Dear Juliette, Letters of May Sarton to Juliette Huxley reviewed by Deborah Straw
Dear Juliette, Letters of May Sarton to Juliette Huxley
By May Sarton, Edited by Susan Sherman
Reviewed by Deborah Straw
In the final frame of Martha Wheelock's film portrait of writer May Sarton, World of Light, Sarton is asked what she'd like to be remembered for. Her response: "For being fully human, if I am." A new book of letters, Dear Juliette, shows Sarton to be extremely human in her passions, in her demands, in her conflicts, in her joys in a life lived at a high intensity, often in the company of glamorous and influential friends.
May Sarton died in 1995 at 83. During her lifetime, she published more than 50 books, writing about a book a year from her 20s into her early 80s. Sarton wrote unflinchingly about cancer; about infidelity; about depression; about hatred and prejudice; about friends and animals dying; about feeling suicidal in journals such as Journal of a Solitude and The House by the Sea; in novels such as A Reckoning and Kinds of Love; and in hundreds of poems. She came out of the closet in her novel Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing (1965) when it was unfashionable to do so and suffered professional repercussions for it.
Dear Juliette, Letters of May Sarton to Juliette Huxley
Edited by Susan Sherman
Hardcover - $ 20.97
Published June 1999
W.W. Norton & Company Ltd.
These lyrical, extremely romantic letters to Juliette Huxley reflect her poetic language and show the intensity of what she felt for just about everything. The letters are full of poems, hers (some previously unpublished) and others (by Yeats, Rilke and more), and, as are her published journals, full of book recommendations. Many letters are partially or entirely in French, her mother tongue (translated here by editor Susan Sherman).
Juliette Huxley was a Swiss-born sculptor and writer, the wife of Julian Huxley, secretary of the London Zoo and first director general of UNESCO. He was 25 years Sarton's senior; Juliette was 15 years older than Sarton. The Huxleys had two sons; one, Francis, wrote the Foreword to this volume. Amazingly, Julian never knew of May's and Juliette's affair. And, equally amazingly to me, Sarton considered the Huxley marriage near perfection.
As a very young woman, May had an affair with Julian. His wife knew of the affair, which was followed by others. But the greatest love of Sarton's life turns out to have been Juliette, with whom she spent only one week of physical passion in 1947 in Paris, but to whom she wrote many poems and hundreds of long letters, almost daily. For the poet, Juliette was the critical muse, the woman who aroused the most intensely felt responses.
Written from 1936, when May was 24, until just before Juliette's death, in September 1994, the letters not only illustrate a 60-year friendship and sometime love affair, they also chronicle half a century in this country and in Europe, where Sarton was born and often traveled. The letters are full of the events of the day, including WWII.
But they are primarily about human relationships, about love, about becoming and staying a writer. The letters show Sarton's early ambivalence about her sexuality (her gender preference and her interest in the act). In 1944, she writes, "I wish that I could marry now." They also concern her anxieties and trepidation about writing, and her recurring themes, which did not change greatly throughout her life. She was always a lover of nature, a humanitarian, a feminist, and a fierce and tender friend.
Of course, as with any relationship, one partner is generally more intense than the other , and in this instance, May carried the bulk of the emotion. Many of the letters are addressed to "Juliette darling" or "dearest petite flamme," or "petite flamme bleu." In the video (and its companion book), World of Light, Sarton explained that in this country, people are afraid of being too attached; in Europe the emotional loam is far deeper. There, women are less afraid to love women, in a physical way or any other way.
Sarton was born in Belgium and spent many years in Europe. A courageous woman, she was unafraid to explore any and all loves. She believed that love is the most important emotion in the world ("Love really does open the world..."), and that passion is "so elusive and violent. It closes out the world." Juliette, more reserved, was apparently conflicted by their short-lived lesbian relationship, and maintained her marriage to Julian, even through his breakdowns and marital lapses, until his death.
A 1948 letter from Bill Brown, May's painter friend provides an interesting footnote. Brown writes that when he had a talk with Juliette: "She began by saying it was really all her fault for not keeping it at a certain control level she never really could give enough and felt exhausted by the demands [however] I felt that she loves you very much and will permit herself to enjoy it when it's a little further removed from the last weeks." In 1997, Brown wrote to Susan Sherman, "Juliette I thought wanted me to understand the difficulty of her position which I assumed was wife, mother, non-lesbian, etc. She was reserved, polite, and beautiful."
Juliette Huxley cut May off for 27 years, only to resume contact in letters and finally in person following Julian's death in 1975.
Also included are four of Sarton's drafts of a possible introduction to this book, two dozen of Juliette Huxley's letters to Sarton, and several photographs of the writer and the two of the Huxleys. Susan Sherman, a good friend of Sarton's in her last years, has done a superb job of lovingly and thoroughly choosing and editing while giving appropriate background
information on people and events.
What is always nourishing for this reader, aside from Sarton's being a gifted writer and a steadfast, generous friend (I was fortunate enough to know her), is the author's wisdom and strong values, which she never lost sight of. For her, time must be saved for her solitude, her work, her gardens, her animals and her friends. She refused to become caught up in a rushed suburban American lifestyle. Two quotes especially stand out in my memory from Dear Juliette. In 1944, she wrote Juliette,
"I am simply determined not to get caught up into a standard of living that has to be 'kept up' at the expense of the spirit...I fear this country is going through an orgy of materialism and just because of that I will have no part of it."
And, in 1939, she wrote:
"What is wrong with our complicated world today that 'business' gets in the way of everything important? I would like to go with a silver trumpet and pierce people's ears 'Soon you will be dead and what are you doing? What part of your day is living?' ...You feel that if you knocked at the door and said 'Look, I have found the truth' they would answer 'No time this week. Call me up a week from Thurs' or if you came and said ' See, here is my heart,' they would answer 'O,thank you so much. Just put it in a glass of water in the icebox. I am so busy today --tomorrow--' "
May Sarton always found time to write letters, to finish her novels and poetry, to reach out to a friend, old or new. Aside from being a good and challenging read, this new book of literary letters also reminds the reader of how fast paced our lives have become. For some, it may serve as a cautionary tale to slow down and re-value our connections.
Deborah Straw is a writer, editor and teacher who lives in Burlington, Vermont, and spends two to three months a year in Key West. Straw writes and publishes essays, book reviews, poems and articles. She also teaches writing and literature courses at Community College of Vermont. Her first book, Natural Wonders of the Florida Keys, has just been released by Country Roads Press/NTC Contemporary Publishing Group.