14 January 2013

Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar Published 50 Years Ago Today

Fifty years ago today, 14 January 1963, The Bell Jar by Victoria Lucas (Sylvia Plath) was published. The creation of and publication history of the novel is one of the more fascinating aspects of Plath scholarship. The secretive nature in which it was written - undated, the exact start and completion date are still unknown as of right now- as well as the process by which Plath saw it accepted and published, change the way in which we might consider Plath as a business woman. In fact, the process by which she saw all of her work come to print is something like leaves me feeling envy and awe: certainly not the image of your 1970s neurotic Sylvia Plath.

Plath did tell some of her friends and colleagues that she was writing a novel, but was very reticent to divulge too many details. One of the earliest references - if not the earliest - appears in a letter to Ann and Leo Goodman dated 27 April 1961, in which Plath writes she is more than a third of the way through a novel on the subject of a college girls nervous breakdown. She mentions that whilst in discussion with a publisher for the American edition of The Colossus it suddenly came to her how the novel should be done. She admits that it is full of real people and that she'd have to publish under a pseudonym. Lastly she says she find the book funny and that she laughs a lot. Based on other letters, Plath was in contact with Judith Jones of Knopf in late March and early April 1961. She received a letter from Jones dated 29 March accepting The Colossus and responded to it on 5 April. So if we take Plath at her word we have a rough time frame from when she started writing the novel. On 19 August 1961, she wrote to her brother-and sister-in-law, Gerald and Joan Hughes that she was trying to finish the novel before the move to Court Green. She was hoping to publish it, she said, so that she could buy a carpet! She also fibbed to a lot of people about her book. The novel was definitely completed a few days after her letter to Gerald and Joan, for in her journal she wrote that she had finished her novel on 22 August 1961.

In November 1961, Plath won a $2,000 Saxton grant for a novel and simply parceled the novel into four parts and submitted them quarterly. Her publisher was complicit in delaying publication and deceiving the grant committee - originally scheduled for some time in 1962 - so that she could receive all her funds. However, at this same time, an employee of Heinemann wrote to Knopf on 29 November 1961 stating that Plath was writing a novel tentatively called The Bell Jar and that in all likelihood it would be published under a pseudonym. Someone at Knopf put in two exclamation points next to this!! Other people she fibbed too include her Knopf editor Judith Jones, telling her in December 1961 that she was hoping to finish her book by the end of the grant in November 1962. Of course by this point it was more than done! By 11 June 1962, Plath was feeling a little more honest, telling her former teacher and mentor Alfred Young Fisher that she had had her first novel accepted for publication. Famously, of course, Plath referred to The Bell Jar as a "pot-boiler" in letters to her brother (18 October 1962) and her mother (25 October and 14 December 1962).

Plath received her first copy of the printed, finished, final first edition of The Bell Jar around mid-December, when her new editor at Heinemann David Machin sent her the book. It took a circuitous route to her, leaving the London's offices of Heinemann on 12 December to Court Green. But, of course Plath by then taken up residence in London so the book and letter reached her a few days later after being forwarded (presumably) from the North Tawton post office. I've always wondered what Plath thought of the book jacket. I've always wondered if she read the book once she got it. Heinemann threw a small launch party for The Bell Jar on 14 January 1963: publication day. Among those present were Plath (duh), Ted Hughes, and the Macedo's. Again, because Plath was so secretive about the novel and its publication, not very much is known at all about the party. The only known comment on Plath about 14 January 1963 comes from Ted Hughes, who said she was "in resilient form."

I have to admit that there has been more attention paid to The Bell Jar in recent weeks than I thought there might be. But this is a good thing and now I find I want more. The Guardian is doing their part, especially by making it the Reading Group selection for the month. (See also here.) There is the seemingly necessary discussion of the novel and the biographical circumstances that informed aspects of it. As points of discussion this can be interesting, but it can also be tiresome. I have been thinking for a long time about how I'm going to remember and commemorate this novel, which was first published 11 years before I was born. I often think it bizarre how someone born so many years after the book was published, and someone whose gender is so wonderfully (and rightfully) criticized in the novel, can grow to love it so much and be so affected by it! But, there is a power to the writing. And a universality. There is poetry in the prose.

The wonderful Gail Crowther has been commemorating The Bell Jar by sending out some of her favorite lines (gems). They are

Day 1: "I remember Jody, my best and only girl-friend at college in my freshman year, making me scrambled eggs at her house one morning. They tasted unusual and when I asked her if she had put in anything extra, she said cheese and garlic salt. I asked who told her to do that, and she said nobody, she just thought it up. But then, she was practical and a sociology major."

Day 2: "Buddy Willard went to Yale, but now I thought of it, what was wrong with him was that he was stupid."

Day 3: "The trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men in any way."

Day 4: "Children made me sick."

Day 5: "To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream."

Day 6: "I never feel so much myself as when I'm in a hot bath".

Day 7: "How did I know that someday - at college, in Europe. somewhere, anywhere - the bell jar with its stifling distortions, wouldn't descend again".

This inspired me to think about my favorite lines and scenes and I think I've narrowed it down to a few, listed below and in no particular order:

1."I thought the most beautiful thing in the world must be shadow, the million moving shapes and cul-de-sacs of shadow. There was shadow in bureau drawers and closets and suitcases, and shadow under houses and trees and stones, and shadow at the back of people’s eyes and smiles, and shadow, miles and miles and miles of it, on the night side of the earth."

