25 April 2009

Got $4.5K

The following materials are being offered for sale by Richard Ford, a bookseller in London for £3000.00 (ca. $4537.05).

Book Description: [1976-1990], 1990. The Mother, the Neighbour and the Black Hand of Ted Hughes

A small archive of material deriving from the papers of Professor Trevor Thomas, Art Historian, occupant of the flat below that of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath at 23 Fitzroy Road, Primrose Hill, London. It includes:

a. Two Typed Letters Signed from Sylvia Plath's mother, Aurelia, airmail, to "Professor Thomas", detailed, 7 & 28 May 1976, one with handwritten date the other with a handwritten PS.

7 May 1976: She is responding to the haunting contents of a long letter from Thomas, convinced that Sylvia would have left letters for her family which she quotes Thomas[?] as saying were "destroyed when found". She comments that many inaccuracies have been written about Sylvia's work. For example The Bell Jar wasn't autobiographical. She discusses the absence of a will and "her divorce [not having been] finalized", and Ted Hughes inheriting copyright. She is anxious for the children of the marriage - the living should count - her daughter can't be brought back. Ted Hughes has matured enough to look after them (formerly "foundering in immaturity"). She fears that the memoir he plans will stir up a controversy damaging to the children's faith in their father and to Hughes's later marriage to "a fine young woman of good family, who is both wise and loving in regard to the children". She understands the injustice he has suffered but would rather the children weren't hurt by a terrible "revelation". She asks him to send "the poems" [poems written by Thomas after Plath's death - see below). "I do believe that as a very sensitive person you were attuned . . . to something beyond our comprehension and that it was connected with my Sylvia. She adds details of the negotiations she and Sylvia were having about a return "home" in the spring.

28 May 1976: She has only just been able to read the poems he sent. "These are written with Sylvia's voice . . ." she briefly theorises about the lingering spirit. Her grief is still alive after 13 years, and says that the last letter in Letters Home was in fact her last letter, and that "the biotter, accusatory letters had to be omitted for the children's sake". A paragraph about poet, Robin Morgan.* The critics have lambasted her about ellipses in the book of letters but she explains Hughes's control. She is upset at the ideas of "wild parties" in her "dead daughter's apartment". She is understanding of Thomas's statement that he would publish the poems cutting out "references to Ted Hughes that might hurt the children". "Will you do me one more favour? Please destroy this letter after reading it." The PS mentions Sylvia's brother, Warren.

*A photocopy of Robin Morgan's savage anti-Hughes poem is included in the same folder as the typescript of the memoir.

b. A folder of material, some original some [photocopy] copy, relating to a legal action brought by Hughes in 1990 against Thomas for defamation in the latter's memoir, Sylvia Plath: Last Encounter (privately published, 1989), comprising:

i. Notes, 6pp., of notes by Thomas for his solicitor (one starts "Apologise to Judge - I didn't mean to cause offence") and for him to do ("Ask Usher to ask judge").

ii. Legal documents (case of Edward James Hughes and trevor Thomas) including Statement of Claim (2 copies); Statement of Defence, 2pp; Writ of Summons, c.12pp.; Notice of Change, 1 Page; Notice of Motion, 3pp. ("the Defendant having failed to serve a Defence, Judgment ot be entered for the Plaintiff for such sum by way of damages for libel as may be assessed.

iii. [Photocopy?] Letter from Ted Hughes's to Thomas's solicitors, 16 Feb. 1990, referring to the Statement of Claim and adding their view that Thomas has made defamatory statements in his memoir. Thomas has added a couple of annotations indicating resentment of the memory of an 80-year old being impugned and disagreement with the letter's thrust ("NOT SO").

iv. Copy letter from Thomas to Hughes lawyers, Nabarro Nathanson, saying he can't.

In addition to the below, Ford also has for sale a copy of Trevor Thomas' memoir Sylvia Plath: Last Encounters (£250.00 / ca. $378.09). Trevor Thomas died in 1993; an obituary appeared in The Independent.


panther said...

Not autobiographical ? I can't begin to imagine the anguish Aurelia Plath experienced, but this is going a bit far. Plenty of the things experienced by Esther Greenwood-the crucial things-were also part of Sylvia's life. Of course a writer embellishes, alters, emphasizes certain things and downplays others, and this is what Plath did with THE BELL JAR. It IS a novel, though highly autobiographical. That clearly wasn't very comfortable for Aurelia, but that's another issue completely.

