07 July 2018

A Book Belonging to Sylvia Plath

Lot 339 at the recent-ish Bonhams sale of the Property of Frieda Hughes was a lot that I was interested in and bid on. Unsuccessfully. When I found out that Christian White of Modern First Editions was the winner I looked forward to seeing what entire lot of 21 items included.

The biggest reason this lot interested me was the first book listed in the catalogue description:
"JENKINS (ALAN C.) White Horse and Black Bulls, AUTHOR'S PRESENTATION COPY TO SYLVIA PLATH, inscribed "For Sylvia with every good wish and in the hope that you will stay in Devonshire. Alan" on the half-title, with later ownership inscription of Frieda Hughes, 1960."
Jenkins was the step father of Plath's autumn 1962 live-in nurse Susan O'Neill-Roe Booth and who herself was the dedicatee of the poem "Cut". Susan's mother was Nancy Jenkins, who was secretary of the local bee keepers. They lived at a house called "Pear Trees" in Belstone, a village close to Corscombe, where Plath went horseback riding on a horse called Ariel. On one such meeting-up, before she moved to London, Plath and Jenkins took a walk and had plans in place for more when she returned to Court Green in the spring.

'Pear Trees' Belstone

'Pear Trees' Belstone

The church in Belstone
Anyway, Plath visited the Jenkins' at their "Pear Trees" house on 17 November 1962 which was a busy day as she had a riding lesson that morning, welcomed Clarissa Roche that evening, and her poem "Berck-Plage" was aired on the BBC that evening. And according to her Letts Royal Office Diary tablet held by Smith College, she hosted Nancy and Alan on Saturday 24 November 1962 at Court Green, serving chicken and macaroni.

A rather touching and heartbreaking story is related in an unpublished biography/memoir by Clarissa Roche...In London on Sunday, 10 February 1963, and delayed to the point of having to stay the night in London, Alan Jenkins set off walking toward Fitzroy Road. However, he had second thoughts and decided not to just turn up, unexpectedly, at 23 Fitzroy Road. He was afraid of disturbing Plath writing or entertaining. Roche writes that Jenkins thought Plath would soon enough be back in Devon and they would go, as planned, on country hikes. In fact, this prospect led Jenkins to purchase a new pair of hiking shoes. When it was learned that Plath died, those shoes he bought remained unused and were stored in the house next to the white smock Nancy Jenkins lent to Plath at the first bee meeting (see "The Bee Meeting"). Jenkins died in 1996, out on a walk wearing his old, well-worn shoes.

Dr. White expanded the description of the book from the Bonhams catalogue. White writes:
Alan C Jenkins, White Horses and Black Bulls, 1960, Blackie. Inscribed by the Devon author to Sylvia Plath: "For Sylvia with every good wish and in the hope that you will stay in Devonshire. Alan." Jenkins was a writer and editor who lived for many years at Belstone about 3 miles from Plath and Hughes' home in North Tawton. The book is in good condition only, having been read and re-read during its time in the ownership of Plath and Ted Hughes and subsequently Frieda Hughes – clearly a family favourite. Jenkins' encouraging inscription from Jenkins to the newly arrived Sylvia Plath speaks very movingly of her brief residence in Devon that concluded with her separation from Ted Hughes and ultimately fatal return to London.

Books inscribed to Plath are exceedingly rare and given this fact it is rather meaningful to own this one. Naturally those books personally inscribed to Plath by Ted Hughes take the cake for their significance. However this was oozes sincerity in an entirely different way than Hughes' books to Plath, or even the copy of Marianne Moore's Collected Poems (held by Smith) signed and inscribed by Moore at the Glascock Poetry competition in April 1955.

It is simply unknown if Plath read this book but it is clear that it has been read and cherished. I want to believe Plath did read it and she likely could have done so in an hour or two. I like to believe, as well, that the ring-stain on the cloth is from Plath's tea mug, but this is probably fantasy. Frieda's subsequent ownership inscription adds a touching piece of history to the volume. Her own well-documented interest in animals may have been inspired, in part, from reading this book in the 1960s or early 1970s. Possibly Nicholas Hughes read this volume, or had it read to him, as well.

I imagine Jenkins handing this book to Plath at their last meeting before she departed North Tawton for London; given out of kindness and sincere hope that Plath would return in the spring.

All links accessed 15 May 2018.


Anonymous said...

Thank u for this amazing and interesting post, Peter. I didn't know anything about this "episode" of Jenkins and the book in the life of Sylvia. I found so touching and moving the part when Alan sets off walking toward Fitzroy Road but then decided not to turn up for the fear of disturbing Sylvia, when instead, without knowing he could have been of great help to her and maybe prevent her from killing herself. Also the episode of the hiking shoes kept unused as in sign of respect when it was learned that Plath died and were stored in the house next to the white smock Nancy lent to Plath at the first bee meeting. Who knows then if the ring-stain on the cloth is from Plath's tea mug.. that will remain in the unknown forever. And that last sentence of yours in the post about the book... given out of kindness and sincere hope that Plath would return in the spring. Oh my! So heartbreaking! It hurts reading this last sentence. It had on me the exact same bitter and painful effect it has the final sentence in "Snow Blitz" every time I read it.
Thank u Peter for this gem of a blog post. So beautiful and touching. And u gift it to us on the day of your birthday when it had to be you to receive a gift. But oh well..u've always been such a generous person. And this is another case. Thank you!
Again many many many and my best wishes on your birthday, spend an great birthday weekend!

Sincerely, and with all my friendship, regard and appreciation, Alina.

Jacqueline M. said...

I've always wondered if Susan O'Neill Roe ever spoke publicly of Sylvia. She spent a lot of time with Sylvia and the two children in late 1962.

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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.
  • 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.
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 2, 1956-1963. London: Faber, 2018.
  • 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.