This is the opening of the second draft of Sylvia Plath’s novel, The Bell Jar, with the author’s handwritten corrections, and calculations in the margin. It gives a fascinating insight into Plath’s editing process and the evolving relationship between the author and her central characters. The text was later redrafted several more times before it was first published, under the pseudonym of Victoria Lucas, in England in 1963.
The novel is an exploration of mental illness and the pressure of social expectations on women in 1950s America. In this draft, Plath changes the title from the stark ‘Diary of a Suicide’ to ‘The Bell Jar’ – a bell-shaped glass enclosing samples in a scientific lab, and a striking metaphor for the protagonist’s sense of oppressiveness and isolation. Plath also alters the pseudonym from Frieda to Victoria, the pen-name preserved in the first published edition. Interestingly, in this draft, the protagonist is also named Victoria, implying a direct connection between the writer and her character. But, in later drafts, Plath creates greater distance between the two, when she changes the character’s name from Victoria to Esther.
This typescript of this first chapter opens with a reference to the electrocution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg for passing atomic secrets to the USSR – an episode subtly foreshadowing the protagonist’s own treatment with electroconvulsive therapy. In the first five pages of the 89-page draft, she describes her experience in sweltering New York, where she is working as an intern at Ladies’ Day magazine. Many of these experiences mirror those of Sylvia Plath, who won a contest to be guest editor of Mademoiselle magazine in the summer of 1953, and suffered a mental breakdown.