Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) is nowadays considered an almost sacred figure in the realm of poetry. She holds the reigning title as queen of the “confessional poetry” movement, a subgenre in which poets utilize their own traumatic life events as central subjects. This style was widely popular in the 1950s-1960s, an era of tumultuous cultural and social changes.
What never changed for Plath, though, was the pattern of using herself as the groundwork in creating her art, even in the literary factions she wouldn’t become as well-known for. Today she is remembered for two monumental collections of poetry—The Colossus and Ariel—and the feminist, whistleblowing novel The Bell Jar.
Many are not aware that Plath also wrote short stories, which is why the discovery of “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom” may have come as an odd surprise to some. To others, it also came as an immense relief. Any rescued work by a literary giant is a victory in the world of publication.
Published in 2019 in the United Kingdom by Faber and Faber LTD., it was a rather late but still welcome recovery for a short story that’s been existing in limbo since Plath wrote it in 1952. Though “Mary Ventura” was completed while Plath was a college scholarship student at Smith College, it could be considered juvenilia work, or at least an early rough sketch of what would later become The Bell Jar, published in 1963.
Readers of The Bell Jar will recognize similar elements. An insecure young woman, learning self-assertiveness out of necessity. The pressures (and sometimes material pleasures) of a fast-paced, modern world. The theme of choosing your own fate versus passively accepting a fate imposed on you by others.
At the time Sylvia was writing this story, she had not yet made the suicide attempt that would be documented in such gruesome and disturbingly honest detail in The Bell Jar. Plath had also recently received a temporary summer internship at Mademoiselle magazine, a prestigious opportunity she’d won through a writing contest. When Sylvia Plath wrote “Mary Ventura” and submitted it to Mademoiselle for consideration, she was probably feeling a bit overconfident. Or perhaps she was testing Mademoiselle, to see if they would take a chance on her experimental literature as well as her conventional journalism.
Either way, the story was rejected by the magazine. A year later, in 1953, Plath tried—without success—to kill herself by overdosing on her mother’s sleeping pills. Whether or not the rejection from Mademoiselle contributed to the young author’s despair is mere speculation, but it certainly must have been a blow to her fighting spirit. Plath would never see this story published in her short lifetime, as she did take her own life in 1963, not long after The Bell Jar’s publication.
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But did she ever really intend to publish the story elsewhere? It is known that Plath attempted to revise “Mary Ventura,” omitting some of its morbid aspects to make it more appealing to modern readership. Nowadays we would call such a process “fluffing it up.” University of Huddersfield professor and scholar Heather Clark also uncovered a telling tidbit of information, which is that Plath, in 1955, considered entering the story in a contest being conducted by the Christophers, a religious organization, but retracted her entry on the basis of her own atheist tendencies.
With this news in mind, one might assume Plath’s heavy edits may have been somewhat ungenuine and artificial. An author questioning their own faith would likely struggle to present a heroine embracing her own in a straightforward, biblical way. Plath would have had to trim the more complicated, murkier aspects of a spiritual journey in order to avoid offending the conservative contest judges.
Faber and Faber chose to bypass this revised version and published the original, darker, unedited story instead. For that, we should be grateful. Here Plath’s writing is uncensored and raw, and it is exactly the morbid aspects that give “Mary Ventura” its bulk. It leans into “horror realism” territory—similar to what you would find in the short stories by fellow American writer Shirley Jackson—with supernatural or allegorical threats in a familiar, everyday setting.
“Mary Ventura” begins in a seemingly normal, bustling train station. Sylvia cleverly tricks the readers into thinking this will be yet another coming-of-age story. Readers will not quite comprehend (or sympathize with) Mary’s fears about traveling by train. If she is going away to school, or away on holiday to visit a friend, or even just to visit her grandparents’ home, what does she have to worry about?
As it turns out, plenty. In fiction, trains usually represent adventure, but also danger. Trains can be monstrous, depending on the writer. People in stories get murdered on trains or get hit and killed by trains. And the power to stop a moving train lies only in the hands of the operator, not the passengers. Plath’s protagonist is already uncomfortably aware of the power imbalance, in which she is the loser, before she even boards.
Plath also introduces a power struggle at beginning of the story in the form of Mary’s relationship with her parents. They want her to board the train alone. She doesn’t want to board the train at all. Ultimately, they win, with the typical parental double-attack of sweet-talking and the pushy insistence that they know what’s best. And so Mary boards the train, reluctantly, and there is the unsettling sense that she is being abandoned.
Abandoned to what, exactly, Plath eases into with various creepy hints. As with many thrillers, the foreshadowing doesn’t become apparent until you revisit the work a second time. Then, you will see the subtle and canny ways Plath justifies Mary’s earlier anxiety. You as the reader will soon take her side. She never should have boarded that train. She doesn’t deserve to be on that train. That train on which all the passengers are doomed, unless they decide to take immediate action and attempt escape.
Prompting Mary to take a stand against this system is a confident, friendly older lady who is also a passenger on the train. Unlike Mary, she is an experienced, seasoned traveller, and it is to her whom Mary turns for guidance in the absence of her apathetic parents. If one had to choose which real-life personality might have inspired this character, author Olive Higgins Prouty would be the most outstanding candidate. Prouty was the sponsor of Plath’s Smith College scholarship and played the role of mentor in the young aspiring writer’s life. Another, more obvious representative for Prouty would also appear in The Bell Jar, as a benefactor and saviour-like figure for Esther Greenwood.
I will not spoil the eerie twist of “Mary Ventura” for prospective readers. Instead, I will highly recommend the story to anyone who admires Plath or even just appreciates literature retrieved from obscurity. The highest respect you can give to the memory of Sylvia Plath is to read all her output, and not just the select few titles handpicked by highbrows. And while you read, take a moment to consider the key philosophical dispute the work perpetrates. Do we all really have the ability to alter or dodge “inevitable” destiny, or does it take a certain type of strong, defiant, youthful personality to do so?
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