PLATH (SYLVIA) The Bell Jar, FIRST EDITION, SYLVIA PLATH'S OWN COPY SIGNED AND DATED "CHRISTMAS 1962", WITH HER FITZROY ROAD ADDRESS  on the front free paper, Heinemann, [1963] PLATH (SYLVIA) The Bell Jar by Victoria Lucas, SYLVIA PLATH'S "UNCORRECTED PROOF COPY" WITH HER OWN MANUSCRIPT CORRECTIONS, AND OWNERSHSIP INSCRIPTION , Heinemann, [1962] PLATH (SYLVIA) Sylvia Plath's Hermes 3000 typewriter, with serial number 3001432, approximately 310 x 330 x 175mm., [1959] PLATH (SYLVIA) Portrait of Ted Hughes, [1956]

Together, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes revolutionised modern poetry – then tragedy struck. Grey Gowrie gives a personal account of two literary pioneers

On the night of 11 February 1963, Sylvia Plath laid out bread and milk for her children Frieda and Nicholas, sealed her kitchen with rugs and committed suicide by turning on the gas. An American from New England, she had met the Yorkshireman Ted Hughes at Cambridge University in February 1956. They married in the summer of the same year. Together they travelled in Europe and America, then took a flat near Primrose Hill in north London, where Frieda was born. Then Hughes bought a thatched farmhouse in north Devon, where Nicholas was born. The couple separated in October 1962 but made no decision to divorce. Sylvia rented another flat near Primrose Hill, moving in with their children. At the time of her suicide, she was only 30 years old.

Plath's suicide and her seven previous years of marriage to Hughes caused a literary earthquake. Its shockwaves, as the Bonhams sale demonstrates, are still felt today. Hughes' first two collections of poems, The Hawk in the Rain and Lupercal – presentation copies of which are offered in March's Fine Books and Manuscripts Sale at Knightsbridge – had already secured him literary fame, with Plath having helped to place his poems in magazines and to shape them for book publication. Hughes was an assured and mature poet, hugely admired as well as loved by his wife. He was, she wrote in her journal, the "source of creative living and writing... Living with him is like being told a perpetual story; his mind is the biggest, most imaginative I have ever met. I could live in its growing countries forever." Plath's sole collection of poems published in her lifetime, The Colossus, showed her to be a disciplined and skilful poet in her own right; its preparation and revision owed, in its turn, a lot to her husband.

The poems she wrote in the last year of her life, almost daily following the separation, are of a different order, however. They are terrifying and sublime. Hughes had complained that the constrictions of married life, small children (with whom he was, however, brilliant) and fidelity (he had started an affair) constrained his writing. He forever acknowledged that the separation liberated Plath's talent more than his own. Hughes was to become a great poet but he did so, in the end, by panning gold from the streams of tragedy.

Like D.H. Lawrence, Ted Hughes believed that sexual energy was the wellspring not just of life or fertility but of writing. He was a gentle giant and in no sense vain. He refused to strut. But he was always aware of the formidable effect he had on nearly every woman he met. In Crow and Gaudete, the book-length poems of his middle years, he faced up to the creative force of sex and also its powers of destruction.

Sylvia Plath's death and the sensation caused by her late poems, as well as her nationality, transformed her into an icon of the feminism newly emerging in Western culture, especially in America. Ted found himself cast as the primal baddy; the sort of man, if you were female, you were supposed to free yourself from. He bore this fate with stoicism. He raised his children, married a farmer's daughter and farmed himself.

He and his agent, his older sister Olwyn, never ceased to nourish Plath's literary estate and preserve it for his children. He himself lived by writing and broadcasting. From early days he had been a successful children's author – his fable The Iron Man became a bestseller. (The copy that Hughes dedicated to his son, Nicholas, is offered at the Bonhams sale.)

Hughes believed passionately that Plath's poems of her last year made her the greatest female poet in English since another New Englander: Emily Dickinson. (Plath's copy of whose poems are also on offer at Bonhams.) Plath's poems are shot through with English images, as well as New England memories and neuroses; of these, Plath had many: she had attempted suicide twice before she met Hughes.

Both Plath and Hughes were interested in signs, symbols and hidden significance. Sylvia's work explored the Freudian family drama, notably her father's death when she was eight. Ted was an anthropologist and animal lover. Humanity's collective memories and fears delighted him, and he loved divining them from the underground streams of myth and fable. Civilisation, with its morals and manners, would always be prey to the instinctive, the feral, the sexual. As one of his archetypical hawks puts it: "There is no sophistry in my body./My manners are tearing off heads."

