Fifty-six years after her suicide, Sylvia Plath continues to grip readers, most recently with the release of a newly discovered story, “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom.”
Written in 1952 during Plath’s time as a student at Smith College, “Mary Ventura” was submitted for publication in Mademoiselle magazine, rejected and has remained in Plath’s archives ever since ... until now. Harper Perennial published this early edition of Plath’s work on Jan. 22.
While the book certainly has its flaws, fans of Plath’s writing will appreciate “Mary Ventura” for what it is: a glimpse into the young writer’s mind and a precursor to the brilliant writing that we’ve all come to recognize Plath for today.
The plot of “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom” is relatively simple; it’s a short story after all, coming in at only 40 pages. The story begins with the protagonist, Mary Ventura, being ushered onto a train by her parents. From the offset, it is evident that this is not an ordinary train ride. There is something sinister hinted at in Mary’s reluctance to board the train, something suspenseful about the way that “the long black hand on the clock on the wall clipped off another minute” as the train prepares to leave the station.
Everything in this story is shrouded in mystery, from the train’s conductor “in a black uniform, his face shaded by the visor of his cap” to the very destination of the train, referred to only as the ninth kingdom. After a series of unsettling episodes, Mary realizes that her only hope is to try to exit the train before it reaches the ninth kingdom.
Above all else, Sylvia Plath was a brilliant poet. This is evident even in her prose. In such a short amount of space, Mary Ventura is full of striking images, from the “flat orange disc that was the sun” at the beginning of Mary’s journey to the tunnel where “the frozen surface caught the light from the car and glittered as if full of cold silver needles” as the train hurtles toward the ninth kingdom.
Even in her early work, Plath has a masterful command of language. This is crucial in a story like Mary Ventura where the world is so sinister and unsettling. Despite the oddity of the story’s setting, the details draw in readers in a tangible way. Mary’s panic at the train’s descent “into the frozen core of the earth” is palpable, as is her sense of wonder when she emerges “blinking at the fertile gold webs of sunlight.” Plath immerses readers with her signature powerful imagery.
One complaint readers may have with “Mary Ventura” stems not from the writing itself, but from the mode of its publication. Prior to the book’s release in January, Harper Perennial boldly marketed it as “one of the literary events of the year.” Certainly, there is always buzz when an artist’s work is released after his or her death. This is especially true of Plath.
At only 30 years old, she could have conceivably continued writing and publishing for years were it not for her untimely suicide. For fans of Plath, “Mary Ventura” is a delightful, unexpected addition to her collective works. However, it is undeniably a work of juvenile. After all, Plath wrote it as a 20-year-old student who was still finding her voice as a writer. Without the attachment of Plath’s name and the knowledge of her life (and its ending), “Mary Ventura” may not be as captivating.
In Plath’s own words, “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom” is “a vague symbolic tale.” Readers may interpret the allegory in any number of ways. However, as with much of Plath’s work (especially “The Bell Jar”), readers may find it difficult to separate “Mary Ventura” from the events of Plath’s own life.
The knowledge that Plath’s first suicide attempt occurred a few months after “Mary Ventura” was written undeniably casts a shadow over Mary’s premature departure from the train, which is presented in the story as a triumph of free will and female agency. The story concludes with Mary emerging, blinking, into the world she thought she’d left behind. Fans of Sylvia Plath’s writing will feel the same sense of coming home.