Laurie said...

This is a historical exhibit of why Plath became some sort of poster child for opportunists (IMHO)although at the time, maybe they were operating on what seemed genuine. Trevor drew attention to himself. Morgan found an outlet for the feminist platform--who doesn't like to have a good "hate on" someone from a distance? Ted was an excellent target in his silence.
Poor Aurelia. She lost her daughter and was isolated from her British grandchildren (for the most part) and was left to apologize and explain for Sylvia those hurt by the Bell Jar. All the while she too was portrayed unkindly in that book. Aurelia was in a 'family' struggle with Ted that involved ownership of her own daughter's letters, which were her answer to trying to paint a more accurate portrait of Sylvia and just as important in context, herself. Poor Aurelia.

panther said...

I hear what you're saying, Laurie, and couldn't agree more about opportunists.

But as for Aurelia, she was (in your words) "left to apologize and explain for Sylvia those hurt by the Bell Jar" but also maintained that the book was not autobiographical. If it wasn't autobiographical, in what sense were they hurt ? As it is, it is highly autobiographical. Sylvia portrays Aurelia (as Mrs Greenwood) and Olive Higgins-Prouty her patron (I forget the name she gives that character) in a way that is far from flattering. They lay so many emotional pressures on Esther that they contribute to her loss of self-who am I, apart from an achiever ? etc. Yes, the portrayal is unkind. But it was probably cathartic for Sylvia to write it. Aurelia's subsequent anger about it all indicates, does it not ? that a nerve had been touched.

As for the letters, they themselves ironically reveal something that Aurelia was at pains NOT to reveal. Their relentlessly upbeat quality, their frequent references to prizes won, grades achieved, poems published,etc. and their saccharine-yet-anxious "Mommy, you are the dearest Mommy in the world and I will always be eternally grateful to you" tone speak to me at least of a very difficult parent-child relationship in which the (adult) child constantly feels obliged to placate and appease the implacable and unappeasable parent.

Aurelia had pain in her life that I can scarcely comprehend. I don't think she was malicious, not at all. But I can see why she might have been very difficult as a parent.She comes over as very needy, ironically (paradoxically ?) by being so self-sacrificing. I suspect Sylvia NEVER felt, in spite of the many successes, publications, etc etc. that she was good enough in her mother's eyes.

Now something I would have loved to read (and not just out of sheer nosiness ;) ) : Sylvia's letters over the years to her therapist Dr Beuscher. Too bad that Beuscher destroyed them :( Apparently, HER letters to Sylvia are still extant (and I'd love to read them too) but they have been sealed up and will not be available until 2025 or some such date.

I agree : poor Aurelia. But she was, like it or not, part of a family dynamic that was very damaging. She herself regretted later in her life that family therapy, not available in the 1950s when Sylvia had her breakdown, would have been very helpful.

Laurie said...

Well Panther, it has taken being hit over the head with a hammer for me to correctly read that part. Thanks :) For some reason I didn't comprehend that *Aurelia* was claiming the Bell Jar was not autobiographical. I kept reading it in the reverse and that others were making that claim. I finally "get it."

Yes, I think Aurelia was guilty of something that many parents are guilty of and that is spoiling a child/children through utter and complete devotion that seems to wander into martyrdom. Hella pressure to put on any child, especially one as gifted as Sylvia. So Aurelia thought she was doing the right thing not realizing the pressure that her parenting put on Sylvia, probably thinking it must be the reverse; freeing up Sylvia to thrive. So there was the openly saccharine (great word!) stuff from Sylvia and the internalized resentment from having a parent whose life seems to be in her hands because of the uber devotion--so the severing of the tie has seemingly great consequences. re: more pressure. Cathartic, indeed!

I can remember how shocked I was when I first read Letters Home and the hyperbolic, mummy-love.

Hindsight. All this said, I don't think that Aurelia was responsible for whatever mental illness plagued Sylvia. Unhealthy relationship, yes, but I think Sylvia's problems must have been largely inherent.

Peter K Steinberg said...

What an interesting exchange here. I rarely read the Letters without the Journals open next to it. I find a balance there: and each offers such goodies and insights.

However negative Plath portrayed her mother (Mrs. Greenwood) and Olive Higgings Prouty (Philomena Guinea) and several other older women (Jaycee/Cyrilly Abels), etc. she did write lovingly about mothers in The Bell Jar. There are at least two references of this in the novel: and I've always considered this to be a softening of the potrayal. One I remember clearly and off the top of my head is in the scene when Doreen gives Esther soup after the food poisoning. Before she realized who it was she says, "She might have been Betsy or my mother or a fern-scented nurse. I bent my head and took a sip of the broth..." The other reference has to do with the way a baby tastes its mothers milk.

Plath knew the portrayals would sting; this is part of the reason she published under a psuedonym. Though she and Heinemann tried to get the novel published by Knopf in America, Plath also wrote to friends (and family I believe) that the novel must never be published in America. Plath was a woman full of contradictions. (The above, New Yorker poet who wanted to publish a story in the Ladies Home Journal, and so.)

Anonymous said...

by the way of Aurelia...today "was" her birthday.


Anonymous said...



panther said...

Laurie, I agree with you : I suspect Sylvia's actual illness was probably inherent. And inherited ? Apparently several female members of Otto Plath's family-his mother, his sisters, a niece- had similar issues.

It's said in many places, isn't it ? that Sylvia was bipolar. Which, if I understand rightly, does have a large biochemical component. I believe she also had PMT very badly-I'm one of those women who fortunately don't experience this, but I do know it can be like hell on earth. Even without all the extra stuff that SP had to contend with.

George Fitzgerald said...

It is clear that in her hurt and grief Aurelia couldn't help but attempt to sugarcoat some things; she deserves sympathy; it must hurt really terribly to have your daughter's published words say that she hated her mother.

As for Aurelia's stance I'm reminded that even Lee Harvey Oswald's mother went to her death convinced that her son couldn't possibly have killed Kennedy ... and, in this case, maybe he didn't ... but my point is that it is hard for a parent to see their child in full bright light. Its simply too hard or impossible to accept some truths.

panther said...

Laurie, I've just reread Peter's original post and I, too, am now confused about the "autobiographical" bit !

I understood it as meaning "Aurelia wanted to correct some inaccuracies. (In her view) The Bell Jar was not autobiographical." But I see quite clearly now how you read it the other way : " Aurelia wanted to correct some inaccuracies.(One of those was that) The Bell Jar was not autobiographical."

Peter, could you clarify ? This is what i already know :

1) SP wrote The Bell Jar which seems highly autobiographical in content and tone.

2) When The Bell Jar was published, some people who knew Sylvia recognized themselves in the text and were offended/distressed. Aurelia Plath was one of those people.

It is perfectly possible, I suppose,that Aurelia knew at the time of publication that TBJ was autobiographical but that she subsequently went into denial and convinced herself that it wasn't really. It's called rewriting history and we often do it when something feels too painful to bear.

As for Thomas' belief that Sylvia must have written letters for the family, and his insinuation that they must have been destroyed (by Hughes ?), well, I think this is a good example of how the whole thing has been mythologized. She MIGHT have written letters, okay, but why was he so sure ? Lots of suicides don't write letters, however serious their intent. And if there had been any real indication that letters had been written and that Hughes had disposed of them, well, Hughes would have been in trouble with the coroner.

All of this strikes me as part of the "Ted Hughes Was an Evil Man" Syndrome. Well, it sells newspapers, I daresay, but I know I'm not alone when I say I'm heartily tired of it.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Panther & Laurie!

The posting that I, er, posted was copied from the booksellers description of the item and was not my own writing. The seller paraphrased and summed up as best be could, I imagine.

I agree The Bell Jar has autobiographical elements to it; but even still it is a work of fiction. (Mind you that does not stop me or anyone from obtaining biographical bits of information from it.)

Plath manipulated time and people in the creation of the book. What I mean is time was shifted/altered (chronologically) and people were condensed and quite likely completely made up.

There are letters at Smith College between Aurelia Plath, Olwyn Hughes, and others dating from before 1971 about its publication in the US. There was a fear that real people would recognize themselves and be hurt; but it was about to lose copyright protection and in order to prevent mass piracy, they published it in America (the proceeds of which went to Frieda and Nicholas, I believe).

I suspect that however much The Bell Jar hurt Aurelia Plath, she, like Plath, was able to distinguish what was real, what was not, etc. in the novel. This is speculation, however.

