May Sarton: A Biography by Margot Peters; reviewed by Susan Hussey
477 pp. Hardcover.
As a biographer Margot Peters is without peer. Whether it's an account of the strained but fascinating relationships George Bernard Shaw had with his leading ladies (Bernard Shaw and the Actresses, Doubleday, 1980) or the difficult life of Victorian novelist Charlotte Brontë (Unquiet Soul, Doubleday, 1975), Margot Peters writes biographies whose pages one turns as rapidly as any bestseller. Rich with skillfully woven detail, they blend perfectly-turned sentences with insightfully-chosen quotes and letters.
For her fifth biography Peters herself approached Sarton in 1991, believing she would find it "interesting to work with a living writer." One can understand her eagerness: Sarton, who died in 1995, was a feminist icon whose appearances attracted standing-room-only crowds, and whose diaries sold hundreds of thousands of copies for decades. And who Sarton knew! Her extensive correspondence featured letters from and to Bloomsbury luminaries Julian Huxley, "Kot" Koteliansky, Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Bowen. She had been trained as an actress with theatre legend Eva Le Gallienne in the 1920's; she had had crushes on and exchanged poems with Muriel Rukeyser and Louise Bogan in the 1950s. Her novel Mrs. Stephens Heard the Mermaids Singing was a 1960s best-seller, and the 1970s brought crowds and worshipful letters from admiring fans for her unabashed diaries.
Yet despite these accomplishments, Sarton was a needy and violent-tempered woman whose work was sometimes more inspirational than inspired, and who was often dismissed by critics even while she was resoundingly accepted by a loyal public. Peters' biography is not an account of a woman who had made peace with herself at the end of her life: a last interview with the biographer three months before Sarton's death reveals a woman still obsessed with an unconsummated love affair almost 50 years earlier.
In a 1982 review, Sheila Ballantyne wrote that Sarton had "an awesome energy for renewal." Peters records impeccably both the energy and the renewal of this complicated woman, though the energy is so often marred by angry outbursts and floods of tears, that it leaves onlookers (and readers) marveling at the kind of charisma that enabled so many of Sarton's friends to forgive these excesses throughout her life.
The renewal is equally problematic. Sarton had a lifelong habit of seduction and a strongly perceived need for a "Muse" who, more often than not, was a woman that did not reciprocate her physical passion. Sarton's intensities, however, make fascinating reading: in the first meeting between biographer and subject, Sarton remarked she had been reading an account of Edith Piaf's life, saying, "Now there is truly a monstre sacré." Peters agrees, remarking they make "the most fascinating subjects." Peters biography devotes equal time to Sarton's monstre sacré and the wise old woman of Wild Knoll, Maine.
Sarton was born in 1912, in Belgium. Her father George, an historian of science, was absorbed in his work, and her mother Mabel, a talented interior designer prior to her marriage, sacrificed her work to her family, though she made herself frequently ill with this effort. Dislocated by World War I, the Sarton family settled in America, where George found work as an academic and Mabel embroidered dresses to make ends meet. Poverty and ill health caused the family to be frequently apart, exigencies that developed in May the lifelong need for frequent travel and immediate, passionate attachments.
May's first love was the theatre, and she worked for several years for the famous and talented Eva Le Gallienne, whose New York City's Apprentice Theatre introduced European plays to the American stage in the early 1930s. When financial instability finally toppled the ambitious project, Sarton decided to make writing her true career. But success came hard to the young writer: though she always considered herself a poet first, her poetry was never much admired and was panned in later years. Sarton often maintained her lack of a success as a poet was due to her unfashionably passionate style; however, Peters finds that "she gave the same thing to too many poems as she did to people. She should have taken accusations of trite and imprecise language with dead seriousness; for, even more than rhythm, language is the soul of poetry."
In both her expository writing and fiction, though, Sarton found favor and fortune. As early as 1958 she began writing her memoirs, first in a collection of essays titled I Knew a Phoenix. This is where Peters traces the beginning of Sarton's self-mythologizing, beginning with the self-enlarging notion "that a young person nurtured by extraordinary people cannot help being extraordinary herself. George and Mabel, Jean Dominique, Katharine Taylor, Le Gallienne, Lugné-Poë, Koteliansky, Woolf, Bowen and the Huxleys take on secular divinity. They are delightful, gifted, noble and flawless except for the few charming weaknesses May chooses to disclose. And they are all bewitched by May."
Herein is a pattern May struggled with her entire life. Though her life often reads like a series of emotional and professional disasters, Sarton's memoirs make flawless and relatively serene reading where outbursts and betrayals, reflected upon and analyzed, become forgiven in the room of the self. Though she often seems in this biography like a cultural, emotional and geographic outsider, perpetually wandering in search of a home, success, a lover, life often disappointed her, while the discipline she required of herself as a writer never did.
Though the life it records is often stormy, May Sarton: A Biography is smooth reading by a writer in complete command of her material. Whether your interest lies in the history of 20th century literature, feminism, or simply in reading a well-written biography of an electrifying and sometimes terrifying woman, this book is not to be missed.