05 May 2009

Letters Home: Corrected uncorrected proof

Following Laurie's excellent post on the uncorrected proof of Letters Home: Correspondence, 1950-1963, we decided to see if it would be possible to uncover the mystery of the white-outs she mentions. Carefully holding the book up to the light, I was able to make out two of the three whited-out sections...

Proof: Page /First edition: Page ix
"Of course this book could not exist without the permission given me by Ted and Olwyn Hughes, who have allowed me to publish sections from my daughter's correspondence and have given me the copyright for the selections from her letters."

Proof: Page 426/First edition: Page 483/486
"It is my belief that the last blow may well have been the immediate penetration of her pseudonym 'Victoria Lucas'. She now realized that the fused, caricaturized [sic.] figures in The Bell Jar which bore recognizable idiosyncrasies, were going to be identified. Those who had sacrificed for her, served and lover her were to be hurt and would consider themselves betrayed."

These comments by Aurelia Plath are interesting, especially compared to the text that replaced them.

There is a thickly whited-out bit on page 407 of the proof. I think the comments were handwritten. Throughout the copy I looked at, I saw many other insertions: mostly ellipses, one handwritten date of a letter, etc. From what I could tell, this bound proof was photocopied from an earlier marked up galley proof. If you're interested in owning a Letters Home uncorrected proof copy, click here: there are two for sale. I do not know how common are "corrected" uncorrected proofs. In the copies I've seen in libraries, book stores, and at book fairs, they are mostly clean and truly uncorrected - appearing almost exactly as the first edition which it precedes. Indiana Univeristy at Bloomington holds the manuscript for Letters Home as well as most (maybe all?) of the original letters from Plath to her family.


panther said...

The remarks made by Aurelia on Proof 426 are very interesting. I think she might well be right. I wonder who revealed, so early on, that Victoria Lucas was, in fact, Sylvia ? Sufficient enough, I daresay, in her already depressed and very suggestible state, for her to BELIEVE that someone had spilt the beans.

This is the problem for many writers, isn't it ? Some of my own poems (not the majority) concern people I have known and who (whom ?) I might be showing in an unflattering light. Myth and fairy tales can help here-you touch on the subject powerfully, primitively even, and thus open the experience up to a wider audience in a way that doesn't leave you vulnerable to lawsuits ;)

I'm also helped by the fact that the few people I've written about in this way are either 1) deceased or 2) not readers of poetry. But Sylvia's situation was especially acute because it would seem all the people she parodied and attacked in THE BELL JAR were 1) keen readers of anything she wrote and 2) very much alive.

Having said that, I have formed the IMPRESSION, certainly, over the years, from various books and not least Sylvia Plath's own journals, that these people (Higgins Prouty, Mary Ellen Chase) were very keen to be flattered. Not just thanked, as may be appropriate up to a point, but actively fawned over. Chase was, for example, very openly disappointed and affronted when Sylvia made the choice to give up academe and take up writing full-time. A brave choice on Sylvia's part, for this reason.

Peter K Steinberg said...

I remember reading somewhere that those on the "inside" of literary London at the time knew the novel was by Plath. I'm sure things dominoed after her death. The success of Faber's Ariel in 1965 maybe contributed to it's publication under her own name in 1966.

panther said...

I can believe that, Peter. The Brontes, say, could keep their identities private in 1845 or whatever because they lived in an obscure Yorkshire town and were shy. They were also not part of any scene, none of them was married to a well-known writer, etc.

Perhaps Plath believed her identity would come out in the passage of time, but hoped she would be able in the interim to gently smooth over Aurelia, Higgins Prouty, etc (The Disquieting Muses ?) I wouldn't envy anyone THAT task, though.

panther said...


For those of us who don't have a copy of LETTERS HOME to hand, I wonder if you could tell us what actually was published in lieu of Aurelia's remarks quoted above ?

I'm not sure why Ted Hughes and Olwen would have objected to what was being said.

Anonymous said...

I just received a copy of the proof in the mail. To respond to Panther's question. As to the change in the Acknowledgements: The revision reads: "I am deeply grateful to Ted Hughes for generously giving me the copyright for this selection from Sylvia Plath's letteres." This just drops the mention of Olwyn (who probably didn't have legal authority to 'allow' anything...Ted did). And the phrase about "permission to publish" was jsut redundant... the real issue was copyright permission.

I don't have my copy of Letters Home handy, but I don't think the passage on page 426 was replaced with anything.

The sentence in longhand whited out on page 407 is too difficult to make out.


Anonymous said...

Peter's post mentions the many other handwritten insertions in the text. There are a great many ellipses inserted by hand into the typed copy. Now, if these represent places where text has been omitted from the original letters...then why weren't these omissions marked by ellipses in the original manuscript to begin with? Was this just a misguided effort to make the letters look unedited, which had to be rectified before going to press? Just wondering...

