tell Regina about the conversation. "If you do," Flannery said, "she will never tell you anything else. I might want to know something else sometime." The disease killed Flannery in August 1964. Regina "privately... spoke of not blaming God for her daughter's early death, but of being grateful for their extra years together," Gooch reports. Flannery had lived longer than expected.
It might be said that Sylvia Plath, who survived an overdose of pills in Wellesley, age 20, as well as a questionable single car accident in Devon the year before she succeeded in gassing herself in her London flat, also lived longer than expected. Whereas Regina O'Connor's concerns for her daughter's health remained confined to the physical realm, after Sylvia emerged from the basement crawl space, miraculously still breathing, Aurelia Plath's worry focused on her daughter's mental state. Reflecting that long-churning anxiety, Aurelia rushed into print an obituary in her local newspaper that listed Sylvia's cause of death as "virus pneumonia." She also called "Sylvia's friends and neighbors and former colleagues at Smith to assure them her daughter had died from pneumonia and complications following a severe cold" (Edward Butscher, Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness). Aurelia was not alone in the subterfuge. Initially, Ted Hughes also allowed his children to "assume" their mother "had succumbed to pneumonia" (Jonathan Bate, Ted Hughes: The Unauthorized Life).
No mother expects to outlive her child. Regina was 68 when she lost her daughter; Aurelia, nearing 57 when Sylvia killed herself, both mothers the mothers of writers whose fame death amplified. Living on: unflattering mother portraits in poetry and prose—the Mrs. Mays, the Mrs. Greenwoods. In his segment of Flannery: The Storied Life of the Writer from Georgia, Flannery's editor, Robert Giroux, contends: "Regina never realized she was in the stories." Although by no means an "interleckchul," in Flannery's mock spelling of the word, Regina, Southerner that she was, could certainly sniff out a slight—in person or in print. The idea that any character bearing a resemblance to her passed unnoticed is more than a stretch—it borders on the wacky. Whatever she thought of the cross-pollination, along with whatever she said to the author as a result, remained a private affair. In public, Regina took the queenly approach of never complain/never explain regarding her daughter's writing. If Aurelia Plath had followed a similar strategy, she might have spared herself further grief.
As sole executor of Flannery's will and estate, Regina was the family member who signed off on her daughter's posthumous publications, including Everything That Rises Must Converge and The Complete Stories. Because Sylvia died intestate, her literary estate passed to her estranged husband, who, with the help of his formidable, formidable sister, Olwyn Hughes, oversaw—and, in the case of Ariel, infamously edited—Sylvia's remaining works. To publish anything of her daughter's, Aurelia had to bargain with the Hugheses.
Seemingly, Regina had no quarrel with the publication of Flannery's fiction and occasional prose, collected in Mystery and Manners, but sparred with editor Sally Fitzgerald over the contents of The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor. As Daniel Moran writes in Creating Flannery O'Connor: "Regina had her own ideas about the propriety of publishing her daughter's letters or those of anyone else." Earlier, when Maryat Lee asked permission to quote from Flannery's letters in an article for the Flannery O'Connor Bulletin, Regina replied:
Maryat, about the letters, I can't help but feel Flannery wrote those letters just to you and I wonder if she would like them published... I appreciate what you said in your letter and it would be nice for people to know another side of her, but people are funny and those who believe that there is no other side, you simply can't change them.
"Lee's skirmish with Regina," Moran continues, "prefigured the longer battle" Regina waged with Sally Fitzgerald over "hundreds" of Flannery's letters. Compromises were eventually reached on the contents of Habit of Being, but not without a flow of complaints, Fitzgerald to Giroux, regarding Regina's intransigence and infuriating opinions regarding what could stay and what should go.
Following the 1965 publication of Ariel, Aurelia Plath described her life as a "torment," sharing the details of the "humiliation" she suffered at the hands of "critics" intent on "psychoanalyzing her relationship with Sylvia" (Bate). Worse was to come. "Out of respect for Aurelia's feelings," Diane Middlebrook reports in The Husband, initially there had been no plans to publish an American edition of The Bell Jar. (Originally published under a pseudonym, the novel was re-released in Sylvia's name in 1966.) Rumors of a pirated American edition "in the works" had caused the Hughes siblings to reconsider. Olwyn took on the task of persuading Aurelia "to see the financial advantage that would accrue to the children if Aurelia abandoned her squeamishness" (Middlebrook).
Sylvia, Aurelia would later claim, never wanted the novel published in her native land, but published it was, proving to be, again in Middlebrook's phrase, a "vastly greater embarrassment" for Aurelia than Ariel. Unsympathetic character Mrs. Greenwood resembles Aurelia Plath, just as the novel's protagonist, Esther Greenwood, resembles the author. On the eve of the novel's publication in England under penname Victoria Lucas, Sylvia rather cavalierly dismissed the publisher's qualms regarding characterization: "My mother is based on my mother, but what do I say to defame her? She is a dutiful, hard-working woman whose beastly daughter is ungrateful to her." Then Plath got down to brass tacks: "Even if she were a 'suing' mother, which she is of course not, I don't see what she could sue here" (The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 2: 1956-1963).
