Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar” was originally published under a pen name

It is just over sixty years since the death of Sylvia Plath on February 11, 1963 at the age of thirty. Less than a month earlier she had published the novel ‘The Bell Jar’ under the pen name Victoria Lucas. This rare edition, the initial print run was only 2000 copies, is currently being exhibited at the National Library of Scotland in our Pen Names exhibition which is open until the end of April 2023. Why was what would become one of the most famous novels of the 20th century initially published under a pen name and why Victoria Lucas?

‘The Bell Jar’ by Sylvia Plath is one of the most acclaimed and beloved American novels of the 20th century. It tells the story of 19-year-old Esther Greenwood and her descent into clinical depression. The novel is considered to be a roman à clef, drawing heavily from Plath’s life. An early review of the novel compared it to J.D. Salinger’s ‘Catcher in the Rye’ (1951) and like that book ‘The Bell Jar’ continues to speak to new generations. It is a perennial bestseller and a new illustrated edition of the novel was recently published.

In January 1963 when the Victoria Lucas edition of ‘The Bell Jar’ appeared, Plath was a largely unknown poet, though with a growing reputation. She had drafted the novel at high speed in 1961 whilst living near Regent’s Park in London, revising the text in 1962, by which time Plath had separated from her husband the poet Ted Hughes. She signed a contact with Heinemann to publish the novel in the United Kingdom, but the publisher had concerns. They thought the novel was too closely based on Plath’s own life and this could result in libel actions. Plath assured them that the characters were not based on real people except for Esther Greenwood’s mother. Plath said “My mother is based on my mother.”

In the original manuscript the main character was called Victoria Lucas and at her publisher’s suggestion this was changed to Esther Greenwood. A novel about a character called Victoria Lucas published under the pen name Victoria Lucas seemed close to flat out stating that the novel was autobiographical. We do know that despite her protestations Plath was worried that the book might hurt her family and friends, hence her decision to publish under a pen name.

Plath is the subject of numerous biographies, and her letters and journals have been published posthumously. This has resulted in rival explanations for some aspects of her life, including where the pen name Victoria Lucas came from. Anne Stevenson in her Plath biography ‘Bitter Fame’ (1989) says the pen name came from family and friends of Ted Hughes. Victoria from his favourite cousin Victoria Farrar and Lucas from his friend Lucas Meyer. Plath’s college friend William Sterling has claimed that Victoria Lucas was the name on a fake ID Plath used to get into bars when she was an underage student at Smith College in Boston.

“The Bell Jar” by Victoria Lucas was published on January 14th, 1963. Plath had been delighted to receive a proof copy in December 1962 and after checking it wrote in her journal that “It was so funny and so good”. It received positive reviews, the ‘Times Literary Supplement’ calling it a “considerable achievement” and Laurence Lerner in ‘The Listener’ calling it “a brilliant and moving book.” Less than a month after the book was published on February 11th, 1963, Sylvia Plath took her own life.

‘The Bell Jar’ by Victoria Lucas was not a commercial success and seemed almost certain to disappear. In the months leading up to the publication of ‘The Bell Jar’ and her death Plath had a burst of creativity and wrote a large of number of poems in a confessional style that was both new for her and highly original. When these poems were posthumously published as the collection ‘Ariel’ in 1965 they caused a sensation and after her death Plath became a famous poet.

When “The Bell Jar” was republished under Plath’s name in 1966 it was no longer a first novel by an unknown writer, but an autobiographical novel by a tragic and celebrated poet. It would become a bestseller and an iconic book, both here and in America where due to family sensitivities it was not published until 1971. The novel has sold millions of copies but it is likely that few of its reader will be aware that it was originally published under a different name and was little known until its later republication under the author’s real name. Plath like most first time novelists had dreamed that “The Bell Jar” would be a bestseller and cause a sensation, a few year later her dream came true,

The Victoria Lucas edition of ‘The Bell Jar is featured in the Library’s exhibition Pen Names which explores a range of writers working in Britain from the 1800s to the present day who use pen names. The exhibition runs from 8 July 2022 to 29 April 2023. Learn more about Pen Names on our website. For more blog posts about authors who use aliases search #PenNamesNLS.