22 August 2019

Sylvia Plath In Context: Essays edited by Tracy Brain

Published today by the Cambridge University Press is Sylvia Plath In Context, edited by Tracy Brain (Amazon.co.uk).

From the book blurb on CUP's website:

Sylvia Plath in Context brings together an exciting combination of established and emerging thinkers from a range of disciplines. The book reveals Plath's responses to the writers she reads, her interventions in the literary techniques and forms she encounters, and the wide range of cultural, personal, artistic, political, historical and geographical influences that shaped her work. Many of these essays confront the specific challenges for reading Sylvia Plath today. Others evaluate her legacy to the writers who followed her. Reaching well beyond any simple equation in which biographical cause results in literary effect, all of them argue for a body of work that emerges from Plath's deep involvement in the world she inhabits. Situating Plath's writing within a wide frame of references that reach beyond any single notion of self, this book will be a vital resource for students, scholars, instructors and researchers of Sylvia Plath.

Below is a list of the essays in volume.

Part I. Literary Contexts:
1. Plath and the American poetry scene by Jonathan Ellis
2. The dominant trends in British poetry of the 1950s and early 1960s by Eleanor Spencer
3. Plath and the classics by Holly Ranger
4. Plath and the radio drama by Andrew Walker
5. 'Sincerely yours': Plath and The New Yorker by Peter K. Steinberg

Part II. Literary Technique and Influence:
6. Plath in the context of Stevie Smith by Noreen Masud
7. Plath's whimsy by Will May
8. Sylvia Plath and you by Tracy Brain
9. Plath and the lyric by Lucy Tunstall
10. Plath and the pastoral by Iain Twiddy

Part III. Cultural Contexts:
11. Plath and food by Gerard Woodward
12. Plath and fashion by Rebecca C. Tuite
13. Experimental bravery: Plath's poetry and auteur cinema by Lynda Bundtzen
14. Plath and television by Nicola Presley
15. Plath and art by Jane Hedley

Part IV. Sexual and Gender Contexts:
16. 'Minor scandal': queer writing contexts for The Bell Jar by Beatrice Hitchman
17. 'Woman-haters were like gods': The Bell Jar and violence against women in 1950s America by Kate Harding
18. Sylvia Plath and the culture of hygiene by Laura Perry

Part V. Political and Religious Contexts:
19. The Bell Jar, the Rosenbergs and the problem of the enemy within by Robin Peel
20. Religious contexts for Sylvia Plath's work by Gail Crowther
21. Plath and nature by Richard Kerridge
22. Plath and war by Cornelia Pearsall

Part VI. Biographical Contexts:
23. Sylvia Plath's journals by Sally Bayley
24. Plath's teaching and the shaping of her work by Amanda Golden
25. Electroshock therapy and Plath's convulsive poetics by Anita Helle
26. Plath's scrapbooks by Peter K. Steinberg
27. Beyond letters home: Plath's unabridged correspondence by Karen V. Kukil

Part VII. Plath and Place:
28. 'A certain minor light': Sylvia Plath in Brontë country by Sarah Corbett
29. Plath in London by Elaine Feinstein
30. Plath in Devon: growing words out of isolation by Maeve O'Brien

Part VIII. The Creative Afterlife:
31. An alternative afterlife: Plath's experimental poetics by Gareth Farmer
32. British and American editions of Ariel and The Bell Jar by Elena Rebollo-Cortés
33. After Plath: the legacy of influence by Fiona Sampson
34. P(l)athography: Sylvia Plath and her biographers by Heather Clark

The book is expensive, coming in at £85.00. The ISBN is 978-1108470131. It will be available in the US on 30 September 2019 for $110 (Amazon.com).

All links accessed 14 and 22 August 2019.

15 August 2019

Update on The Selected Writings of Assia Wevill

Recently I received a comment on The Selected Writings of Assia Wevill book announcement post  asking for an update on the book that I am fortunate enough to be co-editing with Julie Goodspeed-Chadwick, author of the forthcoming Reclaiming Assia Wevill: Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, and the Literary Imagination (LSU Press). Julie and I are happy to provide this, however briefly.

We have compiled the first draft of the manuscript which consists of four parts: Letters, Journals, Poems, and Miscellaneous texts. All sections have been annotated with contextual footnotes. In addition, we are presently working on our introduction and the selection of images and illustrations. In the coming months we'll continue read and proof the text, try to add more information to the footnotes if we can, and try to locate more documents to include. This autumn I am going to work on building an index, because I enjoy punishing myself in nerdtastic ways.

Happily, we are on schedule to have the manuscript to our publisher, the Louisiana State University Press, by our deadline of 31 December 2019.

All links accessed 12 August 2019.