2. "I opened my fingers a crack, like a child with a secret, and smiled at the silver globe cupped in my palm. If I dropped it, it would break into a million little replicas of itself, and if I pushed them near each other, they would fuse, without a crack, into one whole again."

3. "The silence drew off, baring the pebbles and shells and all the tatty wreckage of my life. Then, at the rim of vision, it gathered itself, and in one sweeping tide, rushed me to sleep."

Please don't hold me to these for like the waterline of tides, these very well could shift with my next reading! However, these are exemplary of Plath's writerly power. The imagery and metaphor in each are not just examples of good, engaging writing. It is perfect writing: a distinctive achievement. Not too much, not too little. Just absolutely right.

The Bell Jar is a book I first read in the winter of 1994. I got a copy of it for Christmas that year and read it in New Orleans over New Year's. From the first reading to my last - and I should add I read it at least twice a year - the novel never fails to impress me and present something new. Be it a connection to some of Plath's other prose, or even to her poetry, I consider the novel as a chapter in her creative writing and like looking at it as an integral part of the whole.

What is the best way to commemorate the anniversary of this novel? I think about the novel every day. I remember it. Part of this might stem, say, from working in Boston, quite near to some of the places mentioned in it. Over all, I cannot leave the novel alone and it will not let me push it out of my mind.

Part of this inability to leave it be has given rise to two essays. In 2001, two friends of mine and I discovered in a beautiful collaborative effort that Plath's short story "The Perfect Place" (typescript title: "The Lucky Stone") was published and that no bibliographer or scholar had ever made reference to it before. A little bit of its story was made public in my 2004 biography Sylvia Plath, and I expanded on both the short story and the novel in my first Plath Profiles essay "'I Should Be Loving This': Sylvia Plath's 'The Perfect Place' and The Bell Jar". In the essay I try to trace elements in the story, one of the last Plath wrote before she composed The Bell Jar; and about how certain scenes, characters and aspect of the story successfully led to achievements in the novel. Much of Plath's later works - be in prose, poetry, or even her book reviews and non-fiction writing - are routinely compared to her early writing, how the early writing is somehow practice for something finally achieved in a more perfect form. Is the essay convincing and successful, I cannot say. I hope so, though. Maybe one day this story "The Perfect Place" will be more widely available. But, more recently, after years of research, I published in Plath Profiles 5 the essay "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications. I consider The Bell Jar a gift. Not just a gift to me but a gift to anyone who reads it and anyone who is receptive to its messages. The "Textual Variations" essay is my return to gift to The Bell Jar. Unfortunately, it shows that posthumously Plath's estate and editors have subtly and not so subtly changed her text. The only edition Plath sanctioned was that 1963 Heinemann edition under the author's name Victoria Lucas. The text block remained the same in England (although the author's name changed) until 1996, when minor "fixes" were made. The paper ultimately argued that the editors need to restore The Bell Jar back to the original text, typographical errors and all. The universal success of Plath's unabridged Journals and Ariel: The Restored Edition exhibits that there is an interest, a market, and a need for her audience to be able to read her works as she intended. Do not let The Bell Jar escape this form of respectful correction.

If you are interested in reading some more about The Bell Jar please visit the Prose Works page of my website, A celebration, this is. You can also read a chapter-by-chapter summary here. And, of course, you can look at its history in book covers here. You might also want to search for The Bell Jar on the page of works about Sylvia Plath, too, in case you want a wider variety of opinions on the novel. This blog has also made reference to The Bell Jar time and again, click here to see posts in which the novel was tagged.

Happy 50th Anniversary, The Bell Jar.

5 comments :

The Plath Diaries said...

Great article Peter! I think Plath's beautiful prose stops the novel from "dating" as well, unlike a lot of its contemporaries.

Great selection of quotes, too. My favourite is the scene with Plath and the barman, where she orders a plain vodka. So funny.

suki said...

Fascinating! My favourite quote is the first line, It was a queer sultry summer the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs and I didn't know what I was doing in New York.

I love re reading the novel and I agree it's really funny.

It was great to go to New York before the conference last year,and see Bloomingdales. I checked for black patent leather shoes.... But last season's colours were wrong....

Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

Really great article, and I especially like how you draw attention to Plath's business-woman skills which are so often over-looked. Excellent quote selections by you and Gail, too. But then, it is a book so rich and quotable, it'd be easy to find more than a few treasures on every page.

The Bell Jar got me into poetry, indirectly. I was 16 when I first read the novel, and I was simply overcome with "Mad Girl's Love Song" in the Lois Ames Biographical Note in back (think I wrote a guest blog on this once upon a time). I've never stopped reading Plath since...

Peter K Steinberg said...

Suki - Thanks for the great comment. I feel your pain about the shoes. Hate it when that happens...

Julia! Thanks! Yes, Plath as a professional business woman & marketer of her work (and Hughes' for that matter) is still highly overlooked.

Maeve! Excellent point, too, about Plath's writing being timeless and how that stops the novel from dating. Perfect. Do you, as a result, always have your vodka plain?

pks

A Piece of Plathery said...

Thank you Peter, interesting and thought provoking as always. I must go and reread. Each year I usually manage to get one student to study 'The Bell Jar' for their own reading choice.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Publications & Acknowledgements

Interviews