One of the most famous literary relationships of the 20th century is once again under the spotlight, as Bonhams holds a sale on March 21 entitled Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes; The Property of Frieda Hughes – a collection of the books and personal effects of the two poets being sold by their 57-year-old daughter, herself a poet and artist. The items, part of Bonhams’ Fine Books and Manuscripts sale, are both a reminder of Sylvia’s tragic suicide in February 1963, aged 30, but also an indication of the pair’s close working relationship before their traumatic final months.
“This fascinating collection provides a riveting insight into the warmth and mutual support of the Hughes-Plath creative relationship, especially in the early years of their marriage,” says Bonhams senior book specialist Luke Batterham. “The deeply personal inscriptions to Plath in first editions of Hughes’ breakthrough 1957 work The Hawk in the Rain, and its successor Lupercal, show how much he appreciated and acknowledged his wife’s help. A tender and important pen and ink drawing of Hughes by Plath drawn shortly after their wedding [in 1956], while on honeymoon, was commemorated years later in Hughes’s last work Birthday Letters. And, of course, Ariel [published 1965], the collection with which Plath is most closely identified, owes its existence largely to Hughes, who recognised the quality of the work and arranged for its publication.”
Plath’s only novel, The Bell Jar, was published under the name Victoria Lucas in January 1963, weeks before her suicide. Her own personal copy is being auctioned for £60,000-£80,000 and is inscribed and dated with the London home address – once inhabited by WB Yeats – where Plath took her life: “Sylvia Plath/23 Fitzroy Road/London NW1/Christmas 1962”. There is also an inscribed and uncorrected proof of The Bell Jar complete with about 70 textual corrections made by Plath, estimated at £50,000-£70,000. Plath’s final typewriter, a Hermes 3000 bought in Boston in 1959 and used to write The Bell Jar, is also going under the hammer, estimated at £40,000-£60,000.
A pen and ink sketch of Hughes drawn by Plath shortly after their wedding is estimated at £20,000-£30,000. In October 1956, Plath wrote to her mother about her sketches saying, “Every drawing has in my mind and heart a beautiful association of our sitting together in the hot sun, Ted reading, writing poems or just talking to me.” A first edition of Ariel (£2,000-£3,000), which was edited by Hughes and published posthumously, is particularly personal for their surviving child. Frieda has written that her father had, “honoured my mother’s work and her memory by publishing Ariel… He, perhaps, more than anyone recognised and acknowledged her talent as extraordinary.”
A dedication copy of The Hawk in The Rain (1957), estimated at £10,000-£15,000, is inscribed: “Written [To Sylvia, printed] and now presented to her with all my love”. Plath had worked with him extensively on it, as she explained in a letter to her mother. “I am more happy than if it was my book published! I have worked so closely on these poems of Ted’s and typed them so many countless times through revision after revision that I feel ecstatic about it all.” Finally, another poignant reminder of the couple’s passion can be found in an American first edition (£8,000-£12,000) bearing Hughes’s inscription, “because the book belongs to you just as surely as all my love does”.