P.S. Because I have not so far—and cannot fathom posting something here without typing it—Sylvia Plath.

10 August 2019

Sylvia Plath's fireflies

Sylvia Plath's first published poem appeared on 10 August 1941, seventy-eight years ago today. It appeared on the "Good Sport" page of the Boston Herald, page 8.

The printed poem is brief: just four lines. The subject of the poem is what the young poet heard and saw in summer evenings: crickets and fireflies which "Twinkle as they pass." I am presenting KICKING myself because this should have been in Volume 1 of The Letters of Sylvia Plath. I am seriously the most rubbish editor ever. See this blog post for more information on the poem and the letter.

Earlier this summer, or was it spring?, I was visiting some family and noticed a number of fireflies, aka lightning bugs. Of course, I thought of Plath immediately and so I immediately captured a short video of them as it had been a number of years since I had seen such a preponderance of the lovely bugs. When I was growing up we used to run around in the evening collecting them in mason jars. (We made air holes so they did not die.) We would keep them for a night and let them illuminate our bedroom and then set the free the next day.

I do recommend watching several times, in dark room, to see the fireflies flick and flash.

 All links accessed 4 August 2019.

01 August 2019

Faber reissues Sylvia Plath The Bell Jar

On 26 July 2019, Faber and Faber tweeted out a lovely photograph featuring a person holding a copy of The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath seated on some grass.

And then today, they tweeted out that the novel is officially reissued.

However, I have not seen the book listed either on their website or on Amazon.co.uk, but it is a beautiful looking cover which pays homage to their original 1966 edition.

A gallery of historical Bell Jar covers can be seen over on my website.

All links accessed 30 July 2019 and 1 August 2019.

14 July 2019

Guest Blog Post: Cornucopia, Wisconsin

The following is a guest blog post by Amy C. Rea about her recent visit to Cornucopia, Wisconsin. All text and photographs are copyright to her. Thank you, Amy! ~pks

60 years ago, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes undertook a road trip circling America with visits to Canada and Mexico tucked into the northern and southern ends of the expedition. (For a wonderfully detailed and researched overview of this trip, see David Trinidad's On the Road with Sylvia and Ted: Plath and Hughes’s 1959 Trip Across America.)

They began their trek on July 7, and a week later, found themselves in a small north-central Wisconsin town called Cornucopia. There they found a farm on the shores of Lake Superior owned by Andrew and Helen Nozel, who graciously agreed to let them camp on their property for two nights.

Recently my husband and I took a road trip from our home in Minnesota to Bayfield, a charming small town on Wisconsin's Lake Superior shore (called the South Shore, as opposed to Minnesota's North Shore), with access to the Apostle Islands and Madeline Island. While plotting the driving route, I noticed that Cornucopia was right on the way. Obviously we would have to stop.

Ehlers Store, Cornucopia
Peter K. Steinberg provided me the name of the farmers, and some very helpful people at the Bayfield County Land Records Office helped me narrow down my search, getting to a legal property description that seemed to have two potential lots that were likely to be where Plath and Hughes camped: a stretch of road cornered by Spirit Point and Birch Hill roads and Lake Superior itself.

Cornucopia had to wait until the day we returned, as the first day we ran into torrential rains. But driving through the rain made me wonder if this was the same highway they took (in reverse). I knew from Trinidad that they left Brimley, MI the morning of July 14 and arrived in Cornucopia that night. A Google map search has the most direct route cutting inland before getting to Bayfield, but Trinidad’s article reports that they drove all day without leaving the lake. That seems to imply they would have gone through Bayfield, which is a charming, New England seaside-y village right on the lake. That means they traveled on what is now WI-13, the road we took. It's hard to imagine Plath not enjoying the view; Lake Superior is the largest of the Great Lakes, and at points, you can barely see land across it, leading many locals to refer to it as the "northern ocean."

It's a beautiful drive, densely forested with little pockets of farm land carved out of the trees here and there. You can drive for miles and not see another car or house; today, rural fire address signs are at the foot of every driveway, but those mostly came into being in the 1970s-80s, so they wouldn't have been there when Plath and Hughes came through. Traveling in early July, the trees were fully leafed out and densely green: aspen, sugar maple, birch, oak, hickory, and basswood, combined with a wide variety of pine trees (jack, red, and white pine; black and white spruce; balsam fir; and tamarack). The ditches on either side of the highway were full of white, purple, and yellow wildflowers. If that's what Plath saw too, her acute appreciation of the visual must have made the drive beautiful.

