The Genesis of “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom”
Sylvia Plath was hungry for new experiences when she returned to Smith College as a junior in the fall of 1952 and wrote “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom.” Over the summer she won a $500 prize in the Mademoiselle fiction writing contest with her short story “Sunday at the Mintons’.” When this psychological story was later featured in the Fall 1952 issue of the Smith Review, a literary journal Plath helped revive, it earned her the respect of Mary Ellen Chase, a successful author of novels, critical writings, and commentaries on Biblical literature who became Plath’s trusted mentor. In recommending Plath for graduate school, Chase wrote that in her twenty-seven years as an English professor at Smith she had not known a more gifted “literary artist.” Professor Chase contributed the first article to the Fall 1952 issue of the Smith Review—a definition of Smith College: “the one thing we are afraid of is apathy and indifference toward learning and toward life.” In “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom,” Plath reinforces Chase’s criticism of complacency when Mary’s traveling companion remarks sadly that others on the train “are so blasé, so apathetic that they don’t even care about where they are going. They won’t care until the time comes, in the ninth kingdom.”
Unlike the bored passengers on the train to the ninth kingdom, Plath was excited to explore college life and new academic challenges at Smith during the fall of 1952. She learned advanced creative writing techniques in her upper division course English 347a Studies in Style and Form taught by Robert Gorham Davis, who wrote fiction, articles, and book reviews for The New Yorker, Harper’s, and the New York Times. As an honor’s major in English, Plath also read Boccaccio, Chaucer, and Dante in a rigorous Medieval Literature Unit taught by Howard R. Patch, which included other religious and allegorical texts such as The Confessions of Saint Augustine, City of God, and Le Roman de la Rose. Professor Patch collaborated with former Smith College president, William Allan Neilson, in editing Selections from Chaucer, which was the main textbook for the course. Plath thought Chaucer’s stories were “as fascinating as poetic fairy tales & as spicy as Boccaccio,” while Patch maintained there is “a kind of mysticism in the Canterbury Tales” in his On Rereading Chaucer. Chaucer read Dante and translated Jean de Meun’s unflattering portrayal of feminine temperament in Le Roman de la Rose but was able to anticipate some of the freedoms of the modern woman in his Wife of Bath character, who was Plath’s favorite pilgrim in the Canterbury Tales because of her emancipated joie de vivre. By contrast, when Plath finished reading The Divine Comedy on December 2, 1952, she wrote to her mother who was brought up in the Catholic faith by her Austrian-born parents: “I almost wish I’d had a Catholic background, as you have, so I could understand the heavenly logical faith of it. Unlike God, I can’t be happy with souls suffering in hell!” Plath was an active Unitarian at this stage in her life and refused to dwell on the terrors of hell. Similarly, in Plath’s short story, Mary Ventura pulls the emergency cord as the seventh kingdom station approaches to stop the train before reaching the ninth kingdom, a place probably similar to Dante’s frozen ninth circle of hell, where Satan and the worst sinners suffer in eternal darkness and cold. Like Dante with his poet guide, Virgil, at the end of the Inferno, Mary Ventura, in a kind of metaphysical rebirth, eagerly climbs the steep rock incline “to return into the bright world.”
In order to write about different kinds of experience for her creative writing course, Studies in Style and Form, Plath embraced new opportunities such as flying in a private airplane, skiing for the first time, and traveling six hours each way on the train and subway system to attend a dance at Princeton University. She confided in her journal on November 14, 1952: “Hell was the Grand Central subway on Sunday morning. And I was doomed to burn in ice, numb, cold, revolving in crystal, neutral, passive vacuums, void of sensation.” Her immediate journal descriptions of an orange sun like “a flat pasted disc on a smoky, acrid sky” or a memory of a “petulant Christ child bawling on the train” color her later story “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom.” Instead of Dante’s sinners (heretics, tyrants, murderers, thieves, alchemists, forgers, traitors), Plath populates her story with unpleasant businessmen who wear identical gray felt hats. Even the father figure in the story is portrayed in the unflattering terms of a dictatorial patriarch. Plath’s father died when she was eight from complications of diabetes, leaving a hole in her life she could never fill. Born in Grabow, Germany, to Lutheran parents, Otto Plath was an entomologist with special expertise on bees and eventually became a professor of biology and German at Boston University. Sylvia took a physical science course, The World of Atoms, her junior year of college, but, unlike her father, developed a horrible fear of the class full of “dry absurdities” and “artificial formulas” and vowed to escape it “or go mad.” Dr. Marion Booth, the college psychiatrist at Smith, helped Plath extricate herself from the second semester of the course once she articulated her anxieties, much like Mary Ventura’s companion who cannot help her escape the train until she exerts her free will.
