In 1952, Sylvia Plath was 20 years old. She had yet to meet Ted Hughes. She had yet to complete the guest editorship at Mademoiselle that would become the basis for her seminal 1963 novel The Bell Jar. She was bare months away from her first suicide attempt and years away from her death by suicide in 1963. The poetry for which she is best remembered, most notably Ariel, would not be published until after her death.
But in 1952 Plath was already writing, writing with deep and ferocious ambition. “I can’t let Shakespeare get too far ahead of me, you know,” she told her journal. And now, for the first time, one of the stories Plath was writing in 1952 is in print.
It’s called Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom, and it’s being published in full by Harper Perennial in a slim 50-page edition. Plath originally submitted Mary Ventura to Mademoiselle after she won the magazine’s writing prize in 1952; the story was rejected, and while she toyed with revising it, it languished in her archives for decades, mostly unread.
Harper Perennial is billing this publication as “one of the literary events of the year, if not the last five decades,” but I can’t actually say that Mary Ventura is worth reading now by anyone other than Plath completists. This story is very recognizably a piece of juvenalia. Plath called it a “vague symbolic tale,” which is accurate: It’s an allegory about a young girl on a train ride, filled with self-conscious menace and heavy with overtones of sex and death. It’s a learning story, the kind of story you write to figure out exactly what kind of writer you are becoming.
Here’s what happens: Mary Ventura (named for one of Plath’s high school friends), is placed on a train by her parents, off to an unnamed destination despite her trepidations. “I can’t go today. I simply can’t. I’m not ready to take the trip yet,” she protests, but nonetheless her parents install her in a train car and then abandon her there.
Mary is at first charmed by the luxuries of her trip, like the ginger ale she orders in the café car, which comes “shot through with small silver bubbles, in a tall glass with a red cherry at the bottom.” (That’s the kind of sensual attention to detail that made The Bell Jar so immersive — who can forget the avocados stuffed with crab salad that give Esther food poisoning? There’s a strong argument to be made that Sylvia Plath is one of the great overlooked food writers of the American canon.)
But over the course of Mary’s journey, the train becomes more and more sinister. Plath takes a heavy hand with atmosphere here: The “red plush” seats are “the color of wine,” and nearly everything else on the train is also blaring a hostile and malevolent red, except for the peaceful “leaf-green wool” that Mary’s mysterious seatmate is knitting into a dress. There are long and dark and mysterious tunnels and squabbling little boys who fight until “blood oozed from a purpling bruise,” and the landscape is “somber,” “gray,” and “bleak,” with “thick and smoky” air.
At last it becomes clear to Mary that the train is taking its passengers to somewhere mysterious and terrible, a “ninth kingdom” that is frozen in ice and to which the passengers are gradually numbed as they approach it. “They generally don’t protest at all,” Mary’s enigmatic knitting seatmate tells her of the other passengers. “They just accept it when the time comes.”
To escape the fate that awaits everyone else, Mary realizes, she will have to opt out of the system. She will have to make “the one assertion of the will remaining” and pull the emergency brake.
Plath frames Mary’s choice as a courageous rebellion, the only principled choice that any feeling person could make in a system that numbs its population into unfeeling complacency. But reading Mary Ventura now, with full knowledge of Plath’s biography, it’s difficult to read Mary’s decision to get off the train as anything but a suicide allegory: Life is unbearable and leads to nothing but ruin, the story seems to suggest, and the only way out is to stop living. After writing this story, Plath would attempt suicide for the first time the following summer.
Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom is most interesting for what we know comes after it. As a foreshadowing of Plath’s eventual fate, it is unsettling; as a harbinger of the enormous talent Plath would later refine in The Bell Jar and 1965’s Ariel, with periodic glimpses of the genius she would become in occasional perfect sentences, it is compelling.
But in and of itself, it is too small and too slight to bear the weight of being sold as the publishing event of the past 50 years. It’s a student story, and it is valuable for having presumably taught Plath something about her craft — but it’s not so valuable that anyone who is not committed to reading Plath’s every word should ever have to read it.