Spirit Road from Highway 13
The spot where they likely camped isn't hard to find. Spirit Point Road turns directly off Highway 13, and only a mile down Spirit Point is Birch Hill Road. Spirit Point is currently paved for the first half mile, then becomes a dirt road, well packed down. Birch Hill is a dirt road that tapers down to the lake and today ends in two rutted tire track lanes. Trinidad notes that Plath and Hughes camped on a "hayfield hilltop." Current survey photos don't show any open farmland here; it appears to have been allowed to revert back to forest. But the land does slope sharply up from the lake.

Birch Hill Road
Birch Hill Road, Lake Superior behind Amy
Birch Hill Road with view of Lake Superior
Clearly I was on private property and didn't wish to be the awful tourist who can't respect boundaries. The Nozel family no longer owns the property, so the likelihood of finding someone who remembered their visit seemed beyond small. Driving toward the end of Birch Hill Road, which dead-ends at the lake, I could see some older buildings, including a decrepit shed, and felt that was as far as I could go without being intrusive. Still, I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel cautiously excited at this proximity to a spot Plath was at and which, according to Hughes, was his favorite stop of the trip.
Former Nozel property off Birch Hill Road

Of course, such a trip ends up asking more questions than it answers. Bayfield is located on Lake Superior's Chequamegon Bay. The Bay contains the Apostle Islands, which are now mostly part of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, overseen by the National Park Service. But in 1959, they were still mostly private, some still having residents and remnants of logging and sandstone mining companies. Surely Plath would have been fascinated with the stories of the sea caves, especially the large ones found around Devils Island.

However, Madeline Island was already a popular day-trip tourist destination with regular summer ferry service. Did Plath and Hughes know that? Did they consider taking a jaunt across the big lake to the beautiful island, full of intriguing history, flora and fauna?

Or when leaving Bayfield and driving through Red Cliff, did they know that they were on the reservation of the Red Cliff Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa, or that Chief Buffalo was instrumental in allowing the tribe to stay there rather than be forced west, as the government of the early 1800s wanted them to do? Given their interest in history, mythology, and other cultures, it seems like this would have been a good stopping point for them.

But we don't know how much they knew about the area they were traveling through. Trinidad doesn't detail their departure from Wisconsin, which occurred on the 16th, other than to say they drove through Minnesota to camp in North Dakota. Our route took us through the twin ports of Superior, WI and Duluth, MN, courtesy of a bridge that opened in 1961 and allowed us to quickly cross the lake between the two towns. In 1959, they could have crossed via the now-historic Aerial Lift Bridge.

As I left Wisconsin, I had to wonder what it would take to get the Wisconsin Historical Society to consider putting up a plaque in Cornucopia. How many other times has Wisconsin had a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and a Poet Laureate camping in the state?

All links accessed 10-11 July 2019.

10 July 2019

Sylvia Plath Email Query

In June I received an email asking about something that was said back in 2017 during the Q & A of a talk that I gave with Heather Clark and Karen V. Kukil at the Grolier Club. If I knew it, I had forgotten, that a video was available online of the Symposium which was done in conjunction with the exhibit from the collections of Judith Raymo.

At the start of the Q & A, Richard Larschan, who was a great friend of Aurelia Plath's in Wellesley, asked if we had gotten access to sealed letters at the Lilly Library. He had asked this of me a few times but I never really did much investigating about it.

But later, as we were in the throes of preparing Volume II of The Letters of Sylvia Plath, I did write to the Lilly to ask if they have or had any sealed materials. I was informed that they do not presently have any sealed Plath materials. However, I learned after the good archivists did some digging, that when Aurelia Plath sold the collection to the Library in 1977 that there were in fact two sealed letters. But, fortunately for many Plath scholars, they had been unsealed a long, long time ago and thus were available for researcher use. And they were included in the volume.

The two lettersdated 23 September 1962 and 22 November 1962were from Plath to her mother. Both have footnotes that acknowledge their shared history. See pages 832 and 918 of Volume II. Both letters are famous for the fact that they have heavy black pen redactions made by Aurelia Plath. I transcribed as much as I could but a few words and lines were impossible. I selected these letters to include in the plate section of Volume II so that readers could see what I was up against in transcribing and editing them.

It was fun to re-live the event at the Grolier Club. Ah, times were so much simpler then... While I answered the query of the correspondent directly to her, she had asked originally if I would do a blog post about it. So, this is that!

All links accessed 15 June 2019.

01 July 2019

Sylvia Plath: The Living Poet

One of the most remarkable aspects that the British Library Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath CD—published in 2010 and lamentably out of print—captures and presents can be found in tracks 8-16, or, those from "The Living Poet" broadcast on the B.B.C.'s Third Programme. "The Living Poet" aired just about monthly and featured other Americans in 1961: Richard Wilbur, Theodore Roethke, Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, and Stanley Kunitz. Plath was the first female that year and shared the reading of her work with the American actor Marvin Kane. He read five poems and she read four.