Sylvia Plath was politically liberal and a pacifist throughout her life. Train conductors with “black, bottomless” eyes in her story and newspaper headlines advertising “ten thousand people sentenced” hint at Plath’s unease with America’s incoming conservative government after the November 1952 elections and the sinister “red witch-hunts” of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Professor Davis, in fact, was questioned on February 25, 1953 by the House Committee on Un-American Activities because he was a member of the Communist Party from 1937 to 1939 when he was teaching at Harvard. Davis had hoped the Communist Party could stop the rise of fascism, but disillusioned he left the Party in the fall of 1939 after the Hitler-Stalin Pact. Luckily, Smith continued to support Davis’ faculty appointment after his testimony at the hearing. Later in 1957, as chair of the English department, Davis hired Plath to teach English 11 (freshman English) on the recommendation of Mary Ellen Chase, who wrote to Davis on February 3, 1957 from England after talking with Sylvia’s tutors at Newnham College, Cambridge: “she has remarkable gifts as a teacher as well as real promise as a writer.”
In addition to her political concerns, Plath’s social life was also at a crossroads in the fall of 1952. When her longtime relationship with Harvard medical student Richard Norton (the man Plath’s mother wanted her to marry) began to crumble, Plath dated a variety of men from Trinity College and Yale University. She told her mother that she could not be happy married to Norton: “I want a man who isn’t jealous of my creativity in other fields than children.” Moreover, she told her mother that her plans for graduate school and travel abroad were not going to be “stymied by any squalling breastfed brats.” Plath refused to sink into the track she was born into by marrying a doctor and “leaving the world untried.” Once Plath decided to apply for a Fulbright to study at Cambridge and to live “life to the lees,” she wrote in her journal on January 26, 1953: “How much more hope I have now than my Mary Ventura.”
Plath was a scholarship student at Smith, winning the Olive Higgins Prouty award each year. To save money on room and board, Plath moved to Lawrence House during her junior year to wait tables each day and live with sixty scholarship students. Many of these students and their parents from middle-class and working-class backgrounds provided grist for her writing. Always practical, Plath began to contemplate a career in journalism. To gain experience, she wrote professional press releases about Smith for local newspapers as a paid member of Press Board. In the fall of 1952, she wrote articles about the Smith College Christian Association, the Hillel Club, the Christian Action organization’s efforts to raise awareness of civil rights, the “hale and hearty events” of the Outing Club, the annual student-faculty soccer game, and the fall chrysanthemum show.
In her spare time, Plath was a voracious reader. On October 27, 1952, she was given the Modern Library edition of Franz Kafka’s Selected Short Stories for her twentieth birthday by former roommate Marcia Brown (later Marcia B. Stern). Plath agreed with Philip Rahv’s Introduction that “the movement of Kafka’s narrative art is from psychology to experimental mythology.” Rahv also quotes Kafka’s thoughts on writing in his Introduction (underlined by Plath): “a book should serve as the ax for the frozen sea within us.” The menacing tone, disquieting descriptions, and surreal subjects of Kafka’s stories, including “The Metamorphosis” and “In the Penal Colony,” made a visceral impression.
During the fall of 1952, a combination of challenging personal experiences and new literary influences, from Dante to Kafka, informed “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom,” an unusual 5,000-word short story Plath wrote for English 347a on December 12, 1952. Professor Davis questioned her title “as too obvious a religious suggestion” and identified a few clichés and trite descriptions but essentially thought her writing was very good and gave her an A- grade on the story. He particularly appreciated her concrete descriptions of train travel. Davis ended his assessment as follows: “Morally I think it is made a little too easy for the girl, with so much help from her companion. One decision & one outburst of action are possible enough. It is persisting against habit, temptation, discouragement, etc. that is difficult.” Professor Chase and Dr. Booth gave Plath similar advice and encouraged her to learn resilience in the face of adversity.
