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.

10 April 2018

Go Fish with Sylvia Plath

Going into Bonhams fascinating Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, The Property of Frieda Hughes auction I was completely torn about bidding. Of course Plath herself, in the guise and persona of "Lady Lazarus", predicted how her readers would covet "a piece of my hair or my clothes". And having been lucky enough to acquire, previously, something that Plath created as well as being gifted a typescript story, there is always the desire to have more.

I ranked some of the lots that most interested me and that would not completely destroy my meagre piggy bank from the moment I saw the draft sales catalogue in January. I was completely taken with the idea of owning something as random and frivolous as Plath's fishing rod (Lot 351). But something in me said go for something else. So I marked down Lot 334 ("A Winter Ship") as being idea. Copies are available but not one that was retained for 58 years by the family. I was interested also in the small lot of books (381) and well as the lot of 6 editions of The Colossus (336). So, yea, I was all over the place.

I discussed with a few friends what they might be interested in bidding on so as to not bid against a friend. It was also interesting to see what other items people were attracted to. So I put in a bid on those Colossus editions but then immediately cancelled it and went for "A Winter Ship". I put in the low estimate and had no faith it would hold. And it didn't… it sold for £5,500 (£6,875)... five and a half times the low estimate.

Watching the auction live was an event; an experience. Truly glued to my seat and incapable of leaving it, I weighed my other option. I put a bid in that held for about 2 seconds on the Oxford Book of Wild Flowers (340), misheard the bidding price on the wooden tray (350) which sold for what I consider to be "chump change". I did bid a couple of times on Lot 380 as I have convinced myself some of those items were actually once the property of Sylvia Plath directly… Of course I could be and probably am delusional… The mind is a funny thing. The last things I bid on were lots 400 and 401, the Laureate's Choice sherry. I lost those, too, as I just could not make myself click "bid" once more. For what they were I felt the went for reasonable prices of, respectively, £187 and £112.

After the auction ended I reached out to Frieda Hughes about the unsold lot 328 of "Tobias and the Angel" by Leonard Baskin. But, because I did actually win a lot in the auction I opted in the end not to try for the additional item. I regretted it the minute I passed on it, and still do. Massively. The extra expense just could not work itself out in my mind. I regret it more and more and more each day.

If you read that previous paragraph you will see that I did successfully bid on one of the lots. In the end it was the first thing that I was initially drawn to that saw me walking away slightly lighter in my wallet but with an item that is to me both bizarre and unique. The catalogue description of the fishing rod read, "Sylvia Plath's 2-piece cane fishing rod, made by Forrest & Sons, Kelso, 5 loops, cork handle, length approximately 1220mm." And it was accompanied with a footnote: "Ted Hughes wrote to his brother Gerald in late summer 1958 that 'Sylvia loves fishing, and has luck' (Letters of Ted Hughes, Faber, 2007, p.131)". In addition to this in Hughes' letters, there is more than likely additional material about fishing in Plath's forthcoming letters.

Gail Crowther took this photo which shows many
lots, including the fishing rod in the back corner.

Like my "Dark River" experience in December, this item had me on tenterhooks. It was collected on the 28th of March and so should have shipped on the 29th. However, the shipper had a "glitch" that coincidentally lasted the entire four-day Easter weekend. This delayed delivery by several days which I am not impressed with. But, the fishing rod made its way from Bonhams in London, to Oxford where it was packed, then to Stansted and on to Indianapolis before coming back east to me in Massachusetts.

The day it was delivered was comical. I knew it was nearby but the scheduled delivery date was Tuesday 10 April. So, I went to work thinking it would frustratingly hang out for a few days and collect dust. But by the time I got to work, it had moved to a distribution center two towns from my house... Once it was marked as out for delivery I knew I had to leave work to try to be home to sign for it. I had wanted it sent to work, but Bonhams failed to follow my instructions.

Anyway, I get off the train and start walking home. Huffing and puffing up a hill I see a FedEx truck pull onto my street. So naturally I start running after it. I am not faster than a truck. And it wasn't, in the end, my FedEx truck. No, my truck came conveniently about 20 minutes after I got home. Had I stayed home from work I do fully believe it would not have been delivered that day.

The tube in which it came and the padding...

The fishing rod in in two pieces that fit together. It came with a nice dark green carrying bag that has "Shakespeare 1575-240" on it. I have to ask Frieda Hughes about this!

When together, the rod is just shy of seven feet long... here it is on the floor and then propped up by a bookcase.

Now for some close ups...

I am really thrilled about this and will have to figure out what, exactly, to do with it. I have heard from some friends about their winnings; so of course I am pleased for them too.

Did you win something? Do you have it? Do you want to write a guest blog post about it? It can be anonymous if you want. Contact me via this page if you are interested.

All links accessed: 22 March 2018.

04 April 2018

Sylvia Plath's The Dark River

In February I wrote about one of the kindest things anyone has ever done for me… when my friend Suzanne bought and gave me a typescript story called "The Dark River" by Sylvia Plath. Shortly afterwards I sent the story to a friend who is a book binder and artist. This was to have a custom box made to house the typescript and recently it was returned to me.

Project complete.

I asked for the cloth on the box to be a dark blue color to kind of match what a dark river might look like. I think Barbara, the woman who made the box, knocked it out of the park.

The spine label is glorious.

Inside the box is a custom folder to further protect and support the seven pages of the story. I've added some acid-free interleaving paper to wrap around the story and protect the folder from any potential transfer of acids from the story pages to the folder.

All links accessed: 29 March 2018.

01 April 2018

New Sylvia Plath Book Published

Readers of Sylvia Plath will be given a new way to interact with Plath's poetry in Plath Libs, which was inspired by Mad Libs, created in 1953 by Leonard Stern and Roger Price.

The first book features five of Plath's works: "The Glutton", "Maudlin", "Metaphors", "The Hanging Man", and "Winter Trees". Let's say for example that in "The Glutton" that you did not like Plath's line-ending verb "slake"... Well, now you, the reader, can revise the poem yourself! Yee-haw! The entire poetic output of Plath is scheduled to be Plath-Libbed in a projected 2,999 more five-poem publications over the next 27 years.

The first book is available as a free PDF download for a limited time. Subsequent volumes will be sold exclusively at Wal-Mart for $17.99.

The cover was inspired by the unanimous success and support of the Faber edition of The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1.

All linked accessed 1 April 2018.
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