Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom is a short story Sylvia Plath wrote in 1952 while she was still a twenty-year-old student at Smith College. Plath wrote it for Mademoiselle magazine, but when they rejected the story, she revised it by changing its name to Marcia Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom, making it less ominous, and ending it abruptly. However, in Harper Perennial’s view, the original version is the better story out of the two, so that’s why they have gone ahead and published Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom for the first time.
Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom begins at a railway station. Mary, the story’s protagonist, is there with her parents who have come with her to bid her goodbye before she embarks on a journey to North. Nonetheless, at the station, Mary becomes hesitant about leaving. She doesn’t feel like making the trip on that day, and that’s when her parents insist she goes anyway. “Everyone has to leave home sometime. Everyone has to go away sooner or later,” they argue, and Mary reluctantly agrees with them before getting on the train.
Once the train departs the origin station, it passes “black tunnels,” “clouds of smoke and cinders,” and “bleak autumn fields,” and it’s the maternal woman seated next to Mary who keeps her company. This woman had done this trip many times before, so she is familiar with the route that they are taking and the staff on the train. And this comes as a great relief to Mary – with the older woman by her side, she feels like she can finally breathe and enjoy the luxuries offered on the train.
But as Mary settles in and becomes comfortable, we see that this is not an ordinary train ride. The first signs of something sinister going on appear in the story when the older woman offers to buy them both chocolate. She refuses to accept Mary’s share saying “you’ll have enough to pay for by the end of the trip.” Then there is the odd exchange that takes place between the woman and the vendor, and an incident where a passenger refuses to get down at her stop. This passenger “paled, drew her furs about her and shrank back” as the conductor ordered the guards to forcibly remove her from the train. Why wouldn’t the conductor let the passenger change her mind? Surely she should have been able to stay on the train and pay extra for her ride?
It is at that moment we see that this is a story about having agency over one’s life. Mary’s companion chides her for not rebelling when her parents sent her on this trip. Apparently, Mary’s destination – the Ninth Kingdom – is the last stop and there’s no turning back once she gets there…
For a story of its length (it has roughly 40 pages) Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom is such an intense read. However, the story is a bit too dark for my taste, even though Mary’s companion helps her escape her fate once Mary decides to take charge of her life (This woman has a peculiar role to fill in this train line. She is sort of like a psychopomp.) I don’t know how this compares with Bell Jar – my copy is sadly among the TBR piles I had to leave behind in Sri Lanka – but I think fans of Plath’s writing will enjoy this. 3.5 stars.
Note: Many thanks to Harper Perennial for sending me a review copy of Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom.