In March 1970, the poet Ted Hughes found himself in a tricky real estate situation. There was a charming seaside house he wanted to buy, in Devonshire, but the necessary funds weren’t at hand. Of course he could have sold one of his two other homes, but one was the home he had shared with his now deceased ex-wife Sylvia Plath, another was a solid investment, and so on. In the end, he wrote to Sylvia Plath’s mother, Aurelia, asking for her blessing to sell one of his other assets: her daughter’s first and only novel, written a year before her suicide in 1963, for which Hughes suspected there might now be a market in the United States.
The Bell Jar had been published in the UK under a pseudonym, to middling reviews, in 1963. American publishers had turned it down then, finding it deficient in plot and cohesion—“We didn’t feel you had managed to use your materials successfully in a novelistic way,” one editor wrote to Plath. A few weeks later, Plath, estranged from Hughes and living alone in London with their two small children, gassed herself. The posthumous publication of Ariel, a collection of poems written in a blaze of creativity during the last months of Plath’s life, brought her worldwide renown. Hughes seems to have assumed that this would prompt American editors to reverse their initial opposition to the novel, though in his letter to Aurelia Plath he made clear his low opinion of the book, suggesting that in a few more years it would be of interest merely as a “curiosity for students.” Aurelia Plath protested the plan; she saw the novel as representing the “basest ingratitude” toward the people her daughter had caricatured, including herself. Hughes ignored her, and The Bell Jar was published by Harper & Row in 1971. It has remained in print continuously ever since.