Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom by Sylvia Plath

There’s been quite a flutter of excitement around the planned releases to celebrate the esteemed publisher Faber and Faber’s 90th birthday. Known for their marvellous poetry publishing (and former employer of T.S. Eliot), Faber have issued works by everyone from Beckett, Betjeman and Hughes to Eliot himself; and very importantly, one of my favourite authors, Sylvia Plath! Central to the celebrations was the release of a number of little volumes of individual short stories; and the major excitement came from the fact that one of these was a short work by Plath which had never been published before. It was a given that I had to have this, and a copy duly arrived on release date, 3rd January. Trouble was, I was almost scared to read it in case it didn’t live up to the hype…

Well, reader, it did! “Mary Ventura…” was written in 1952, when Plath was a student at Smith College. The title character takes her name from one of Sylvia’s high school friends, and had featured in an earlier unrelated tale; this story, described by Plath as a ‘vague symbolic tale’, was submitted to Mademoiselle magazine in December 1952. Sylvia had recently won their writing prize, but they magazine rejected this new work; their loss, I’m afraid, because I think it’s excellent and I’m so glad it’s finally seen the light of day!

And I here I hit my first problem. “Mary Ventura..” is 40 pages long and to give away too many plot details would really spoil your reading experience (and you ARE going to go out and get a copy of this, aren’t you??) Let’s just say the story opens with Mary being seen off on a long train journey by her parents; they’re oddly distanced and distracted, and Mary seems unsure if she wants to make the long journey north, stating that she isn’t ready to leave. Nevertheless, the train departs with Mary on it; yet nothing seems quite normal. Mary is unsure of where she’s actually going; a woman keeping her company seems to know more about what’s happening than her young fellow traveller; and a vague air of foreboding hangs over the whole enterprise. The ending is symbolic and perhaps unexpected.

I got to the end of the story thinking “Blimey! That’s brilliant!” and then wondering why on earth it hasn’t been published before. Yes, perhaps it’s a little unpolished in places – Plath was, after all, still a fledgling author – but the concept is clever, the atmosphere effectively conjured and the allegory isn’t heavy-handed. In fact, it’s pretty impressive how Plath uses the ‘less is more’ approach, creating tension and uncertainty by implication rather than stating things out-and-out. Motivations and settings are often left cloudy and unresolved, and this makes the story’s unsettling impact even stronger.

Giovanni Giovannetti/Grazia Neri [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Approaching “Mary Ventura…” with knowledge of Plath’s sometimes complex family history and her own struggles does perhaps colour your reading of it. However, even without that background, I think the story stands in its own right, as a look at the complexities of striking out on your own, being ready to leave family life and take on independence, and the importance of a supportive family network around you. For a short piece, it certainly raises a number of issues.

The Faber Stories collection consists of 20 short works which are listed on the flap of this one, and the list of authors is impressive, taking in for example Brian Aldiss, Djuna Barnes, Edna O’Brien, P.D. James and Sally Rooney, to name just a few. Yet I can’t help feeling that Sylvia Plath’s story is the jewel in the crown here; it lingers in the mind and the topics it raises are thought-provoking ones. Aside from that, it’s simply a readable, fascinating, often unsettling tale with can be read in one burst (because you’re desperate to get to the end and find out what happens!) but which then has you wanting to revisit it to look for clues. Very clever, and evidence of just what a great writer Sylvia Plath was, and what a loss she was at such a young age. And it’s set me wondering about what other unpublished gems of hers might be in existence; I do hope that, if there are any out there, they surface in my lifetime…