Obituary: May Sarton

May Sarton was one of America's most prolific writers: having published over 40 books, she gained a huge following of fans both internationally and at home, though acclaim from mainstream critics eluded her until late in her career, when what she considered the male-dominated and homophobic literary establishment finally bowed to her accomplishment.

She was born Eleanore Marie Sarton in Belgium in 1912. Her English mother Mabel was an artist and her Belgian father Georges a historian of science. The family moved to the United States in 1916, as refugees from the First World War, and Sarton, her name now anglicised to May, became an American citizen in 1924, and was educated in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Brussels.

Sarton came to England for the first time in 1937, when she met Elizabeth Bowen, whose lover she became, and Virginia Woolf, with whom she took tea; her first novel, The Single Hound (1939), was based on these encounters. Having met Woolf became part of Sarton's literary credentials. In her published journals she frequently boasted of their friendship. Woolf, in her own diary account, was altogether less flattering about the eager young American. Sarton made a name for herself in Britain in the late Seventies and early Eighties, when her books began to be published by the Women's Press, and she was quickly taken up by a feminist readership.

In the early Thirties, Sarton worked in the theatre as an actor and director but her involvement in the profession was not successful and she turned her attention to writing. Her first publication was a collection of poems, Encounter in April (1937), and she managed a further 18 volumes in her lifetime, including a Collected Poems in 1974. She wrote lyric poetry characterised by adherence to traditional structures and lack of innovation. Rhyme and rhythm mattered greatly to her; she believed that free verse was formless. Her kind of formal and linguistic control is now coming back into repute, but for a long time her dignified, humanist verse, preoccupied with themes of morality, love and loss, was seen as hopelessly old-fashioned in an age dedicated to experiment. However, her public readings drew the kind of large, enthusiastic audience which many a more correctly avant- garde poet might envy.

Sarton's best-known and best-loved novel is probably Mrs Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing (1965), her "coming-out" novel, whose story of a poet giving an interview to a couple of journalists included a discussion of lesbian life and love.

The hallmark of Sarton's prose fiction style is sincerity, simplicity and compassion. Her messages are plain; she wants to reveal human truth, not to create dazzling fictions. Plot and character are a means to that end. Her novels reveal her commitment to the cause of social justice. Much of her work involves a consideration of ageing and old age: As We Are Now (1973) delves into an elderly woman's incarceration in a cruel nursing home; The Education of Harriet Hatfield (1989) deals with starting a bookshop business at 60.

If ageing was her great theme, she dealt with it most originally in her autobiographical writing. Her journals, which she published annually, tracked her progress into a territory relatively uncharted in literature. Sarton lived alone, and tried in the journals to record honestly the joys, worries and difficulties of that life. This resulted in the kind of confessional prose, anathema to many critics, that endeared her to a young generation of readers preoccupied with issues of women's freedom, independence and autonomy.

Plant Dreaming Deep (1968) and Journal of a Solitude (1973) were hailed as a new kind of writing. It was possible to read in them an almost uncomfortably intimate narrative of the anxiety about being a writer that Sarton felt. Her openness brought her fan letters from all over the world, and she spent an enormous amount of time responding to these. She both needed and resented these signs of love, these intrusions on her privacy. She was the sort of solitary who both welcomed and fended off visitors.

By the end of her life, May Sarton could be proud of having gained many awards and prizes. She was the recipient of 17 honorary doctorates. Virginia Woolf might not have approved of collecting accolades from the patriarchal establishment, but for the delighted Sarton, at the end of her long career, it was a sign that she had finally triumphed.

Eleanore Marie Sarton, novelist and poet: born Wondelgem, Belgium 3 May 1912; died York, Maine 16 July 1995.

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350 - £400 per ...

HR Manager - HR Generalist / Sole in HR

£30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - HR Generalis...

Business Analyst - Banking - London - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: Business Analyst - Banking - People Change - Lond...

HR Manager - Milton Keynes - £50,000 + package

£48000 - £50000 per annum + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Shared...

Day In a Page

All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

Florence Knight's perfect picnic

Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

Mark Hix's summery soups

Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

Tim Sherwood column

I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition