Before The Bell Jar

11th October 2018

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”

 

Few opening lines are so memorable or haunting as that of Sylvia Plath’s only novel, The Bell Jar. A novel that according to her husband, Ted Hughes, was written “at top speed with very little revision from start to finish.” The book, published under the pseudonym of Victoria Lucas, has an unmistakably autobiographical thread. In the summer of 1953, the year that convicted spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed by electric chair, Sylvia travelled to Manhattan to take up a guest editorship at Mademoiselle Magazine. Like her heroine, Esther Greenwood, Plath’s excitement became gradually tarnished with a slow realisation that all was not as stress-free as she had hoped, from excitement to depression, via disillusionment, sexual assault and suicide attempt the experiences of Esther Greenwood are all too reminiscent of Plath’s own.  In an emotional letter to her brother Warren, Plath wrote “I have been very ecstatic, horribly depressed, shocked, elated, enlightened, and enervated ... all of which goes to make up living very hard and newly.”


The First Edition of the Bell Jar, 1963

Although Ted Hughes said that The Bell Jar underwent very little revision, correspondence between Plath and her publishers shows that they went to pains to ensure that none of the characterisation was libellous, and in order to dissociate the author from the main character, her name was changed from the original working name of Victoria Lucas (Plath’s pen name) to that of Esther Greenwood.  

 

 

Until recently Sylvia’s own pre-publication proof copy of The Bell Jar has been in the library of her daughter, Frieda, but whilst thinking about some of the furniture and other belongings that she had inherited from her parents, Ted and Sylvia, the realisation dawned that unless Frieda sold some of the belongings herself their history could be lost. She made the decision to part with a range of books and furniture (her mother’s tea tray now resides in my sitting room) whilst she could still tell their story, “It will enable others to take on the preservation and enjoyment of things that have I loved to live with,”she explained.

Sylvia Plath's Tea Tray

Amongst the books was Sylvia’s proof copy of The Bell Jar, its plain printed wrappers giving little hint of the layers of literary discovery that lie within. The title page has the author’s name and address written in Sylvia’s distinctive looping handwriting,“Sylvia Plath, Court Green, North Tawton, Devonshire.” The proof has clearly been gone over with a fine tooth comb by Plath for in total there are 78 emendations, some minor, but all affecting the flow and rhythm of the prose.  The most significant changes are the two instances in which the protagonist’s name has not been changed, on page 187 “Thank you Miss Lucas.” And page 188, “And how are you feeling this morning, Miss Lucas?” In both instances Plath crosses through Lucas and corrects it to Greenwood. Whilst the novel may have been written at great speed this proof demonstrates that it was clearly revised with great care by its creator.

 

In a recent interview Frieda Hughes claimed she would like to go back in time and unwrite her mother’s novel. ‘When I read it, I didn’t want it to be real. I wanted it to be fiction. Why would anyone want their mother to be going through such unhappiness, such thought processes?’ This is a sensation that must be familiar to many readers of the Bell Jar. It is a novel which has always provoked conflicting emotions within me, I feel guilty that I enjoy reading it and yet it is a beautifully crafted, evocative and educational piece of writing. The chance to handle Sylvia’s proof copy of her novel has been a great privilege, and when it finds its new home I will be sad to see it go. 

View full details of the proof copy and other items which belonged to Frieda and her parents, Ted and Sylvia

The Bell Jar and other items from the Plath/ Hughes family collections will be on sale at the Jonkers Rare Books stand, no 525, at the Boston Antiquarian Book Fair on 16-18th November, 2018. 

Sylvia Plath scholar, Peter Steinberg, will also be at the fair delivering a talk about the fascinating process of editing Syliva's letters for his newly published book, The Letters of Sylvia Plath, volume 2.

 Sam Jonkers

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