The introduction to that broadcast, written and spoken by Plath, is very clearly by the author of the poems of The Colossus. What I mean by this is it is eloquent, yet kind of floral. The poems, as they were recorded, are:

"The Disquieting Muses" (read by SP);
"Sleep in the Mojave Desert" (read by Kane);
"Suicide Off Egg Rock" (read by Kane);
"Spinster" (read by SP);
"Parliament Hill Fields" (read by SP);
"You’re" (read by Kane);
"Magi" (read by Kane);
"Medallion" (read by Kane); and
"The Stones" (read by SP).

Though the poems are not read strictly in chronological order from their dates of composition, there is a progression evident.

Much has been written on the voices of Sylvia Plath, and how there are really distinctive phases in her poetic development. That is one definition of voice; the other is her literal voice which was captured by recording equipment. Al Alvarez has perhaps most famously described the Sylvia Plath he knew between 1960 and 1962/3 as being several women and he would have been exposed to both definitions of Plath's voice. When he first met her she was in the shadow of her husbands fame. He writes, "the poet taking a back seat to the young mother and housewife" (Savage God, 22). Then the tables turned and she was very much her own woman. In June 1962, Alvarez said "Sylvia had changed. No longer quiet and withheld, a housewifely appendage to a powerful husband, she seemed made solid and complete, her own woman again" (Savage God, 28). By Christmas Eve 1962, the last time they met, she was "a priestess emptied out by the rites of her cult" (Where Did It All Go Right?, 232). In many respects you can hear this transformation throughout the broadcast of "The Living Poet".

Plath was in France with Ted Hughes at the Merwin's farm when the program aired on Saturday 8 July 1961. In her 2 July 1961 postcard to her mother she included a postscript about listening to the performance. I would love to know if Mrs. Plath listened to it and what she thought of it.

The British Library holds the full recording of "The Living Poet". Of the poems read by Kane, however, I wish most of all that Plath, not he, had read "Suicide Off Egg Rock," particularly as I would like nothing more than to hear Plath speak:
"Sun struck the water like a damnation.
No pit of shadow to crawl into,
And his blood beating the old tattoo
I am, I am, I am..."
If you are ever able to hear the full recording I strongly suggest that you do. Recordings preserve the archive of the voice. Sometimes they revivify the speaker in ways that truly blur the past with the present. For example, sometimes one can hear both the intake and exhalation of breath. What is more affirming of life than that! Another is that the microphone picks up dexterous sound executed by hands and fingers in the act of shuffling paper or turning the page.

All links accessed 28 June 2019.

26 June 2019

Sylvia Plath lots at Bonhams: Sales Results

Today at Bonhams in Knightsbridge, three Sylvia Plath lots were offered at auction. Each of these lots originated from the Estate of Elizabeth Sigmund.

Lot 238, Sylvia Plath's annotated copy of The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas.

The estimated price for the Thomas was £3,000 - 5,000/US$ 3,800 - 6,300. The book sold for: £9,000 (£11,312 including buyer's premium). Don't need to be a mathematician to see this sold for well above the high estimate. Bravo!

Lot 239, the only known typescript of Sylvia Plath's "Landscape of Childhood" which later became "Ocean 1212-w".

The estimated price for "Landscape of Childhood" was £1,500 - 2,000/US$ 1,900 - 2,500. The typescript sold for: £2,000 (£2,550 including buyer's premium). Which was at the high estimate.

Lot 240, Elizabeth Sigmund's copy of Sylvia Plath's novel The Bell Jar (Heinemann, 1963 edition with Victoria Lucas as author) given to her in the weeks after Plath's death by Ted Hughes. Together with a letter from Ted Hughes.

The estimated price for the The Bell Jar and letter was £2,000 - 3,000/ US$ 2,500 - 3,800. The book and letter sold for: £3,200 (£4,062 including buyer's premium). Just above high estimate.

Congratulations to the winners!

All links accessed 20 and 26 June 2019. £ 2,000 - 3,000 US$ 2,500 - 3,800

17 June 2019

ABC Radio's The Book Show: The Letters of Sylvia Plath

Back in April I had the privilege of speaking with Claire Nichols of "The Book Show" about Volume II of The Letters of Sylvia Plath on the ABC radio network. It recently aired.

Other than saying "um" quite a bit, I think, um, it is ok. I cringe a bit listening to myself, but maybe that is normal? Perhaps some of you might do a drinking game from it?

A little summary of the program was also published online.

All links accessed 14 June 2019.

10 June 2019

New Works by and on Sylvia Plath

Fun Fact: Did you know that Sylvia Plath uses the word "perched" seven times in The Bell Jar?


There is some new work to promote that has come out in the last week by and on Sylvia Plath.