Despite Professor Davis’ criticisms of her story, Plath decided to send “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom” to Mademoiselle on January 21, 1953 and asked her mother to retype it with a few small corrections. (After her husband’s death, Aurelia Plath taught medical secretarial skills at Boston University to support Sylvia and her brother, Warren, and was an expert typist herself.) There was one section of the story that Professor Davis thought was too easy—when Mary Ventura asks her wise woman companion for proof that she is trustworthy, and Mary is handed a white rose. Sylvia told her mother to use her own judgment whether to omit this “facile” section. Aurelia omits it in her typescript. Unfortunately, Aurelia introduced a substantive mistake in the manuscript, typing “lower garden” for “flower garden,” altering her daughter’s evocative allusion to a paradisiacal Garden of Eden in the story. Sylvia never proofed the new typescript before her mother mailed “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom” to Mademoiselle. Margarita G. Smith, the fiction editor at Mademoiselle, rejected the story on March 11, 1953, saying “it didn’t seem to be right for MLLE.” Plath was devastated and told her mother that “this is a bad time for me as far as rejections go.” Magazines that catered to young women in the 1950s wanted fiction concerned with adolescent problems or experience, not allegories. For example, “The Perfect Setup,” Plath’s story that deals with anti-Semitism among summer families on Cape Cod, was published in October 1952, and in the same month her story “The Initiation,” about a student who ultimately rejects her election into a superficial sorority, won second prize ($200) in a competition sponsored by Seventeen. Clearly, Plath was trying to write something more universal and profound with “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom.”
Plath thought of recycling her Mary Ventura story one more time on December 27, 1954 for the Christopher Awards. She shortened the narrative and gave it a new title, “Marcia Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom” but decided not to submit it to the contest because she thought it was “too fantastic and symbolic for what they want.” Plath wrote an introduction for the story entitled “Teen-agers Can Shape the Future” to appeal to the judges of the Christopher Awards, stressing its religious qualities:
This is the story of a teen-age girl who passes through the temptations of the material world, grows aware of her own idealism and power to help others, and discovers the City of God. The story is told in the manner of a symbolic allegory, much like some of the parables in the Bible, and it draws upon the images of religion and literature to express its message.
In her one-page introduction, Plath also identifies some of the intended symbols in her story. “The quarreling brothers are present-day prototypes of Cain and Abel.” Mary Ventura’s traveling companion “symbolizes the creative forces of the earth.” Indeed, the older woman in the story is associated with the brown and green colors of nature in contrast to the bloody red and black décor of the train.
While Mary Ventura is a perfect name for a main character embarked on a fictional adventure, she was a real person in Plath’s life, a public school classmate from Wellesley, Massachusetts. Plath’s first attempt to narrate a story about her friend, simply entitled “Mary Ventura,” was written on December 14, 1951 for English 220 (practical writing) taught by Evelyn Page. The main character of this short story, according to Plath in her one-page introduction, is “born into a poor family” and “unable to rise above the circumstances of life which are destined to crush her, the way her mother has been crushed.” Mary’s desire to escape on one of the trains whizzing by her home near the tracks on Linden Street is the main symbol of this fourteen-page story. The train as a means to freedom in “Mary Ventura” becomes a terminal station ride toward impending doom in Plath’s later versions of the story.
In “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom,” the ninth kingdom, according to Mary’s companion, “is the kingdom of negation, of the frozen will . . . there is no return.” At the end of Plath’s life as she cycled down into depression, she uses this same language in her last letter on February 4, 1963 to another wise woman friend, Dr. Ruth Tiffany Barnhouse Beuscher, her former psychiatrist from McLean Hospital: “But there is this damned, self-induced freeze . . . let me just die & be done with it.” Plath committed suicide on February 11, 1963 in her London apartment. She was survived by her children, Frieda and Nicholas Hughes, and her estranged husband, the British poet Ted Hughes. During her lifetime, Plath published a collection of poems, The Colossus (1960), and a novel, The Bell Jar (1963), a fictionalized account of her first breakdown and suicide attempt during the summer of 1953. After her death, Plath’s Collected Poems (1981), edited by Ted Hughes, won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Plath’s short stories were also gathered together by Ted Hughes for Faber & Faber in London (1977) and for Harper & Row in New York (1979). However, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams did not include “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom.”
