Last week I spent a few hours in The British Library exploring some newly released Plath materials from the Ted Hughes collection. Peter K. Steinberg had alerted me that material which had previously been withheld from public viewing was now available. It was described as:
HUGHES, Ted (1930-1998). Autograph Manuscript drafts for an apparently unachieved poem, five of the pages being on the versos of carbon typescript fragments of prose pieces by Sylvia Plath, undated. Autograph Manuscript draft of ‘Crow sees a movie’, undated. Creation dates: Undated
With no idea what these prose fragments might be I requested the relevant files (RP 9674) to read in the Rare Manuscripts Room. On my way to The British Library I walked across Tooting Common and saw daffodils everywhere, which seemed to be a good Plathian omen.
It was the first real hot day of the year and the courtyard of the library off Euston Road was full of researchers stretched out in the sun.
Entering the reading room still excites me, though I have been many times now. There’s something about the hush and the desks and the concentrated silence. The fragmented manuscripts were waiting for me when I arrived. Because they are loose pages, they were contained in a thick brown envelope and had to be viewed in a large padded box. The reading room was unusually quiet.
Sometimes the archives don’t always give you what you want and this was one of those occasions. When I opened the envelope I immediately realised that I was dealing with photocopied sheets, not original documents. The five Plath typescripts were four fragmented pages of ‘Sweetie Pie And The Gutter Men’ (pages 11, 13, 16, 17). There were no discernible differences to the version published in Johnny Panic. The final page was a fragment of a piece called ‘Two Fat Girls on Beacon Hill’. This is Plath’s clinical eye taking in and describing in uncomfortable detail a young woman sitting reading on the Embankment of Beacon Hill (Plath’s body shaming here is something else). This is page 3 of whatever Plath was working on; page 2 is held at Emory University. It has a laboured unfinished feel about it, like an exercise rather than a creative piece. Although it is undated, it most likely originates from the writing year Plath spent in Boston in 1958-1959. Since during this time she was struck with legendary writer’s block, I wonder if this was one way of her attempting to get some words down on the page. Periodically she tried to set herself a target number each day to break the mental block. It’s not her best prose anyway, but it is still fascinating to see her play with language and observe daily rituals and interactions.
It did not take me very long to transcribe the piece, two hours maximum. The provenance of these pages is unknown, as are the whereabouts of the originals. Almost always the archives can throw up such spaces. I packed away my notebook and pencils and walked out of the reading room into the dazzle of the courtyard and the sunshine.