The Hudson Review has published, in full, the text of Sylvia Plath's short story "Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom" in their Spring issue.

It was the intention all along that the story appear in the Hudson before the decision was made by the Estate of Sylvia Plath and Faber to publish it in book form. I was asked by the Hudson to cheer lead their effort, which I was happy to do, to have the story appear first in their pages. I guess I did too good of a job? There is an essay by Karen V. Kukil on the story, too.

Next, Marsha Bryant has recently published "Queen bees: Edith Sitwell, Sylvia Plath & cross-Atlantic affiliations" in Feminist Modernist Studies. The abstract reads,

Drawing on the convergence of Edith Sitwell and Sylvia Plath in the April 1963 issue of The Atlantic, this essay recovers a mostly forgotten affiliation between iconic poets of the twentieth century. Sitwell was modernism’s midcentury Queen of Letters, crossing over from the literary magazines to popular American periodicals. She rose to prominence as a poet-critic during the heyday of the New Criticism and its male purveyors, yet fell to marginal status in the women’s poetry anthologies of the 1970s and 1980s. Plath admired Sitwell and considered her a formidable modernist foremother. The younger poet owned a copy of The Canticle of the Rose, and assessed Sitwell’s work in two college papers. Adorned in accolades and brocades, Dame Sitwell was modern poetry’s ultimate Queen Bee. Focusing on Plath’s initial reactions to her predecessor’s poetics, this essay also considers her Atlantic bee poems in light of Sitwell’s earlier “The Bee Oracles.” In addition, the essay discusses American women poets’ reception of Sitwell – and vice versa. Reconnecting these iconic women poets prompts new understandings of female literary influence that prove more technical than experiential. The understudied lines of affiliation between Sitwell and Plath can reveal new plotlines in modernist literary history.
Marsha Bryant is Professor of English & Distinguished Teaching Scholar and Director of Graduate Student Teaching at University of Florida.

All links accessed 6 June 2019.

01 June 2019

Did you know... Sylvia Plath's Diaries at the Lilly Library

The Journals of Sylvia Plath (aka The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath in the USA) was and is a major publication; one that appreciates in value and importance on a daily basis. Sometimes it is hard to believe that they have been published for 19 years! And sometimes I struggle to fathom existing in a world where only the abridged version was available. I remember living in London in 1996-1997 and finding a copy of the abridged journals in a book stall at a bookstall in the Camden Market. The abridged version of the book, published in 1982, was never published in the UK, so seeing a copy was weird, but also kind of awesome. In my head, I had a vision that many copies were smuggled into the country and through a vast network of black market underground Plath scholars.

I know...I know...I need help.

The Journals should see renewed interest and importance with the publication of the two-volume Letters of Sylvia Plath. As we worked on the Letters, the Journals were a constant source of contextual information.

Anyway, The Journals of Sylvia Plath publishes all of those documents classified as journals that are held by Smith College from 1950 to 1962. But… Did you know… that the Lilly Library holds not one, but two 1951 journal fragments in their massive Plath mss II collection?

The first journal fragment (in the finding aid linked above, see Box 7, Folder 4: "Diary, Aug.-Dec. 1949-Mar. 1951") is dated by Plath simply March 1951. No day is given. It comprises the last four pages of a handwritten journal began famously on 13 November 1949. It was this diary where Plath states that she should like to called "the girl who wanted to be God" and later one of the first instances of her famous mantra, "I am I" (pg. 4). This "March 1951" journal entry sort of summarizes and closes off the narrative of some of the guys she dated that are mentioned throughout that particular journal (John Hall and Bob Riedeman; then Ilo and Emile). It is likely this was written during her spring vacation in the second semester of her first year (that year her spring break was from 21 March to 5 April 1951).

This journal (or, "diary") is thirty-five pages long. Here is a breakdown of the entries:

13 November 1949: pages 1-16
24 November 1949: pages 16-21
27 November 1949: pages 22-25
26 November 1949: pages 25-26
[27 November 1949]: page 26
22 December 1949: pages 26-28
19 December 1949: pages 28-31
20 December 1949: page 31
21 December 1949: pages 31-32
23 December 1949: page 32
March 1951: pages 32-35

Did you notice, as I did, that the dates are all over the place? Can't really think of how or why some of these dates appear this way. Can you? Possibly something was misdated? So the bulk of this journal is from Plath's senior year of high school, but there are those four pages at the end from her first year at Smith. If they were to be placed in the published Journals, they would go somewhere between entries numbered 59 to 62 on pages 52-54 of the printed book. Or, in the way the published volume was structured, they would have been tucked back as an Appendix.

