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.

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