Anonymous said...

Panther...Again, as to the passage on page 426...it may be that Aurelia herself realized that the passage would just give credence to the belief that the novel was autobiographical and she decided that she didn't want to draw further attention to that fact with these comments. Just a theory.

Peter K Steinberg said...

The original letters, held at Indiana University, are mostly written in one long paragraph. The paragraphs in Letters Home were introduced by the editors (either AP or TH, or the folks at Harper to make the letters easier to read). I believe most of the ellipses are Plath's and I suspect she did this to change subjects? I've never studied the presence and meaning of the ellipses in Letters Home, so I'm thinking out loud.

However, some of the ellipses do actually reflect edited out text, though the absence of any guide or key to know what the ellipses means is frustrating. At least in the 1982 Journals they are more clear about when text was edited out. I've occasionally written to the folks at IU asking if certain instances were Plath's ellipses or edited text. When the text has been edited it was always really lame stuff removed. Lame as in I couldn't understand when it was edited because it wasn't anything juicy.

Olwyn was the agent for the Estate at that time, so she may have had some legal rights...

suki said...

Don't forget that Plath died intestate. Everything went to Ted Hughes. By 1977, Ariel was huge, Winter Trees had come out and so had Crossing the Water. In England the The Bell Jar was a huge success.
Letters are owned by the recipient , however the copyright is held by the writer, in this case SP (Ted Hughes)

Paul Alexander gives a good account of what happened in his bio, Rough Magic pp 347 - 348. Aurelia did a deal with Hughes to allow TBJ to be published in the US if she could publish the letters.
Hence Letters Home.
It also gives a kinder picture of Plath, even if Esther 'isn't' Plath .

Olwyn didn't get involved with the estate till the early 80's
I forget the exact date.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Suki- Thank you for your post.

Aurelia Plath also allowed The Bell Jar to be published in the US as copyright was set to expire 8 years from Plath's death (1963+8=1971). By doing so, this prevented piracy of the novel and allowed royalities to be paid to Frieda and Nicholas and not to those that pirated the book. There are letters about this at Smith College starting from around 1967 I believe - all signed, written, etc. by Olwyn Hughes.

Thus, Olwyn was actively involved with the Estate of Sylvia from the 1960s until sometime in the 1990s, when she & Ted Hughes turned it over to the children. There are letters held in Plath's archives at Smith College and others (likely) that exhibit this.

Anonymous said...


Just wondering...I know this is pure speculation...but, given Olwyn's participation as agent for the Estate, and her involvement in everything from copyrights and royalties to co-writing biographies, why do you suppose her name was dropped from the Acknowledgements page of Letters Home? Even if she wasn't the one to grant permission, why make a point of taking her name out?

panther said...

Sylvia and Olwen did not get on. How much of this was just a good old personality clash, who knows ? Possibly Aurelia was aware of this even when Sylvia was alive-though the letters in Letters Home paint a generally rosy picture-and just took a dislike to Olwen out of sympathy for her daughter.

I also get the distinct impression that Olwen Hughes is just not an easy person to deal with. So many people who've had to work with the Plath Estate over the years have said this.

That omission of her name definitely speaks to me of dislike. It would have been so easy to put it in.

Anonymous said...

I'm aware of Olwyn's antipathy for Sylvia, and I'm sure Aurelia was aware of it as well, but she (Aurelia) strikes me as the type who would have just let it go. But it occurs to me that Olwyn herself may have asked to have her name taken off the book. It seems like it would have chafed her behind to be associated with this blatant attempt to whitewash Sylvia's image, inasmuch as she was so unsympathetic toward her sister-in-law's emotional 'issues' when she was alive. Do any of the biographers comment on Olwyn's reaction to Letters Home?

panther said...

That's perfectly plausible, Anonymous. Interesting, don't you think ? that she didn't want Sylvia whitewashed because she (Olwen) didn't like her and was quite happy for people to believe (carry on believing) that Sylvia was awful.

Whereas MY dislike of that whitewashing comes from a different source. Sylvia had mental health issues which made some of her life very difficult (and sometimes her behaviour towards other people WAS awful)) but those mental health issues were part of who she was. Letters Home (the tone and often the content of the letters themselves, the apparent omissions, the saccharine comments by Aurelia herself) feels like an exercise in dishonesty of the most profound kind.

I think the book DOES help us understand Sylvia, but not quite in the way Aurelia intended. ;)

I just try to remind myself that Aurelia was born in 1907, an entire century ago, and grew up in a society (like many societies) where mental health issues were just NOT MENTIONED. They were seen as shameful, both for the sufferer and for the sufferer's family. And then Freud gets more well-known and mental health issues are talked about a bit more and, what do you know, it's all the mother's fault ! Dr Beuscher herself bought into this, as I daresay many psychiatrists did in the Fifties.

