15 January 2019

There's Something About (Sylvia Plath's) Mary (Ventura)


There is something about Mary Ventura...

Sylvia Plath's recently published story, "Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom", is the first new fictional prose of Plath's published in the US (or any country, really), since 1970s. As such, it is appropriate for there to be some media attention about it.

However, some of that media attention sprung up due to poor word choices and possibly a general ignorance or a misunderstanding about libraries, archives, typescripts, etc. It needs a hashtag and a -gate, though, in order to truly achieve the sublime and the ridiculous. Is it #MaryGate? #LostGate?

The Lilly Library raised questions about The New Yorker's use of the term "lost" in a series of tweets, which lead to an article by Sarah Bahr in the Indianapolis Star. (Please note that in the Star piece, Plath won Mademoiselle's College Fiction contest in 1952, not 1951. And The New Yorker incorrect reports that Judith Raymo found the story in the archives. She purchased it via auction. See below for more information on that.)

There are at least three histories to "Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom". The first is its composition. The second is Plath's title change and revision. The third concerns its whereabouts.

The Composition of "Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom"

Plath wrote "Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom" in December 1952 for her creative writing course English 347a, Style and Form, taught by Robert Gorham Davis. Attempts to locate the course syllabus have not been fruitful, but I thank Nanci Young at Smith College for searching on my behalf. The copy Plath submitted for her course, which has both her instructor's comments and her revisions, is held in Plath mss II at the Lilly Library.

Plath's notes for the course, also held by the Lilly, show perhaps some of the ideas she sought to incorporate into the story. There are two pages of notes though one page is torn and likely contained quite useful information). Her notes list words like symbolism, occult, fantastic, anxiety, fear, catharsis, pity, and terror. She cites E.T.A. Hoffman's short story "The Sandman" and "The Night of Storm", which may be referring to the poem by Paul Fort. In her notes she has something about the "east", and this is where the page is torn. The following line does mention "west"; but it is unclear due to the tearing if she made notes on the north and south. The north of course could be pertinent as this is where the train "Mary Ventura" is on which is hurtling towards the Ninth Kingdom.

Between getting the story back and January 1953, Plath revised it—what else did she have to do, what with her "FABULOUS FRACTURED FIBULA" and all (Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1, page 538). On 21 January 1953, Plath wrote to her mother:
Here is the story: not as good as it looked when I first wrote it, but I’ll give it a try. After you type it, please send it right off in a brown envelope to [Mademoiselle]... Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1, page 553.
That copy of the story was rejected by Mademoiselle in March 1953 and it became the copy text for the various 2019 publications. There are textual differences between the Lilly copy (19 pages and to Plath's count 5,000 words) and the revised copy (23 pages; 22 pages plus a title page, and about 5,400 words).

"Marcia Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom"

In December 1954, Plath massively revised story and changed its title to "Marcia Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom" as she considered submitting it to the Christophers contest. (See Letters, Volume 1, pages 876-7.) Plath wrote a one-page introduction to the story entitled "Teen-Agers Can Shape The Future" which serves as a kind of authorial commentary on the text; however, it was clearly written with the Christophers in mind so may be read with that in mind.

"Marcia Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom" is also in Plath mss II at the Lilly. There is a 13-page draft with much revision; and then a 6 page story, with a one-page introduction for which there is a top and carbon copy. The "Marcia Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom" is so cut-down I consider it a separate story.

Mary's Whereabouts: Or, Mary Ventura: Typescript Detective

First up is the Lilly Library's draft. That was with Sylvia Plath and then Aurelia Plath from 1952/3 until 1977 when Mrs. Plath sold the papers to the Lilly Library. Not lost. Just unpublished and if you want to be honest, with the exception of Luke Ferretter's Sylvia Plath's Fiction: A Critical Study (2010), largely critically ignored. I am guilty of this, myself, as I did not read the story until 2015 and that was on my fifth or so visit the the Lilly. The story has been available in the archive, cared for expertly by its custodians and used by some of its users.

I have been lucky in that I have known about this revised copy of the story, and have had access to it and the ability to do research on it, since 2016.

The press has frequently called the story "lost". This is a complete misnomer for it has never been lost; it has just been in private hands, which is not the same thing. In fact the story's whereabouts has a very clear line of ownership.

When Sylvia Plath received the story back from Mademoiselle, she took it home with her to Wellesley.  It remained in Wellesley for nearly thirty years, from 1953 until it was sold via a Sotheby's auction in 1982.

Thirty-two years later it was part of the big December 2014 Sotheby's auction which failed to sell (see this blog post also, please, which discusses the aforementioned 1982 auction). Then it then reappeared for sale as an individual lot in a Bonhams auction on 15 June 2016.

Since it has been publicized, the winner of that lot in 2016 was Judith G. Raymo, a graduate herself of Smith College who, in the spring of 1953, was also in the running with Plath for a Guest Editorship at Mademoiselle.

So the line of ownership is this:

1953-1982: Sylvia Plath/Aurelia Schober Plath
1982-2016: Private owner/collector
2016-    : Judith Raymo

In other words: not "lost". There has also been some confusion about the different copies of "Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom". So, again, there are only two extant copies of the story "Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom". There is the original version held by the Lilly Library. And, there is the revised, final version which is owned now by Judith Raymo and which provided the text for teh published copy. That's it.

The typescript of "Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom" and the rejection letter were displayed in Raymo's 2017 Grolier Club exhibit: "This is the light of the mind . . ." Selections from the Sylvia Plath Collection of Judith G. Raymo. In addition to being published now, I have heard that "Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom" will appear later this spring in Hudson Review.

I am now off the soapbox.

If you are interested about the real Mary Ventura, please make sure to look at Plath's adolescent diaries held by the Lilly Library, her published JournalsThe Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1, and my blog post: "Sylvia Plath's Mary Ventura".

All links accessed 7 and 15 January 2019.

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Publications & Acknowledgements

  • BBC Four.A Poet's Guide to Britain: Sylvia Plath. London: BBC Four, 2009. (Acknowledged in)
  • Biography: Sylvia Plath. New York: A & E Television Networks, 2005. (Photographs used)
  • Connell, Elaine. Sylvia Plath: Killing the angel in the house. 2d ed. Hebden Bridge: Pennine Pens, 1998. (Acknowledged in)
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives, Redux." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 232-246.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 3." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 119-138.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012: 11-56.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 5: Reanimating the Past." Plath Profiles 6. Summer 2013: 27-62.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017.
  • Death Be Not Proud: The Graves of Poets. New York: Poets.org. (Photographs used)
  • Doel, Irralie, Lena Friesen and Peter K. Steinberg. "An Unacknowledged Publication by Sylvia Plath." Notes & Queries 56:3. September 2009: 428-430.
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, acknowledged in)
  • Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (Acknowledged in)
  • Holden, Constance. "Sad Poets' Society." Science Magazine. 27 July 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women, Motion Picture. Directed by Rachel Talbot. Brookline (Mass.): Jewish Women's Archive, 2007. (Photograph used)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Karen V. Kukil. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. (Acknowledged in)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1, 1940-1956. London: Faber, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
  • Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'A Fetish: Somehow': A Sylvia Plath Bookmark." Court Green 13. 2017.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'I Should Be Loving This': Sylvia Plath's 'The Perfect Place' and The Bell Jar." Plath Profiles 1. Summer 2008: 253-262.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "The Persistence of Plath." Fine Books & Collections. Autumn 2017: 24-29
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "This is a Celebration: A Festschrift for The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3 Supplement. Fall 2010: 3-14.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.

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