The following is a guest post, answering my recent request for contributions to this blog by those who collect Sylvia Plath books or have interesting stories about their collections. If you collect Plath too, and want to share, please email me!
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Peter's recent postings on Plath books and manuscripts at auctions and his history of highlighting collecting, collectors, and archives on his Plath blog spurred me into writing this post. Like many I am mainly a lurker of this wonderful blog but not usually willing to participate in discussions, even though the atmosphere here is friendly and welcoming. And as you will see, this post is as much to tell a story - my story - about acquiring a unique book as it is possibly to make a wider audience known to what proves to be for me a devastating loss.
In the mid 1960s I was living in England, attending university in Plymouth. My boyfriend at the time, William, was British and came from a small town near Woolfardisworthy, in North Devon. He introduced me to Sylvia Plath’s poetry and when The Bell Jar was published in England in 1966 I bought a copy and was hooked. The writing was so humorous. I guess also being an American woman who grew up in similar circumstances afforded me somewhat of a direct connection to the novel and also to Plath's own life story (long history there that I don’t really care to get into). William gave me a nice first edition of Ariel, and to round out my young collection, I found a Heinemann edition of The Colossus, too, at a bookshop in Oxford on one of our weekend excursions (at that time - being young and full of energy - I tried to see as much as I could at the weekends). I saw and still see so many parallels between the novel and Ariel.
I no longer remember where I was when I found it, but William and I were traveling back to Plymouth one weekend from Bristol, and we stopped for a meal and had a browse around a bookshop. I preferred back roads for the scenery - we found many pubs and little quaint towns in our travels this way - to the bigger, impersonal roadways. Anyway, at this bookshop, I remember browsing the literature and poetry sections - being there to study English - and was surprised to find a copy of The Bell Jar by a Victoria Lucas - the Heinemann edition. I read the first lines and was surprised to see it was the same as Plath’s. I enjoyed her work, but didn’t know at the time it was published originally under a pseudonym.
This copy was exquisite, and in an almost untouched dustwrapper, bright and intact as the day it was printed. The bookseller priced books using a slip of paper inserted like a bookmark. The price was £9.2s.11d. (which was 9 pounds, 2 shillings and 11 pence); and the book appeared mostly unread. It was a lot of money for me but without thinking further I bought it. I asked the man when he obtained this particular book and he said he had bought it with a lot of other books at a local estate sale that was held via auction (which is how I think my story links up with what Peter has been posting recently). But, beyond that the bookseller didn’t know much more.
When we got back to university and I took the book out of the paper the seller wrapped it in, I noticed that in the top right of the front free endpaper was written "Sylvia Hughes" in what looked like a woman’s hand. The book was mostly unmarked; no bookplate, no foxing, or anything: there was just one instance where a typo appeared in the text that had been corrected by hand. I remember I thought it was odd, and noted that the correction was in the same black ink as the name on the free end paper. There was also a “Compliments of the publisher” slip of paper that was tipped in at the end of Chapter 13 and I always found this somewhat touching as that chapter represents the nadir of Esther Greenwood’s story, just before her rebirth and recovery.
I stayed in England a few years (sadly, things with William didn’t work out, which was a shame because I loved his accent and the mere fact that he was from near a town called Woolfardisworthy) and became by accident kind of a Plath addict. I built somewhat of a shrine of books on my bookcase, each of those first few titles displayed face out on book stands, relegating all my other books to a mash of single-file, spines-out camaraderie.
In 1969, however, that Victoria Lucas Bell Jar took on a new significance. I saw a sample of Plath’s handwriting in an issue of the Cambridge Review and it was then that I learned what a truly rare book it was that I had, for the handwritten “Sylvia Hughes“ on the free front endpaper in my book was written in the hand of Sylvia Plath.
After I learned whose handwriting it was, I wrote to Ted Hughes via his publisher to let him know about the book. I received a reply a few months later letting me know that some of Plath's things had "walked" in the years since her death and that in his estimation this book likely went missing about 1964 or 1965. He said that I should keep it (I had offered to return it to him), indicating that while he appreciated my honesty it didn't seem to be a good use of his time - "however frustrating" - to try to hunt these items down.
My collection grew beyond those initial gifts and purchases as I bought books by Plath as they were published through the years. I read all my books thoroughly, perhaps not treating them as or considering them to be “collectibles” - at the time I had very little knowledge of how to care for books to maintain the desired “as new” condition. Thus, you could see in the image below that the once pristine dustwrapper endured quite a bit of wear and tear. I remember it was after Plath won her Pulitzer Prize that I broke down and had all the books protected in mylar coverings, and so at least that rubbing and chipping to the wrapper was arrested. For all the accretions to my library, I cherished that Bell Jar more than anything else.
After retiring from teaching in 2003, I moved from Cleveland “the mistake on the Lake” Ohio to Florida (for the weather!) but along the way several boxes of clothing, kitchen wares, and books - including my Plath books - went missing. The moving company was reputable but even they weren't sure where these boxes were delivered to or what happened to them. I never should have allowed some of those boxes out of my sight! I had insured everything, though how does one insure a priceless book! That is, how do you place a value on a book which no price would convince me to part with. And so the damage at this point is emotional. But I'd love - really, really love - to get those books back - particularly what appears to have been Plath’s own copy of her novel. I have no idea if it's in Kentucky or Georgia or even Manitoba or somewhere else altogether. I did take some pictures of it in the 1990s as I was preparing my will (but that’s terribly grisly of me to mention, let alone to think about) and include one here as Peter thought it might help someone if they were to come across it.
I realize I’ve carried on quite a bit, so thank you all for your time in reading this!
Boca Raton, Florida
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." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
- 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 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.
- 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. 2000. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books. (Acknowledged in)
- 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. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.
- 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. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
- 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. "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. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "Introduction." Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.
- "Banking on his passion for Plath" by Melissa Davis Haller. UMW Today. Spring 2005.
- "Sylvia Plath's Three Women to be staged in London" by Alison Flood. The Guardian. 3 December 2008.
- "FBI files on Sylvia Plath's father shed new light on poet" by Dalya Alberge. The Guardian. 17 August 2012.
- "There Are Almost No Obituaries for Sylvia Plath" by Ashley Fetters. The Atlantic. 11 February 2013.