Plath seems to echo the hawk in her terrifying late poem 'Daddy' with its infamous line "Every woman adores a Fascist." The suicide attempts Sylvia survived weakened the feminist case for casting Ted as villain.

So the beam turned on his editing and, supposedly, suppressing her work. In fact he became its indispensable promoter. If Hughes never escaped the pity and terror of Sylvia death, if such primal emotions propel his mature work and account for its austere quality, as if directly borrowed from Greek tragedy, his masterpiece is quite different. Published the year before he died in 1998, it is direct rather than oblique, giving a clear narrative of his life with and marriage to Plath. The Ted and Sylvia story is told in intimate, colloquial verse of great clarity and beauty. Resonant and, yes, unputdownable, the collection sold in hundreds of thousands. It had been written and kept hidden for more than 25 years.

One letter (the poems are addressed to Sylvia) gives an account of Ted's deciding, in a responsible, husbandly way, not to buy a live fox cub from an urban tramp near Primrose Hill about the time of Frieda's birth in 1960. This refusal becomes a symbolic farewell to the marriage. In real life, the marriage flourished well beyond that time and provided another child. In important ways it never did come to an absolute end. The whole sequence forms as good a narrative as you will find in English poetry. It has Chaucer's matter-of-factness and Shakespeare's layered intensity.

As Sylvia had herself spotted, Ted was a natural storyteller. The year before Birthday Letters was published he won a major prize for his version in verse of Ovid's Metamorphoses.

Perhaps I may be forgiven if I end on a personal note. My wife and I were friends of Ted. We are also friends and country neighbours of Frieda. In my ministerial career, I played a part in Hughes becoming Poet Laureate. Being asked to read at the celebration of his life in Westminster Abbey is the highest honour to have befallen me.

I never met Sylvia. But in my last year as an undergraduate at Oxford, in 1961, over two years before her great last poems were written, I happened on a Plath poem written that same year. It had won a Guinness award.

I had never heard of her at the time but the poem was so musical it simply taught itself to me. For years I knew it all by heart and I can still reel off chunks quite easily. It is called 'Insomniac'. Later Plath herself described the writing of her great poems at the flat in Fitzroy Road as taking place in the blue light of four-in-the-morning before the milkman did his rounds or the children woke. It ends:

Nightlong, in the granite yard, invisible cats
Have been howling like women, or damaged instruments.
Already he can feel daylight, his white disease,
Creeping up with her hatful of trivial repetitions.
The city is a map of cheerful twitters now
And everywhere people, eyes mica-silver
and blank, Are riding to work in rows, as if recently brainwashed.

People often say to those like me who publish verse only, "What's the point? Why not try a novel?" This single Plath stanza gives the answer. It is the golfer's dream hole-in-one which you try for even as you know you are unlikely to score it. And so many times is it startling to see, and hear, Sylvia's shots roll in.

Lord Gowrie has been Minister for the Arts and Chairman of the Arts Council of England. He has published three books of poetry. His Collected Poems were published in the USA in 2014, with a new edition in 2017.

Sale: Sylvia Plath and
Ted Hughes: The Property
of Frieda Hughes
Wednesday 21 March at 3pm
Enquiries: Luke Batterham
+44 (0) 20 7393 3828

Sylvia Plath's copy of The Bell Jar by Matthew Haley

It took Sylvia Plath 70 days to write her novel, The Bell Jar, completing a draft in August 1961. American publishers turned it down – "We didn't feel you had managed to use your materials successfully in a novelistic way" – but it was picked up by Heinemann in England, and published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. With a publication date agreed for 14 January 1963, Plath was correcting the proof in Devon at the home she shared with Ted Hughes in 1962; it is this proof copy, full of her ink annotations, that is offered by Bonhams in March.

But her own pre-publication copy of the final edition, also on offer at Bonhams and pictured above, is most poignant: she inscribed it "Christmas 1962" with the address of the flat in Fitzroy Road, London, to which she had moved a fortnight earlier as part of her separation from Hughes. Plath lived in the flat for only eight weeks before taking her own life. Her novel has since sold more than three million copies and become a mainstay of English literature courses.

Other highlights of the March auction include Plath's striking pen-and-ink portrait of Hughes, the Hermes 3000 typewriter on which she wrote The Bell Jar, and Hughes' first poetry collection, inscribed 'with all my love' to Sylvia, to whom it was dedicated. M.H.

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