DURING HER lifetime, Sylvia Plath was defined by her relationships with others. She was a daughter, a wife, a mother. When she killed herself in her London flat in 1963, while her two young children slept in the next room, a local paper breathlessly described her as the 30-year-old American “wife of one of Britain’s best-known modern poets, Ted Hughes.” Her own accomplishments, which included a favourably received book of poems, “The Colossus”, went largely unmentioned.
But Plath had spent her final months scribbling away at the poems that would secure her legacy. Hughes by then had run off with another woman, leaving Plath to raise their children on her own. Her only time to work was before dawn, “that still, blue, almost eternal hour…before the baby’s cry, before the glassy music of the milkman, settling his bottles,” as she put it for a BBC programme that never aired. Jealous, angry, addicted to sleeping pills and dreaming of death, she poured herself into work that was vital, venomous, glorious and unapologetically female. (“Lady Lazarus”: “Out of the ash/ I rise with my red hair/ And I eat men like air.”)
Hughes published these poems in 1965, and Plath soon entered the realm of myth. Critics compared her to Keats; feminists embraced her as a martyr (and pilloried Hughes as a reckless and even sadistic agent of the patriarchy). The rest of Plath’s published works—from her semi-autobiographical novel “The Bell Jar” to her countless letters to her mother—illustrate her struggle to lead what felt like a double life. Although she presented a relentlessly cheerful model of femininity on the outside, forever eager to please, she roiled poisonously within. With her suicide, she gave the lie to the idea that women could have it all.
Over 55 years after her death, Plath’s star power has hardly waned. Her wrestles with life and language continue to pinion new generations of readers. After all, women are still asking, with no less urgency, whether they can both change nappies and lead a life of the mind. Publishers have cashed in. On top of the countless biographies that aim to spin new stories about Plath’s short life, two backbreaking volumes of her collected letters have hit bookstores in the past two years. At an auction in London last year, fans spent remarkable sums buying up Plath’s belongings, from her mint-green Hermes 3000 typewriter (for £26,000; $46,071) to her old tartan skirt (£1,700). Many took pleasure in the fact that her lots well outsold those of Hughes.
Now Faber and Faber has published a slim volume dedicated to a previously unpublished story, “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom”, which Plath wrote when she was a 20-year-old college student in 1952 (it will be published in America by Harper Collins). Frieda Hughes, Plath’s daughter and the executor of her estate, had not heard of the story before an academic rummaging through Plath’s archives brought it to her attention. Plath herself described it as a “vague symbolic tale” and submitted it to Mademoiselle magazine for publication, but it was rejected. As a stand-alone book, it is underwhelming. But as yet more evidence of Plath’s precocity, it is compelling. For those who approach all of her work with a kind of morbid curiosity, they will find plenty of portentous signs of Plath’s disgust with the artifice of life. Her grim fate inevitably freights all of her work with a sickening and slightly titillating sense of dread.
From the start, Plath manages to make this story feel creepy and strange. The drama begins on a train platform, where the parents of a young woman named Mary Ventura are politely but insistently pushing her to board. Mary’s mother chillingly croons that there is “absolutely nothing” for her to worry about. Meanwhile newsboys cry out alarming headlines in the background: “Extra…ten thousand people sentenced…ten thousand more people…”
Once Mary reluctantly reaches her seat, nudged along by her father (who “looked anonymous in his gray felt hat”), she notices some unnerving moments, such as a fight over a toy between two young boys that ends with blood. But soon enough Mary settles into her journey, which her parents told her to take until the end of the line. She is soothed by the company of a kindly older woman in a neighbouring seat, who seems to know everything about this mysterious train. When Mary confesses that she knows little about her destination, the older woman warns her that “there is no going back”. Outside the windows glides a landscape darkened by forest fires and then frozen over with ice. Businessmen lurch through the aisles and laugh with unmistakable cruelty. The train keeps hurtling into long black tunnels. As Mary’s panic mounts, she registers that her fellow passengers don’t seem to care where they are going. They don’t notice that they are trapped. Mary, on the other hand, eagerly plots her escape.
This is not a subtle story, but it is an interesting one. Is the train a metaphor for the inevitable and joyless conventions of a life lived according to the rules of the 1950s? Is the journey a meditation on the way mental illness can warp experiences in sinister and isolating ways? Is the wise older woman a character born of Plath’s desire for a strong female mentor? Plath is too clever to offer easy answers. Even so, these questions won’t riddle the mind for long. Instead, the reader is left with a story that feels like an awkwardly apt artefact from an author who was too horrified by her own journey to see it through.