Sylvia Plath: ‘Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom’

In January of this year Faber & Faber published a collection of short stories as part of their celebrations for 90 years of Faber & Faber. This collection has some stunning covers and include authors such as Sally Rooney, Kazuo Ishiguro, Flannery O’Connor and of course, Sylvia Plath. Faber have published the short story ‘Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom’ as part of this collection, and it is a story written by Plath in 1952, while she was still a student at Smith College. A few small notes: 1) this blog post will likely contain a few plot spoilers just to warn you and 2) *TW* I do talk a little about Plath’s suicide/mental health towards the end. and 3) this is literally just a compilation of thoughts upon reading ‘Mary Ventura’ last week – I wouldn’t technically class it as a book review (it’s far too unstructured for that) so I’m going to go with half book review / half uncontained excitement about Sylvia Plath. Enjoy x

Reading it for the first time I wasn’t sure how I felt about the story at all – but what I did know was that I loved it. Like, really loved it. At first I didn’t think it was alike to any of Plath’s other writing and it felt a little like one on its own. However after reading it a second time I’ve come to realise that actually, it is very Plath. I feel like there is an overwhelming sense of unknowingness in Plath’s writing generally, and that theme definitely transpires in ‘Mary Ventura’. The notion of going somewhere but without any knowledge of the end destination is something I found hugely interesting because think it is a thought that is echoed throughout Plath’s writing and one that inevitably has autobiographical connotations because this idea of ‘not knowing’ is something that Plath struggled with throughout her life. In this respect, I sometimes find Plath one of those writers that I look up to somewhat(?) Sounds like an odd thing to say since her premature death was a consequence of so much sadness – but I think the work ethic she had and the writing she produced despite struggling so much really is admirable. Also, a lot of this uncertainty about life she projects through her writing is relatable for most twenty-somethings.

A sense of unknowing also has close ties to the Gothic (an area I am a huge fan of generally) and oddly, I feel that this short story was a little Gothic. It always feels like a bit of stretch to claim that Sylvia Plath’s writing is Gothic, but in some respects I think it very much is because there is almost always a sense that something is not quite right in her writing– whether that be related to her personal life and mental health or not. The narrative feels claustrophobic as there is no context to why this journey is being taken, and once Mary is on the train the sense of foreboding is almost suffocating. The narrative is intense – both literally in the form of a short story but also in its descriptions throughout. Like some of Plath’s poetry (specifically ‘Tulips’) it is hard to miss the colour imagery throughout: ‘orange sun […] sinking in the grey west’ (p. 13), ‘red glare of neon light’ (p. 24), lips ‘the bright colour of blood’ (p. 25) all of which indicate an impending sense of danger and draw attention to everything other than what is at the end of the train journey. However, the contrast of these bright colours against the train windows which have in the cold grown ‘gray streams of ice […] [that] glittered as if full of cold silver needles’ (p. 29). Highlight the sinister nature of the trip – and it becomes almost impossible to overlook the Gothic elements to this short story when the outside spaces are cold and dark and the ending of the journey is alluded to as so bleak throughout.

The idea that Mary is travelling towards some kind of unknown end in itself evokes a lot of ambiguity – something that really didn’t sit well upon a first reading. But it also is something that is unique to Plath’s writing style – her writing (I feel) is often permeated by ambiguity and consequently a rhetoric of uncertainty surrounding the self and life is constructed. This is also illustrated in ‘Mary Ventura’ when Mary realises that it is of her own free will that she accepted this fate. She accepted the train ticket and got on the train and finds herself, in blind panic regretting doing so: ‘Mary found herself sinking, drowned in shame. […] Guilt, the train wheels clucked like round black birds, and guilt, and guilt, and guilt.’ (p. 31). This idea of sinking and guilt is not unique to ‘Mary Ventura’ but is actually very present in Plath’s personal life (something she alludes to in some of her letter correspondence).  The New Yorker reviewed this story in January and explained that ‘Mary is not yet Esther, the protagonist of “The Bell Jar.” […] Perhaps she is the Plath who dreamed, in a 1958 journal entry, of writing “stories and poems and a novel and [of being] Ted’s wife and a mother to our babies.”’. I agree wholeheartedly, but I also believe that it is no coincidence that this short story was written prior to her first suicide attempt and therefore paved the way for the publication of The Bell Jar in 1963. She may have dreamed of total, all-encompassing happiness as a student but her writing suggests that all of these hopes are somewhat clouded. Overall, the story is well worth a read – I literally read it in twenty minutes on the train (it was a v. meta experience reading about a train journey while on a train). It is super short but there is definitely so much more to unravel in it, I think it is likely one of those stories you get something new from every time you read it (which are my favourite kind of stories!). I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of re-reading Plath’s writing.

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