Now for the second…

The second 1951 journal fragment is held in a non-diary series of the Lilly's Plath mss II. Researchers will find this one in Box 11, Folder 4, in a notebook Plath used for many things. (There are other notebooks in this folder for her courses in Art, Creative Writing, and Government.) In addition to the journal entry in said notebook, there are drawings, there are miscellaneous kinds of notes, and there are notes for press board assignments. But the focus here is not on those other writings, which are wonderful and useful and full of information the way any archival document is.

These journal fragments date to the summer of 1951 when Plath was living at 144 Beach Bluff Avenue taking care of the Mayo children: Frederic ('Freddie'), Joanne, and Esther ('Pinny'). Some of the entries are unique; but curiously some are re-written from her primary journals. Such as entries 105, 106, and some of entry 83.

In working on this post and reading through Plath's journals I was rather baffled to find some familiar text that was not actually in the journals the way that I remembered it. I knew the text, but could not place it. Then I searched the Letters (the light bulb which is my brain is dim, but it does burn at a low wattage) and found that the entry in this notebook fragment is a variation of Plath's 4 August 1951 letter to her mother. I cannot (or should not) quote the notebook entry; but the letter begins "Today is what would be termed, in the materialistic jargon peculiar to Americans -- a "million-dollar day." (Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1, p. 360). Her "journal" entry varies from the letter, and also carries on quite a while.

Plath also mined her journal for the sake of poetry. Entry 110, written August 1951, was converted into a poem entitled "august night" which begins "and the wind has blown / a warm yellow moon..." The typescript of the poem has Plath's name and "Haven House / 1954" handwritten in the top right corner; and there are some different words and punctuation throughout the ten-lined poem (two stanzas of three lines; two stanzas of two lines).

All links accessed 15 December 2017 and 16 May 2019.

24 May 2019

Sylvia Plath's Cambridge

One of the things I did when working on The Letters of Sylvia Plath was to acquire copies of the Varsity Handbook for 1955-1956 and 1956-1957. Plath herself had these and used them like a bible for learning the ins and outs of life at Cambridge. I was particularly interested in the maps as they give the flavor and feel of the town, the colleges, and the university at that time period. They were indispensable for contextualizing some of Plath's experiences as I read them in her letters and worked on writing footnotes.

Here is the cover for the 1955-1956 Varsity Handbook.

If I remember correctly, this Handbook lacked the maps.

So that was why I bought the 1956-1957 one... because I did have the maps.

20 May 2019

Bonhams to Auction Major Sylvia Plath Items Formerly Belonging to Elizabeth Sigmund

Bonhams London will offer at auction some property formerly belonging to Elizabeth Sigmund, Sylvia Plath's friend and co-dedicatee of The Bell Jar.  The auction is part of the Fine Books and Manuscript auction (25355) in London (Knightsbridge) on 26 June 2019.

Links and images to the respective lots will be added when available. All text below gratefully provided from the auction catalogue by Luke Batterham, Senior Valuer at Bonhams.

LOT 238 • (24869413/1)


THOMAS (DYLAN) The Collected Poems, SYLVIA PLATH'S COPY, ANNOTATED IN FIVE PLACES AND EXTENSIVELY UNDERLINED, with upwards of seventy sentences or passages underscored, marked or bracketed in the margins, in two places with Plath's distinctive "star" symbol in black ink, 13 poems in the Contents marked, photographic frontispiece, publisher's blue cloth, worn, spine soiled and split, 8vo, New York, A New Directions Book [by James Laughlin], [1953]

£3,000 - 5,000
€3,400 - 5,700

SYLVIA PLATH'S COPY OF DYLAN THOMAS'S COLLECTED POEMS. Writing to Ramona Maher, guest editor of Mademoiselle, on 16 March 1954, Plath stated categorically "Dylan Thomas is my favourite modern poet", and in her formative years he undoubtedly exerted an enormous influence on both her own poetry, and her sense of what a poet could be.

On May 20 1953 Plath went on "a literary pilgrimage" to hear Thomas give a poetry reading at Amherst, and early the following year reported to her friend Gordon Lamayer that she had been listening to recordings of Thomas ("the lyric Welshman I've been mourning for these past months" following his death the previous October) reading his own poems, "making me shiver and sometimes even to cry to hear ['Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night']" (The Letters of Sylvia Plath... 1940-1956, edited by Peter K. Steinberg & Karen V. Kukil, Faber, 2017); this a poem Plath has marked with a star symbol in this copy of the Collected Poems.

Two years later, in April 1956, it was Dylan Thomas that Plath used as a measure against which to judge the qualities of Ted Hughes when she first met him. In a letter to her mother Aurelia (19 April 1956, cf. Letters, p.1164/5) she wrote "His [Hughes'] voice is richer and rarer than Dylan Thomas, booming through walls and doors... He reads his own poems which are better than Thomas and Hopkins...".