On June 15, 2016, Bonhams offered for sale Aurelia Plath’s 22-page carbon typescript of “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom” with a letter of rejection from the editor of Mademoiselle. Lot 169 was purchased by Smith College alumna Judith G. Raymo for her extensive Plath Collection. Both Raymo and Plath were English majors at Smith. Raymo was also a finalist in the Mademoiselle College Board Contest won by Plath in June 1953. The typescript of “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom” was later displayed at the Grolier Club in the fall of 2017. The accompanying catalog—This is the light of the mind: Selections from the Sylvia Plath Collection of Judith G. Raymo—describes Plath’s story as an “experiment in symbolic imagery, employing religious imagery in a secular context.” This version of “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom” was originally owned by Aurelia Plath until her agent offered it for sale without Aurelia’s permission at Sotheby’s in New York on April 6, 1982 and again on December 2, 2014, where it did not sell. All the other versions of this story were purchased directly from Aurelia Plath in 1977 by the Lilly Library at Indiana University, Bloomington, where they now reside in Plath MSS II (Box 8, folder 15) open to scholars.
When Paula Deitz, editor of The Hudson Review, first brought the unpublished story to Faber & Faber’s attention on December 11, 2017, after attending the Grolier Club exhibition (and, upon Faber’s request, Judith Raymo provided them with a scanned copy), Faber decided to publish it separately as part of their landmark Faber stories series to celebrate the company’s 90th anniversary on January 3, 2019. HarperCollins Publishers in New York followed suit, first in a paperback edition on January 22, followed by a hardback edition on March 5, 2019. This optimistic coming-of-age story is now published here as originally envisioned by Paula Deitz and Judith Raymo in the context of Sylvia Plath’s life with an in-depth analysis of her ambitious creative writing process. At the age of twenty, Sylvia Plath was inspired by the great literature she studied at Smith College and the encouragement she received from her talented academic mentors to write a serious manifesto. Instead of sleepwalking through life, Plath, like Mary Ventura, decided to risk everything, suffer through hardships, and become one of the great writers of the twentieth century.
Chase, Mary Ellen. Letter to Robert Gorham Davis. 3 Feb 1957. Faculty Records of Sylvia Plath Hughes, Smith College Archives, Northampton, Massachusetts.
Recommendation for Sylvia Plath. 15 Dec 1954. Vocational Office Records, Smith College Archives, Northampton, Massachusetts.
“Smith College—A Definition.” Smith Review (Fall 1952), p. 2.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. Selections from Chaucer. Ed. by William Allan Neilson and Howard Rollin Patch. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1921. Plath’s copy owned by Indiana University.
Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri: The Carlyle-Wicksteed Translation. New York: Random House, 1950. Plath’s copy owned by Indiana University.
Kafka, Franz. Selected Short Stories of Franz Kafka. Trans. by Willa and Edwin Muir. Intro. by Philip Rahv. New York: Modern Library, 1952. Plath’s copy owned by Smith College.
Patch, Howard Rollin. On Rereading Chaucer. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1948. Plath’s copy owned by Indiana University.
Plath, Sylvia. “Initiation” Seventeen 12 (Jan 1953) pp. 64–5, pp. 92–4.
“Marcia Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom.” Typescript. 27 Dec 1954. With Plath’s introduction “Teen-agers Can Shape the Future.” Plath MSS II, Indiana University.
“Mary Ventura.” Typescript. 14 Dec 1951. With Plath’s explanatory notes and comments by Professor Evelyn Page. Plath MSS II, Indiana University.
“Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom.” Typescript. 12 Dec 1952. With comments by Professor Robert Gorham Davis. Plath MSS II, Indiana University.
“Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom.” Typescript by Aurelia Plath. 21 Jan 1953. With rejection letter from Margarita G. Smith, 11 Mar 1953. Private Owner.
“The Perfect Setup.” Seventeen 11 (Oct 1952): 76, pp. 100-4.
“Sunday at the Mintons’.” Mademoiselle 35 (Aug. 1952): 255, pp. 371-78 and Smith Review (Fall 1952): pp. 3-9.
Raymo, Judith G. This is the light of the mind: Selections from the Sylvia Plath
Collection of Judith G. Raymo. New York: The Grolier Club, 2017.