Plath's letters to her publisher at Heinemann from 1961 and 1962 (also held at Smith) indicate that they were both conscious of the possibility of lawsuits and careful to prevent such actions. I have notes about these letters, but do not quotes from them handy...

The other side to this post and discussion: Thomas' surety that there were letters for family, is another can of worms. (Which must be picked off like sticky pearls!)

Could it be Thomas was referring the letter(s) for which Plath requested postage stamps? We do not really know who these letter(s) were for or even if they were mailed.

There is a letter (held privately) dated 10 February 1963, but who it is to and how it was acquired are unknown.

Peter K Steinberg said...

I should add that in a couple of days I'll be posting something to follow-up on one of Laurie's posts on her Sylvia And Ted Collection Blog regarding whited-out text from Aurelia Plath's comments in a proof copy of Letters Home. One of the whited-out sections pertains to AP, SP, & The Bell Jar...

Laurie said...

I'm stunned. Shocked. Disillusioned. Confused. Disbelieving. And out of adjectives.

I cannot fathom your premise that the Bell Jar is not autobiographical. Sure, she used 'some' distillation of characters/personalities, but as much as "Ester" had those bitter feelings written about in the book, it was Sylvia's story. Even her poetry is rarely fictional.

Aurelia knew her relationship with her daughter. She also had to have been the victim of some harsh words/moments when Sylvia was 'not well' and probably even when she was. Private relationships are one thing, but Aurelia was left with the public judging her bythebook. It didn't matter what she knew privately by that time. But this is a tangent...

I don't question your authority on Plath in the least, so I am left wondering where I took a wrong turn on this subject of the book's status.

And Panther, another great post. It does seem the sensationalization (is this a word?) of Hughes' actions through the eyes and imagination of Thomas is pivotal to what unfolded and took decades to clear up (I use that term loosely).

Peter K Steinberg said...


Such adjectives! I didn't mean to cause any shock, stun, etc.

I agree with what you say and I do think The Bell Jar is autobiographical, just not wholly so. Yes, The Bell Jar is about Plath and it is Plath. But not completely. I believe, like others, she was her best subject; but I also believe she was imaginative enough to throw in some true fiction into the book. In the process of distilling time and people, events and conversations, memories, etc. she created something on the subject of her experiences: but I don't see this output as necessarily autobiographical. Autobiographical to me implies something like absolute truth (or it should) and I see this (absolute factual truth) as being absent from the novel.


Laurie said...

Ahh. So it is a litmus test of how we view that 'word.'

I would add that "absolute factual truth" exists like Santa Claus exists :o)

Thanks for clearing up for me what you meant.


Anonymous said...

Interesting discussion. I just want to touch on two points.

1) As a genre, autobiography, as Peter suggests, is expected to be true and factual. 'Autobiographical fiction', on the other hand, is usually a first-person story "based on real events" that is fictionalized, sometimes to hide the identity of the 'real' characters and sometimes to make actual events more dramatic or entertaining. The Bell Jar is, then, autobiographical fiction, but very lightly disguised.

2) Certainly Aurelia knew that The Bell Jar was largely autobiographical. Otherwise there would have been no reason to oppose its publication in the US to avoid giving offense to people portrayed in the book. This suggests that Aurelia felt it was transparently autobiographical. Somewhere (I thought it was in her commentary to Letters Home, but I haven't been able to find it there) she states that the novel, as it stands, represents "the basest ingratitude", particularly as it relates to Olive Higgins Prouty. If she stated that the novel was not autobiographical, I suspect it was in order to spare people's feelings.

Anonymous said...

Oh...and about the "negotiations" Aurelia claimes she and Sylvia were involved in about S. "returning home in the Spring"...Sylvia seems to have responded firmly. On page 498 of Letters Home, in the letter written on Feb. 24, 1963, a week before her death, she states: "I have absolutely no desire ever to return to America. Not now, anyway. I have my beautiful country house" etc. etc. Then, heartbreakingly, in the next paragraph she goes on: "The children need me most right now."

Peter K Steinberg said...


Thanks for your postings. Yes, autobiographical fiction, good word for it. I was missing that in my earlier posts.

For some reason I can "hear" Aurelia Plath saying "it represents the basest ingratitude". Is it perhaps from Voices & Visions?

I do recall that letter Plath wrote a week before she died, thank you for pointing out the page number.


panther said...