Her copy of Thomas's Poems is extensively underlined throughout, with passages marked up in the margins. Beside 'The Hunchback in the Park' she notes "hunchback's vision-", "-That hunchback makes out of his vision", and "fantasy games of boys-"; alongside the text of 'Twenty-Four Years' she notes "Shroud of flesh - journey to the grave -", and, intriguingly, beneath the final stanza of 'Fern Hill', she states "Freedom with necessity".

Provenance: Sylvia Plath, ex-libris on front free endpaper, and annotations in her hand; Elizabeth Sigmund (1928-2017), co-author of Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning (2014), and under her former married name of Elizabeth Compton the co-dedicatee of The Bell Jar. Beneath Plath's bookplate Elizabeth has written in the quotation ("Even amidst fierce flames...") used for Plath's headstone; by descent to the present owner.

LOT 239 (24869413/3)


Typed carbon copy of the essay-memoir "Landscape of Childhood" [published as "Ocean 1212-W"], on 8 sheets (recto only), each sheet with title "Landscape of Childhood", the first sheet headed "Sylvia Plath/23 Fitzroy Road/London N.W.1", the other sheets "Sylvia Plath" before the page number (i.e. 2 to 8), paperclip upper left hand corner, a few light single spots, folio (280 x 215mm.), [circa January 1963]

£1,500 - 2,000
€1,700 - 2,300

"My childhood landscape was not land but the end of the land" - Plath's essay-memoir, "Landscape of Childhood", was almost definitely the last prose piece she wrote. She sent the completed text, from her flat at 23 Fitzroy Road, to Leonie Cohn at the B.B.C. on 28 January 1963, just two weeks prior to her death.

In the essay Plath "reminisces about her childhood in the United States. The title of the piece refers to her grandmother's phone number at her home in the coast of Massachusetts, where Plath spent time when she was a young girl. The birth of her brother when she was aged two and a half is described as a particularly crucial moment in her childhood" (British Library website).

The essay was subsequently published, with the title changed to "Ocean 1212-W" in the B.B.C. periodical The Listener (August 1963), and the anthology Writers on Themselves (1964), on both occasions with omissions and amendments from the typescript. For a full analysis of these, and a detailed description of the genesis and progress of the essay, from its commissioning by the B.B.C. producer Leonie Cohn (who suggested the published title), to a final letter sent by her to Plath on 8 February suggesting a few alterations, see Gail Crowther and Peter K. Steinberg, These Ghostly Archives. The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath, 2017. It is thought that the typescript sent to the B.B.C. is lost, and the current carbon copy, retained by Plath, is therefore the only extant version of the original poem.

Provenance: Elizabeth Sigmund (1928-2017), co-author of Sylvia Plath in Devon (2014), and under her previous married name of Elizabeth Compton the co-dedicatee of The Bell Jar; by descent to the present owner.

LOT 240 • (24869413/2)


The Bell Jar. By Victoria Lucas, FIRST EDITION, THE DEDICATEE'S COPY, ownership inscription "E.J. Compton. 1963. N. Tawton" in black ink on front paste-down, occasional light spotting, publisher's cloth, dust-jacket (unclipped, worn with some loss to extremities and spine and corners) [Tabor A4a.1], 8vo, Heinemann, [1963]; together with an autograph letter signed by Ted Hughes ("Ted") to "David & Elizabeth [Compton]", giving them permission to stay at Court Green, written from "23 Fitzroy Road, N.W.1", one page, in original envelope stamped 31 March 1963 (2)

£2,000 - 3,000
€2,300 - 3,400

THE DEDICATEE ELIZABETH COMPTON'S COPY OF THE BELL JAR, given to her after Plath's death by Ted Hughes.

'Elizabeth Compton and Sylvia Plath met in Devon in 1962 almost by chance after Plath and Ted Hughes's 1961 BBC radio interview "Two of a Kind: Poets in Partnership". As a result of that meeting, the two young women became immediate friends. Friends, indeed, with a bond so strong that within months Plath was to dedicate her novel, The Bell Jar, to Elizabeth and her then husband David Compton" (Peter K. Steinberg, Sylviaplathinfo website, 6 January 2018).