I hope I haven't gone too far off-topic here. I do think it's relevant.

Anonymous said...

To clarify my last question...when I ask about biographgers, obviously I mean 'other than Anne Stevenson'. Because in Bitter Fame (which Olwyn co-authored to the extent that she claimed 40% of the royalties on the British edition and 30% on the American edition*)reference is repeatedly made to "the effusive, gossipy, transparently naive outporings of the letters" which "served only to confuse the public".

*This according to Jacqueline Rose in "The Haunting of Sylvia Plath" pg.95, for which info she references Olwyn's "Notes on 'The Haunting of Sylvia Plath'.

Anonymous said...

In all fairness, panther, we need to remember that Olwyn's motive was, at least it seems to me, not so much that she wanted people to believe that Sylvia was awful, but that she wanted people to believe that Ted was not. I think she was acting out of loyalty to her brother, who was being harshly maligned from all sides after Sylvia's death. She wanted people to see that Sylvia's extreme reaction to Ted's philandering was an hysterical symptom...that it was typical of Sylvia's neurotic way of reacting to injury to her self-image. So she had to highlight Sylvia's emotional volatility and irrationalty as a way of exonerating Ted of responsibility.

panther said...

I agree with you, Anonymous: she wanted to protect Ted. In the long term I think she harmed him, but her intentions, at least, were honourable.

Ted himself writes (in one of his published letters, written just after Sylvia's death) something like "I don't expect to be forgiven and I don't want to be." Olwen's reaction seems, therefore, a classic over-egging of the pudding but then, the vitriolic maligning of the poor man was out of all proportion.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Sorry to be so late in responding, I was away from all electronics most of the day.

Jim, I'm not sure why she was removed from the Acknowledgements. I like the idea of Aurelia dissing Olwyn for her behavior and treatment towards Sylvia Plath and her Estate. However, I think it was an editorial choice (as in Harper's, not Aurelia's) to change the Acknowledgements. I'm likely wrong. I also like the idea of Olwyn asking to have her name removed. I do not recall off hand many biographies discussing Plath's posthumous publishing life, if I may call it that, as it does seem to have a life of its own. In many ways, the publishing life of Plath is just as interesting and controversial...

suki said...

" I do not recall off hand many biographies discussing Plath's posthumous publishing life, if I may call it that, as it does seem to have a life of its own. In many ways, the publishing life of Plath is just as interesting and controversial..."

Peter, it was controversial because Ted and Olwyn Hughes controlled what the biographers could publish. This included the amount of poetry from the estate and what was said.

Doesn't Janet Malcolm's The Silent Woman (1993,1994) discusses the publishing life of Plath at length? It's possibly not up to date now, but it includes Wagner- Martin, focuses on Anne Stevensons and TH and Olwyn.

Wagner Martin's bio in 88 was changed; Paul Alexander's is unauthorized and has hardly any poetry in it; neither does Hayman's, because TH and Olwyn refused permission.

Anne Stevenson's which was helped by the Estate was pilloried for the comment about dual authorship.

Laurie said...

I'm coming in here a bit late. I've read with interest everything that's been said so far.

I thought this part:

"Of course this book could not exist without the permission given me by Ted and Olwyn Hughes, who have allowed me to publish sections from my daughter's correspondence and have given me the copyright for the selections from her letters."

was really snarky, with Aurelia speaking through gritted teeth, thanking her cheating xsoninlaw and his Sylvia-loathing sister for permission to publish HER daughter's letters. I'd be pissed too.

As for the Proof's page 426, regarding the bad treatment of people in Sylvia's life, that comment seems an extreme attempt to figure out 'why' her daughter took her life and weirdly to appease (maybe?) those hurt by the book...as if Sylvia's 'regret' would have manifested itself in suicide. It is a equation that doesn't compute, but I can see the reasons why Aurelia would have tried to buy and sell it.

panther said...

I dearly wish that Aurelia had done a bit less appeasing in her life ! What a people-pleaser ! I think we know, don't we ? that most people-pleasers have a lot of rage simmering just below the surface.


Laurie said...

Didn't Aurelia suffer greatly from ulcers? This is a woman who sacrificed much for others (to a fault) that would make even the most saint-like soul swallow a lot of anger and resentment.

panther said...

Sometimes we all need to make sacrifices. But not as a lifestyle.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Peter. It is clear now at the very least that whoever wrote the revised version of thanks did it with greater smoothness than what was whited-out. Or is it white-outed?

Anonymous said...

And I didn't mean to leave the above comment as "Anonymous" but as George Fitzgerald; I apparently clicked a wrong button.

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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. "'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.