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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
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

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the world's leading suppliers and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Multiple Apprentices Required

£6240 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Apprentices are required to join a privat...

Sauce Recruitment: HR Manager

£40000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: This is an exciting opportunity for a HR...

Ashdown Group: Interim HR Manager - 3 Month FTC - Henley-on-Thames

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established organisation oper...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee