25 June 2020

Reading Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar


In 2019, Faber and Faber issued two new editions of The Bell Jar. They were discussed in this September 2019 blog post. As some of you may know, I read Sylvia Plath's lone published novel twice a year and have done so since 1995. I read it in June because that's the month that Plath was a guest editor for Mademoiselle in 1953 and it is also the month in which a lot of the setting of the novel takes place. And I read it in December, because that is the month in which I first read it in 1994.

This blog post is drawn from my most recent read, and that is of the 90th Anniversary edition, pictured left, and published last year. It is the first time that I have read a modern (post-1990s) edition in well more than a decade. Why? Because before then, Faber had used the same typesetting of the novel that Heinemann used and thus it would have been the exact text that Plath herself saw when she received her copy of her novel in December 1962.

I spotted two typographical errors in the novel and I had the feeling that there were more. However when I was reading it I did not take the time to make notes either in the book or on a sheet of paper. Which frustrates me I did want to look them up. The first typo is on page 5. The original reads, "but Doreen wore these full-length nylon and lace jobs you could half see through, and dressing-gowns the colour of skin," but the typo make it read "colour of sin". Sin, I am sure, has a color; but I suspect it is quite a different color than of Doreen's skin. I dug back a bit in my Bell Jar collection and found that this typo first appeared in the 1990s, in this edition. Strangely, it is "colour of skin" in the 1999 edition. I bought that one in Australia in 2000 and it is possible that even though it is a Faber book, it may have used a different text? I do not know; that is above my pay grade.

The second typographical error is newer. And I was sad to see it as it is one of my favorite lines in the novel. When Esther is suffering from ptomaine poisoning, she passed out in the bathroom. When she wakes, she is taken by the hotel nurse to her room and told, in the original, "The doctor's given you a ninjection" in the original edition. However, on page 43 of the 90th Anniversary edition, the grammar of the nurse is cleaned up to "an injection." I do disagree with this editorial futzery because Plath's intention, I think, with the nurse, is to have her speaking in the dialect of perhaps a lower-eductated New York immigrant. She developed a looser vernacular in some of her Boston stories such as "The Fifteen Dollar Eagle", "The Daughters of Blossom Street", and "Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams". This breakthrough really freed Plath when she came to write The Bell Jar. It was more recent, as I said. It also appears in the simultaneously issued Liberty Edition. However, it is "correct" in the editions published in 2015 (Faber Members) and 2013 (black and gold hardback).

Update 12:01 pm, 25 June 2020: I have just learned that both of the things discussed in this blog post---the "colour of sin" and "an injection"---are updates to the text sanctioned by the Estate of Sylvia Plath. So my calling them typographical errors can be considered inaccurate.---pks

All links accessed 16 June 2020.

1 comment :

Mark Mabberley said...

Fortunately, I have the Heinemann edition which, as you state, is the only text Sylvia approved. If there are 'errors' within that were missed when she proofread it, that is a human touch for which I am grateful. As is the case with the changes to the early Faber editions, approved, or made by her executors, further revisions are unwelcome.

When she was writing the poetry that would be published posthumously, Sylvia said in an interview that she did not look back at The Colossus because she had moved forward. I doubt, had Sylvia lived, she would have gone back to revise The Bell Jar. It would be a minor early work and there would be later novels Sylvia would rather had our attention.

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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.

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