Elizabeth recalled that Plath had written to her "and said 'if you want I'll dedicate The Bell Jar to you, but it will be in a funny place because my decision has come rather late – opposite chapter one. Is that OK?' Of course, I said yes. But I didn't read it until she was dead." (The Guardian, interview, 18 January 2013). After Plath's suicide at 23 Fitzroy Road, her London flat, Elizabeth visited Ted Hughes there, at which time he "gave her a copy of the Bell Jar, just published and dedicated to her, saying 'It doesn't fall to many men to murder a genius..."' (Jonathan Bate, Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life, 2015). Elizabeth's recollections of this period subsequently led to controversy, as did the decision to excise Plath's dedication to the Comptons when Faber republished The Bell Jar under Plath's own name in 1966, but Hughes' letter, included in this lot, written from Fitzroy Road, posted on 31 March 1963 and signed "Love Ted", indicates that at this time relations were still very friendly. Hughes writes that "It was nice to see you up here...", adding "... Certainly you can stay at Court Green if you want", discussing the practicality of getting the key and checking the plumbing, before remarking "I am putting the place up for sale. If you're there to show enquirers around, all the better...".

Provenance: Elizabeth Sigmund, formerly Elizabeth Compton, co-dedicatee of The Bell Jar, ownership inscription on front paste-down, given to her by Ted Hughes; by descent to the present owner.

All links accessed: 18 May 2019 and 22 May 2019.

Please Note: The blog post was modified on 22 May 2019 to add links and images.

10 May 2019

Sylvia Plath in Granta (and Spare Rib)

One of the best things one can do is read the periodicals in which Sylvia Plath's work was published. Many are held in libraries and archives, some have even been digitized. Some exist, also, on microfilm or microfiche which is not the best product but will be useful and functional for a long time to come.

Several people sent me "tip" money last year for which I am grateful. I promised to use that for the benefit of my Plathing and perhaps it trickles down to you, too? With some of that money I recently acquired the 20 October 1956 issue of Granta magazine in which was printed Plath's short story "The Day Mr Prescott Died".

Looking at the table of contents two names ring bells with me. One is Michael Frayn, with whom Plath was friendly. Frayn is both mentioned in Plath's letters and was sent at least one letter, too, in March of 1957. The other name is Bamber Gascoigne, who is now a British television presenter and author, best known for being the original quiz master on "University Challenge". Did Plath know him? I am not too sure, but she recycled the name "Bamber" as one of the characters in her story "Stone Boy With Dolphin", which fictionalized the night of 25 February 1956. Plath also knew the editor Ben Nash and his name should be familiar to you, too.

Looking at a publication that Plath would have seen is fun; particularly seeing her contribution but also the advertisements as they bring to life that era.

"The Day Mr. Prescott Died" was written in January 1955 and is loosely based on experiences from June 1954 when Ruth Freeman's father died, suddenly, in Winthrop, Massachusetts. Plath write about it in some letters to Gordon Lameyer, printed in The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1. The story was reprinted in a magazine called Spare Rib in June 1973.

The story was hardly "unknown" as the cover led readers to believe. But, that was the 1970s and a lot was unknown about Sylvia Plath.

The magazine was digitized in 2015 and you can read some of the issue with Plath's story via the British Library's Journal Archives. Warning, much of the content is redacted.

All links accessed 8 May 2019.

01 May 2019

Guest Post: Aurelia Plath’s Shorthand, Now in English

The following post was submitted by Catherine Rankovic. Thank you Catherine for your work in deciphering, or, rather, transcribing Aurelia Schober Plath's Gregg shorthand into English, and for making it available to us. ~pks

Aurelia Plath hand-wrote hundreds of notes and comments on the nearly 700 letters she received from Sylvia, and on their envelopes and Sylvia-related correspondence archived at the Lilly Library. Most annotations are in plain English but some are in Gregg shorthand, a professional note-taking system Aurelia learned in business college and taught. I first saw (and was awed by) the original letters in 2012, began cataloging and transcribing Aurelia’s shorthand in 2013, and presented preliminary findings at the Sylvia Plath Conference in Belfast in 2017. The 159 shorthand annotations I found in the Plath mss. II correspondence and in Plath's personal library are now in a downloadable Excel file along with a short PDF “key” about the table.

Aurelia wrote in shorthand when pressed for time or space (that’s what it’s for), but as the transcripts show, also in retrospect and to keep private some letters and remarks. Sylvia never learned Gregg shorthand, instead teaching herself Speedwriting, a shorthand substitute, for temporary office jobs Sylvia held in 1959 and 1961. Gregg shorthand appears on other Lilly materials and also in the Plath archive at Smith College. Articles based on this project’s findings are forthcoming. I’m smiling. I’ve learned a lot and there’s more to learn.

Gregg, a language of symbols developed for secretarial work, cannot be spoken, so shorthand is “transcribed” rather than translated. Transcriptions are verbatim, not approximations. A single shorthand symbol is called a “character.” The Estate of Aurelia S. Plath granted me permission to release these transcriptions for scholarly purposes. I hold the copyright to the English transcriptions. Dozens of people kindly helped me and I thank them.

All links accessed 19 April 2019.
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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.