Sylvia Plath’s Personal Copy of ‘The Bell Jar’ Leads Bonhams’s $2.2 Million Rare Books and Manuscripts Sale

Plath's cookbook outperformed the manuscripts of literary giants.

Sylvia Plath's proof copy of The Bell Jar with corrections. Photo courtesy of Bonhams.

Headlining Bonhams’s rare books and manuscripts auction, items from the estate of writer Sylvia Plath and her poet husband Ted Hughes outperformed a host of literary stars on the way to a sales total of £1.6 million ($2.2 million).

Manuscripts by literary giants of the 18th and 19th centuries—including Charles Dickens ($2,459), William Wordsworth ($19,327), and Adam Smith ($1,317)—were no match for the Plath-Hughes collection, which was consigned to auction by the poets’ daughter Frieda Hughes.

Sylvia Plath’s copy of The Bell Jar, signed and dated Christmas 1962 with her Fitzroy Road Address. Photo courtesy of Bonhams.

The top lot, Plath’s own signed, pre-publication copy of The Bell Jar (written under the pen name Victoria Lucas), achieved £87,500 ($122,996). Meanwhile, a proof of The Bell Jar complete with the writer’s corrections sold for £75,000 ($105,425), and the mint-green Hermes typewriter she used to write the novel changed hands for £32,500 ($45,684).

Equally interesting was Plath’s non-literary paraphernalia, which also sold at the auction. A wallet which included membership and ID cards dating to the late 1950s was hammered down at £8,750 ($12,299) while a green, pleated tartan skirt sold for £2,125 ($2,987). A group of three wristwatches from the 1940s and 1950s went for £5,000 ($7,028), and a dragon pendant sold for £10,000 ($14,056). The Guardian jokingly pointed out that even Plath’s driver’s license sold for more than a letter from Dickens.

Sylvia Plath’s Hermes 3000 typewriter. Photo courtesy of Bonhams.

A selection of books from Plath’s library—many with deeply personal notes offering intimate insights into the writer’s personal life—also exceeded expectations. Plath’s used copy of The Joy of Cooking marked with favorite recipes and notes such as “Ted likes this” (next to instructions for breaded veal) sold for £4,375 ($6,149). And a heavily used thesaurus, with underlinings and annotations, smashed the £1,000–2,000 ($1,415–2,831) pre-sale estimate, selling for £11,000 ($15,575).

One of the few items to underperform at the sale was Plath’s drawing of Hughes, thought to have been created on the couple’s honeymoon. The pen-on-paper composition sold for £15,000 ($21,175), well below the pre-sale estimate of £20,000–30,000 ($28,233–42,353). Unsurprisingly, it seems that bidders are still more interested in Plath’s writing than her artwork.

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