Following tense negotiations with Ted Hughes (who expressed serial misgivings), Aurelia forged ahead with the project she was convinced would counteract the damage done to her motherly reputation by The Bell Jar. Letters Home, her contribution to the Plath omnibus, did not evoke the response she craved. Self-justifying and immensely flawed were among the milder criticisms leveled against Aurelia's selectively narrow presentation of her supremely complicated daughter. To that critical evaluation, there has been no change. In her 2020 biography Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath, Heather Clark clarified the difference between aspiration and actuality: "Aurelia suggests... that Sylvia inherited... literary precociousness, and perhaps even... literary talent, from her... . But Sylvia was the voyager; Aurelia could only wave from the shore with a mix of envy and pride."
In 1956, Flannery penned this tongue-in-cheek note to her agent:
My mother and I were amused... to read in... Perspectives that I lived in an unlikely sounding place called Milledgeville where my mother raised hogs and I raised peacocks. My mother can't stand pigs and has never allowed one on the place—but now she is raising them it seems in French, German and Italian.
Regina's "amusement" with the press would not survive her encounter with Josephine Hendin, author of The World of Flannery O'Connor, billed as the first close study of the "autobiographical elements" in O'Connor's work. After spending a day with "indeterminately old" Regina, she of the "hard blue eyes" and "self-consciously patrician family," Hendin remarks on the "monotonous" nature of the O'Connor farm and the Southern brand of politeness "that engulfs every other emotion, that permits no contact on any but the most superficial levels." As parting shot, Hendin serves up this rebuke: "Mrs. O'Connor will tell you no more about O'Connor than you will learn from the Union-Recorder." If Regina succeeded in revealing no more than she cared to during her meet-up with Hendin, the result caused her to pull in her skirts and decline the dubious pleasure of further conversations about her daughter with inquiring strangers, no matter their credentials.
In contrast, until the end of her life, Aurelia labored to "correct the terrible misconceptions" about her relationship with Sylvia, as she described her burden and mission to Plath scholar Leonard Sanazaro. She was not the "ogre" Sylvia portrayed and the literary world took her to be; furthermore, it was she who had suggested Sylvia base her novel on a "child-parent conflict" (New York Times). Writing to Judith Kroll, author of Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath, Aurelia played the martyr card: "(Sylvia) has posthumous fame—at what price to her children, to those of us who loved her so dearly... There is no escape for us." In the margins of Aurelia's copy of Kroll's published book, now housed in the Sylvia Plath Collection at Smith College, Aurelia scribbled rebuttal after rebuttal. It was Sylvia who "refused to grant" the necessary separation between mother and daughter. Aurelia had "encouraged every act of independence!" She, not Sylvia, was the one who had "worked to be free and... live (her own) life" apart from "the complexities & crises" of Sylvia's. Ever the injured party, when Aurelia moved into a retirement home in Newton, Massachusetts, she blamed The Bell Jar for the "trouble" she had "making friends" (Clark).
Aurelia outlived her daughter by 31 years, dying at 87 of complications from Alzheimer's disease in 1994. Her New York Times obituary was respectful, brief, mentioned the course she had developed for medical secretaries at Boston University, her Letters Home publication, and collaboration with playwright Rose Leiman Goldemberg on a play based on those letters. Regina outlived her daughter by almost 30 years, dying at age 99, in 1995. In death, Regina received kudos such as Aurelia Plath might have coveted. Sally Fitzgerald, Regina's one-time sparring partner, wrote the eulogy, lauding the business acumen, charm, and strength of "Miss Regina," urging the deceased "be celebrated for herself" rather than for her literary connection. Confined to a wheelchair in her later years, Regina had returned to the Greene Street house and there continued "to receive old friends, always perfectly coiffed and touched with rouge for visitors," Fitzgerald assured any inclined to doubt. In her will, Regina arranged for the upkeep of Andalusia and its continuance as a shrine to her daughter. She lies next to Flannery, East Side, Section A, Lot 39, of Milledgeville's Memorial Hill Cemetery. An ocean and then some separates Aurelia's final resting place from Sylvia's in Heptonstall, Yorkshire, domain of her former son-in-law. In a Paris Review interview the year after Aurelia's death, Ted Hughes lobbed another stone in Aurelia's direction, suggesting she had swiped the manuscript of Plath's third, unfinished novel during a visit to Court Green to see her grandchildren after Sylvia's death.
Both mothers had wanted to be mothers, but to be the mother of a famous writer requires another level of skill and resilience. Flannery worried in advance how her death would affect Regina but "would have been so proud of the way Regina just took hold and carried on," believes Sister Loretta Costa. In her own tortured way, Aurelia Plath also carried on.
"I once had the feeling I would dig my mother's grave with my writing," Flannery wrote in a 1956 letter to John Lynch. "But I later discovered this was vanity on my part. (Mothers) are hardier than we think."