01 April 2011

Guest Post: Sylvia Plath Book Collecting

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!

Margi Naylor
Boca Raton, Florida

6 comments :

magiciansgirl said...

Margi - thanks so much for sharing your story! And what a story it is. I can't imagine how you feel about the books going missing - as a Plath lover and a collector, that scenario is just too much to contemplate. And I can't believe the shipping company has no record of the boxes being delivered elsewhere. My gut feeling is that they are in a warehouse somewhere, or having been there for a while, may have been (gulp) pitched. Perhaps if you can contact someone at the main headquarters and find out more about which cities the company has storage facilities in, that might be a start (if you haven't done this already). I ship art for a living - if you want to contact me via Peter and let me know what shipping company you used, I may be able to do a little investigating, depending on which company it was. We don't use moving companies to ship art, but some big companies have high value shipment divisions, so you never know, I may have a contact somewhere who could prove useful i some way. Kim

Peter K Steinberg said...

(Blogger has been difficult about posting comments - this is my second attempt at doing so. If you have problems also, sorry! Hopefully they'll sort it out quickly...)

Kim - thank you for your comment. It is an incredible story. I don't know about you (or anyone else) but I by habit go into every used bookshop I see looking for a copy of these older, more valuable books like a Heinemann Colossus or Victoria Lucas Bell Jar. Haven't found one yet but you can certainly bet I'll be looking a bit harder now!

In my emails with Margi we did discuss extensively the lengths to which she went to find her books (and her other belongings). And there were details in the emails that just didn't fit into the post she eventually sent. Like the hours on the phone with customer service reps, managers, etc. with the shipping company. I believe they did search the main warehouse but will follow-up with her (she did keep notes, etc.). For privacy purposes, she was adamant about not naming the company. But, she did say I could summarize some of them (though retired she does keep busy locally volunteering, taking senior exercise classes, trips around the state, etc.) as she is a bit shy still and not always in front of a computer (like we youngin's). The books had been appraised and thus the insurance she purchased for them covered her for the unfortunate loss. I'm not sure if she's started to re-collect things; from the tone of resignation in her emails to me I'd venture to say she has not. It did take a lot of convincing on my part for her to tell her story, she just feels like a real fool for not fitting the books into the car she drove south.

Of the details in the post, the one I find most interesting and tantalyzing is that Plath signed her name "Sylvia Hughes" in the book. This does fit with the letters she was sending at the time, the return address almost always listing her name as Sylvia Hughes. Letters to editors and publishers who knew her under her maiden name of course still said Sylvia Plath. I wonder why she didn't use a bookplate; but it could be she was out, or had left her supply at Court Green. In my readings of The Bell Jar (I have photocopies of the proof & first edition [Heinemann] which I used for my Fine Books & Collections article), I too had noticed that typo that Plath apparently corrected by hand Margi's copy (amd I've even written a forthcoming post about it). I wonder how Plath, who was exacting, missed that in the proofing process. Anyway, this shows evidence that Plath re-read her novel before her death. The presence, too, a publisher's compliment's slip is almost unheard of. In my book browsing, fair attending, and catalog reading, I've never heard of an edition with the slip included (though this obviously doesn't mean there never was one). Though I'm unclear who sent the books, Plath had copies sent - and maybe she sent them herself - to a number of people including Elizabeth Sigmund and Al Alvarez. Whether or not these had compliment or review slips is unknown.

There is one other detail Margi told me about but I do want to ask her permission explicitly on this one facet before I post the comment... Stay tuned.

pks

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your story with us Margi. I certainly felt the range of emotions Plath has aroused in you, the joy of that initial purchase, the surprise at what your copy of The Bell Jar revealed, amazement at Hughes’ offer to ‘keep it’ and the overwhelming sense of loss at the book’s vanishing. Thank you for being so candid and for opening up to us. You have been incredibly lucky too, what a find even if impermanent. I hope that the joy it evoked still resonates despite the pain.



I absolutely love that fact that your book’s have lives, that you read them and engage with their tactile nature as well as psychologically and emotionally. I, too, cannot resist the urge to open my books and go through them, I could not simply leave them on the shelf.

-Melanie Smith

Anonymous said...

Kim and Melanie thank you so much for your kind and compassionate words about my Plath story. I would have written back sooner but was at opening day & weekened baseball games back in Cleveland. The Indians may stink but I am a lifelong fan.

I do get by when I do think about those books that they were stolen off the van or that indeed perhaps they are in a warehouse somewhere. Even if they were pitched I hope that the found their way to a Salvation Army store or the like.

Melanie yes my books did have lives. How could they not? When I read them things - exciting things - always seemed to be happening, even little things became magnified. I remember one so clearly. It was in 1974, I was at the community pool in the summer and I was reading my Victoria Lucas Bell Jar. I recall pausing in my reading, looking up, seeing a handsome man, reading one of those small Bantam paperbacks of The Bell Jar. He didn't end up being my husband, but we did a wonderful summer together.

Peter mentioned the other detail that I told him but left out of the post. Well, I had a thing, a system, and for whatever reason I always put my initials in my books on page 41. For it was when I was 41 that I did meet and marry my future husband (when you know you know, you know!). I was happy to take his name, and I wanted that reflected in my books which were as much a part of me as my DNA. Besides, I was more than eager to shed my maiden name, Jester.

Thank you all again for reading my post.

Margi

Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

Wow. What a story! So sorry to hear of the heartbreaking end.

Peter K Steinberg said...

What, that it was all an April Fool's Day joke?

pks

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