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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