"The basest ingratitude." Now, i have quite a lot of problems with the whole gratitude thing. I will say right off that I grew up with "You are never grateful" ringing as an accusation in my ears, this from my father who is almost certainly personality-disordered and who was certainly well-nigh impossible to live with. So, yes, my view of "gratitude" may be skewed.

HOWEVER, I do think gratitude has to have limits. Olive Higgins-Prouty's scholarship enabled Sylvia Plath to attend Smith. Good. There's plenty of evidence that Sylvia was indeed grateful for this. But why this expectation (certainly on Aurelia's part, possibly on Prouty's) that she be ETERNALLY beholden to her.

Apparently Aurelia and Olive were very resentful of Dr Beuscher in 1953, particularly when Beuscher banned them from visiting Sylvia at McLean, something I imagine was done purely out of regard for Sylvia's very fragile mental state at that time. Sylvia was her patient, after all. And Prouty made it quite clear in consequence that she would stop paying Sylvia's medical fees after a certain (unreasonably close) date. Is that the behaviour of a truly generous benefactor ? I think it's appalling-what a controlling thing to do ! What mattered most to her-Sylvia's recovery, or scoring a point off the psychiatrist ?

I read this in an article in The Salon in which Dr Beuscher was interviewed, this shortly before her death in 1999. A very interesting piece, available online.

Anonymous said...

OK...Apparently, the comment from Aurelia that I quoted about "the basest ingratitude" is from her "Biographical Note" to The Bell Jar (pg 294-95 in the 1970 Harper & Row edition). It's quoted, among other places, in "Sylvia Plath and the theatre of mourning" by Christina Britzolakis (pg 389). It's a quote from a letter Aurelia wrote to the publisher:

"practically every character in The Bell Jar represents someone -- often in caricature --whom Sylvia loved. As the book stands by itself it represents the basest ingratitude."

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry...Sylvia's last letter home, quoted above, was written on Feb. 4th (of course)...not Feb. 24th. Sheesh! I need to proofread more carefully.

Panther: I don't know about "eternally beholden" but I think Aurelia probably expected Sylvia to have enough respect, or at least good manners, to not attack her benefactor in public. Obviously, Sylvia felt that her own mental health depended on her being emotionally honest and not pulling any punches.

panther said...

Jim, I think you're right. "Eternally beholden" is a bit strong. I think perhaps this is also possibly a generational thing-Aurelia grew up at a time when respect for elders, etc was deemed very, very important. Even if it wasn't emotionally honest.

Ian said...

Hi, I am trying to find out more info if any one can help? Trevor Thomas was an artist, but I am unable to find anything on any of his works, can any one help on this? Many thanks.

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Publications & Acknowledgements

  • BBC Four.A Poet's Guide to Britain: Sylvia Plath. London: BBC Four, 2009. (Acknowledged in)
  • Biography: Sylvia Plath. New York: A & E Television Networks, 2005. (Photographs used)
  • Connell, Elaine. Sylvia Plath: Killing the angel in the house. 2d ed. Hebden Bridge: Pennine Pens, 1998. (Acknowledged in)
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 3." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 119-138.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012: 11-56.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 5: Reanimating the Past." Plath Profiles 6. Summer 2013: 27-62.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives, Redux." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 232-246.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017.
  • Death Be Not Proud: The Graves of Poets. New York: Poets.org. (Photographs used)
  • Doel, Irralie, Lena Friesen and Peter K. Steinberg. "An Unacknowledged Publication by Sylvia Plath." Notes & Queries 56:3. September 2009: 428-430.
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, acknowledged in)
  • Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (Acknowledged in)
  • Holden, Constance. "Sad Poets' Society." Science Magazine. 27 July 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women, Motion Picture. Directed by Rachel Talbot. Brookline (Mass.): Jewish Women's Archive, 2007. (Photograph used)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Karen V. Kukil. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. (Acknowledged in)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1, 1940-1956. London: Faber, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
  • Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'A Fetish: Somehow': A Sylvia Plath Bookmark." Court Green 13. 2017.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'I Should Be Loving This': Sylvia Plath's 'The Perfect Place' and The Bell Jar." Plath Profiles 1. Summer 2008: 253-262.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "The Persistence of Plath." Fine Books & Collections. Autumn 2017: 24-29
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "This is a Celebration: A Festschrift for The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3 Supplement. Fall 2010: 3-14.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.