18 April 2018

Guest Blog Post: A Blue Wool Hooded Coat

The below is a generous guest blog post by Tammy MacNeil on her recent Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes: The Property of Frieda Hughes Bonhams auction victory. Congratulations on the win, but more importantly on your pregnancy. ~pks

A Blue Wool Hooded Coat
by Tammy MacNeil, 17 April 2018

The announcement in late January 2018 that Frieda Hughes would be selling a large lot of her famous parents' personal possessions garnered attention in the press on both sides of the Atlantic. More than one Plath devotee wondered if this would be their opportunity to own something that had once belonged to Sylvia Plath herself. I have been a follower of Plath's for about twenty years, having written my Master's thesis on her work's influence on Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters. I believed that this auction was my chance to own a small piece of Plath history.

But what piece? Much as Peter K. Steinberg describes in his telling of winning Plath's fishing rod, narrowing my focus to one or two lots was a challenge. I decided to focus my attention on something tangible, such as an article of clothing or a piece of jewellery, rather than one of the auction's archival offerings. My long list included the copper hairband with earrings (lot 318), the dragon pendant (lot 319), blue ceramic necklace (lot 320), Court Green carpet (lot 347), Plath's fishing pole (lot 351), and Frieda's little blue jacket (lot 353). After considering the additional cost of shipping one of these items to Canada, I eliminated the carpet and the fishing pole. I placed a bid on the iconic dragon pendant (how could I not?), and the blue jacket, hoping against hope that I wouldn't win the pendant for financial reasons. Which left all of my hopes pinned on the blue jacket.

In truth, the reason why I wanted to win Frieda's blue jacket is because I am pregnant with my first child, at 40 years of age, and I wanted something that I could share with him or her in the future. Blue has always been my lucky colour, and I felt very strongly that this treasure should be mine as an item that once belonged to Sylvia Plath, but ultimately it belonged to her daughter. Like Plath herself, I have struggled with fertility issues for the last number of years and her writings about loss and doubt have been a comfort to me. I had all but given up hope on the idea but discovered I was pregnant shortly before the Bonham's auction was announced, so when it came time to consider the lots for offer, I was drawn to lot 353.

I must commend the staff at Bonham's as polite, informative, and genuinely helpful. I told the agents that I would not be placing a high bid (no £60,000 typewriters for me), but that didn't seem to affect the way they treated me. For anyone who did not register to bid, I was required to provide a copy of a valid passport, proof of financial means (I submitted a recent credit card statement), and a letter from my financial institution in order to register to bid. The Bonham's agent granted me bidding rights without the letter, likely because I stated that I would not be placing any large bids.

I wanted to be as informed as possible about my two most coveted items, so I requested a condition report on the dragon pendant and Frieda's jacket. The same senior valuer responded to both of my requests. The pendant's condition report describes it as having "some wear to surface. Small balls at tips of crowns in upper half but not lower half. Reverse with slight cracking to surface at tips." In his message to me, the senior valuer states "…of course it is the history of it that mainly counts." How true, Mr. Roberts!


I was surprised to read Gail Crowther's description of the necklace as being "light" and "flimsy." It certainly looks like it weighs a lot, especially with that chain.


Once live bidding started online, I was surprised to see how quickly the auctioneer moved through the lots. The winner of Plath's brown dress got the deal of the day in my opinion. I was less surprised to see that the majority of lots were selling for much higher than the auction house had estimated. When lot 319 appeared on the docket, there was a pleasant ringing sound to alert me to pay attention. The price quickly surpassed my bid and soared to more than three times the estimated high bid. I had never participated in a live bid quite like this one before. Sure I buy the occasional item on eBay, but with "Buy It Now" for most items the thrill -- and stress!-- of a live auction are now a rare occurrence.

As luck would have it, I miscalculated the time difference between London and Nova Scotia so I had to return to work before the appearance of lot 353. My sister sat with me through the auction at her home, and I told her I was willing to double my £550 bid for Frieda's blue jacket but she would have to bid on my behalf. There was a challenger, who must have set their maximum at £1000. If you are reading this, dear Bidder, please know that this was the one item I truly wanted, and I hope that you were able to buy something else at the auction.


I couldn't believe that I had won! I kept checking my email for confirmation from Bonham's that I was indeed the winner and could I please send them a large sum of money. My winning bid of £1100 quickly ballooned once the hammer price of 25% was added, the exchange rate to British pounds was calculated, and the insane amount of shipping and Canadian import fees were settled. Still, I do not regret my purchase for a second. This is a tangible item that Plath herself helped her two-year old daughter in to on the day of her christening on 25 March 1962. This garment appears to have been a much-loved item, and was evidently worn by Frieda more frequently than just the one special occasion.

Condition report: "exterior generally clean and in good condition. Lining torn at inner seam and frayed at edges, with some staining."


Overall the jacket is beautiful, a deep shade of blue with light blue and cream detail.


Detail of right side of jacket. Notice the individual stitches.


Each swirl is actually indented into the fabric, and they feel like little bumps on the underside.


The left side of the jacket has two small tears, one is quite noticeable. I wonder if Frieda is left-handed and had picked at that side of the jacket when she was wearing it as a child?


The seams in the lining are torn. The lining itself it also stained.


Here you can clearly see that both seams are torn; the left side is more frayed than the right.


Back of the jacket.

Sincere gratitude to Peter K. Steinberg for welcoming other Plath enthusiasts to share their stories on his blog. Thank you for maintaining such an informative and enduring record of Plath studies and activities, and for providing a space where this intelligent and passionate community can come together to share our appreciation for a truly remarkable woman: Sylvia Plath. Like so many others, I am looking forward to reading The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 2 later in 2018.


Thank you, Tammy, for this lovely post! You were an auction viewer, winner, or even loser and what to write about your own experiences, please do consider writing a guest blog post, too.

All links accessed 17 April 2018.

1 comment :

Eva Stenskar said...

I loved reading this! How wonderful for you to win this beautiful little hoodie and now you're having a baby with whom you will share it - such a lovely, moving story. Congratulations!

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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. "'A Fetish: Somehow': A Sylvia Plath Bookmark." Court Green 13. 2017.
  • 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.

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