11 February 2014

Sylvia Plath Collections: William Heinemann Ltd. Archives

The William Heinemann Ltd archives, which are a part of Random House Group UK, hold materials by and relating to Sylvia Plath. Included among the documents are letters to, from, and about Plath, her book contracts (The Colossus, 1960, and The Bell Jar, 1963). This post looks at the Heinemann archive materials both in the Random House Group UK archive and documents that are held in the Sylvia Plath Collection at Smith College.

The bar at the York Minster Pub (now
The French House), in March 2013
Plath signed her Heinemann contract for The Colossus on 10 February 1960 at the York Minster Pub (now The French House) at 49 Dean Street, Soho, London (map). She wrote proudly about the experience in a letter jointly addressed to her mother and brother the following day, 11 February: "picture (yesterday) your daughter/sister ... of enormous & impressive size, sailing into the notorious York Minster pub on Dean Street in Soho, just off Shaftesbury Avenue, about 12:15 & up to the bar to meet a pleasant half-American, half-Scots young editor for the wellknown British publishers, William Heinemann (publishers of Somerset Maugham, Evelyn Waugh, D H Lawrence, Erskine Caldwell etc. etc.) & taking out a pen thereupon & signing on the counter the contract for her first book of poems, namely THE COLOSSUS". Oh, I dislike ellipses but... And if you are checking the above quote against Letters Home please just stop as I used the original letter.

Some of the material in the Heinemann archive is closed (as in copies will not be made) because the documents contain sensitive information including financial and contractual information. Gail Crowther and I wrote about this and how frustrating it is to be denied access to Plath archival material in "These Ghostly Archives 3", published in 2011. However, for my work contributing to an edition of Plath's letters I was given permission to read the five letters by Plath that are held in the archive. As a result, I can share the below summaries of the letters, in date order, with you:

21 February 1960, to W. Roger Smith: A lengthy letter having to do with letting Heinemann know which poems were previously published, where, and when for copyright purposes and the Acknowledgements page of Plath's poetry collection The Colossus which had been accepted earlier that month.

11 March 1960, to W. Roger Smith: Writes back to his letter dated 8 March regarding copyright statements for her forthcoming book The Colossus, published later that year. She says she is an American citizen but that she plans to stay in England.

11 October 1961, to W. Roger Smith: Responding to a letter from Smith dated 10 October, in which he informed Plath that her poem "Medallion" was to be included in an anthology: The London Bridge Book of Verse (WorldCat). She lets Smith know her birthday and says that after her next one, the 30th, she will cease to acknowledge her age. It is a very funny letter, very warm, but chilling in some ways, too.

31 January 1962, to James Michie: Regarding a request from Meridian Books to reprint her poem "Black Rook in Rainy Weather" in an anthology. This was probably New Poets of England and America: Second Selection, which was edited by Donald Hall and published in 1962. Other poems of Plath were included in the anthology including "The Colossus", "Snakecharmer",  "Mushrooms","Blue Moles", and "The Ghost's Leavetaking". All these were also in The Colossus but for some reason the letter from Heinemann only asks about "Black Rook in Rainy Weather".

19 November 1962, to W. Roger Smith: Replying to a letter from Smith dated 5 November regarding a request to use a recording of Plath reading "Mushrooms" on an LP record. Plath grants permission but asks questions about the fee for the use, suggesting the possibility of getting more than the offered 2 guineas. In a Woolfian maneuver, she asks for 5 (a difference of three guineas). She wittily expresses concern about coming off as typically American and Capitalist!

There are additional letters to and from Plath and her Heinemann editors at Smith College. The Mortimer Rare Book Room at Smith holds:

James Michie's 1 October 1959 letter asking Plath to consider Heinemann as a publisher for a collection of poetry;

James Michie's 5 February 1960 handwritten letter to Plath accepting The Colossus;

Elizabeth Alexander's 7 December 1962 letter informing Plath that Knopf will not be publishing The Bell Jar in America;

Elizabeth Alexander's 10 December 1962 letter saying that she has send The Bell Jar to Harper & Row for consideration; (the contact at Harper & Row, Elizabeth Lawrence, wrote to Plath directly on 16 January 1963 informing her that they would not be taking the novel and why, Smith College holds this letter, too)

David Machin's 12 December 1962 letter sending an advance copy of The Bell Jar and hoping that they can meet before too long;

David Machin's 30 January 1963 letter congratulating Plath on receiving excellent reviews and asking her for her telephone number so that they can set up an appointment to meet; and

David Machin's 12 February 1963 letter -- the most haunting, chilling, and emotional letter I have ever worked with -- asking if he messed something up about their scheduled lunch meeting the previous day, 11 February 1963.

David Machin's 15 March 1963 letter to Ted Hughes asking about a reprint of The Bell Jar and the 1964 Contemporary Fiction Book Club edition, which was printed in an edition of 4,000. The letter also discusses royalty matters.

The letter Smith holds from Plath to Michie is a carbon copy dated 14 November 1961 and deals with libel issues relating to The Bell Jar. The letter is fascinating and illustrates how much "real life" went into the novel, and the lengths to which Plath went to "control and manipulate" those personal experiences that informed the story she told. This two-page, typed letter is among the most fascinating Plath wrote. There is additional content in Smith's archives related to Plath and Heinemann in the Jane V. Anderson papers as concerns Anderson's defamation law suit against Ted Hughes and the film production company for the 1979 film version of The Bell Jar.

I was not able to consult the original contracts for The Colossus and The Bell Jar, but was informed of valuable information about them based on some of my very specific questions. My questions were:

Was Plath's pseudonym on the contract?  Answer: No; and

What was the date on the contract? Plath's own signature was not dated, but the contract itself was dated Saturday, 21 October 1961, by someone at Heinemann. Which is quite valuable information.

Also, it was stated on the contract that the novel was finished and submitted. One thing that we do not know is: Was 21 October 1961 the date on which Heinemann sent it to Plath; or, was it the date they received it back from Plath?

You can read more about the history of William Heinemann Ltd here.

Thanks to Jean Rose at Random House Group UK for her assistance.

Like many other posts on Plath and her archives, this post illustrates very clearly how the split archive requires one to piece together documents to acquire a fuller story by consulting two or more repositories. In doing so, a real sense for how things took place can help to contextual those events and yield an deeper understanding and appreciation for Plath's efforts at publishing. A universal Plath archive would be nice. What I mean by this is that each of the archives could potentially make available their holdings electronically in-house, or at a minimum, perhaps a database could be created that lists in full each repositories holdings. This way a full understanding of Plath's productivity --which was as impressive as it was voluminous-- might be possible and it would certainly help scholars access the location of manuscripts, typescripts, drafts and the like for targeted research, to access textual differences, and the like. An idea at the least but funding or volunteer crowd-sourcing and quality control would have to be obtained for sure.

You can see more libraries that hold Plath materials on the Archival Materials page of my website for Sylvia Plath, A celebration, this is.

All links accessed 19 November 2013 and 5 February 2014.

2 comments :

suki said...

A full Plath archive would be great! Which one would be willing to give theirs up to start????

Even reading about the letter of 12 February gave me chills, so I'm not sure what it would have been like to read; I know reading was it Gordon Latamyer's casual, but insistant, 'you haven't let me know about the Yale dance next week, when SP was in McLean, recovering from the '53 attempt, was very sad reading.

Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

Another very valuable post. Thank you, Peter.

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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." 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.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • 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.
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (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. 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. 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. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.

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