Today marks the centenary of the birth of the writer May Sarton. She is not well known or remembered in the UK, but the anniversary is being acknowledged online by the New York Public Library and the Maine town of York where she lived for the last two decades of her life. A celebrated poet, she also became better known in her later years as a diarist, regularly publishing journals full of exquisite musings about friends, nature and her own fairly sedate life by the sea. On her eightieth birthday, the diaries reveal how it was the sight of a scarlet tanager that made her day more than any of the festivities arranged by friends in her house.
Eleanore Marie Sarton was born on 3 May 1912, in Wondelgem, Belgium, the daughter of an academic father and artistic mother. The family fled Europe in 1915, and went to Boston, Massachusetts. For eight years she studied at the Shady Hill School in Cambridge, one of the country’s first progressive schools, but, while still a teenager, went to work as an apprentice in the Civic Repertory Theatre in New York.
In 1931, Sarton travelled to Europe and lived in Paris for a year while her parents were in Lebanon. Thereafter, she went on annual visits to Europe, eventually meeting many literary and theatre personalities. In the mid-1930s, she founded the Associated Actors Theatre, though it did not last very long; and, under the pen name of May Sarton, she published her first books, a volume of poetry and a novel The Single House. In 1945, she met Judith Matlack, a professor of English at Simmons College, who became her lover and companion for more than a decade.
Sarton moved to Nelson, New Hampshire, after her father’s death, and then in the early 1970s to York, Maine, where she rented a house called Wild Knoll. Apart from writing much poetry, novels, and many autobiographical works, she taught at several colleges and universities, including Harvard. She died in 1995. Further information is available from the Language is a Virus website, which has a lot of information on Sarton, and extracts of her work, and A Celebration of Women Writers.
Sarton’s earliest published diaries are contained within Journal of a Solitude (Norton, New York, 1973) and concern 1970-1971. Today, this volume is considered the best, though Norton published many others in subsequent years, including: The House by the Sea: A Journal (1977) concerning the early years at Wild Knoll; Recovering: A Journal (1980); At Seventy: A Journal (1984); After the Stroke: A Journal (1988); and Encore: A Journal of the Eightieth Year (1993).
Sarton’s Wikipedia entry says of her memoirs and journals: ‘In these fragile, rambling and honest accounts of her solitary life, she deals with such issues as ageing, isolation, solitude, friendship, love and relationships, lesbianism, self-doubt, success and failure, envy, gratitude for life’s simple pleasures, love of nature (particularly of flowers), spirituality and, importantly, the constant struggles of a creative life. Sarton’s later journals are not of the same quality, as she endeavoured to keep writing through ill health and often with the help of a tape recorder.’
Here is one extract from the day of her eightieth birthday (taken from Encore). (A few other extracts can be read online at Amazon, and the Language is a Virus website.)
3 May 1992
‘My eightieth birthday. It seems quite unbelievable that I have lived eighty years on this earth. It makes no sense, and I do not believe it. Today, here at Wild Knoll, a very English morning with mist, the daffodils come up through the mist - romantic, and intimate.
As I lie here on my bed all dressed, I am looking at delphiniums, the first flowers that came, which are from someone I do not know, a fan in Oregon, and they have been so beautiful. The delicate, yet brilliant blue against white walls. What a joy they have been!
But this whole birthday is such an ascent of celebration that I can hardly believe I have arrived, as though I were at the top of a mountain. These last days, full of cards, many from readers, and all so moving. I was going to say “too many presents” simply because it is tiring for me opening things now - I feel like a little child at Christmas - but I am so touched by all the people who wanted to remember this particular birthday.
There are too many lists to cross off one by one because nowadays I am sending Endgame, my journal, to friends. I also have copies of the little book of my new poems that Bill Ewert has given me for my eightieth birthday to send out. Without Susan, who is here for the weekend, it would all be quite impossible. She creates order out of chaos.
We shall celebrate my birthday today, doing everything with ceremony. How rare the sense of ceremony is! Susan in a beautiful dress last night helped my heart.
And of course I think of Wondelgem, where I was born, with the poignant sadness I always feel about it and especially about my mother. I think of the beautiful garden she created and then had to leave when the German armies invaded in 1914. I wish I remembered more about Wondelgem. I do not. I am told things, so I can see myself crawling to the strawberry bed when I was a year old and being found there covered with strawberry liquid all over my face, happy as a bee. But I do not remember that, and of course I do not remember that it was Céline Limbosch who held me in her arms before my mother did. That deep bond started very early in my life, before she herself had a child.
And I think of all the birthdays. Margaret and Barbara sent two bunches of balloons. It all brought back a birthday party my mother gave me when I was perhaps seven or eight years old in our tiny apartment on Ten Avon Street in Cambridge, balloons all over the ceiling. How thrilling that seemed to me! And I remember my twenty-fifth birthday at Jeakes House, Rye. I and a group of friends rented the house from Conrad Aiken for three months, just down the street from the Mermaid Tavern and Henry James’ Lamb House. The room where I worked looked over the marshes and it was a beautiful, peaceful scene. That whole time was a magic time in my life, but in some ways eighty is an even better age because you do not have to be worried about the future anymore; you can rest on the past. [. . .]
Now Susan has gone out to get the clams to steam for our lunch. Nancy is coming, and Edythe, bringing as she always does for my birthday miniature roses which I plant on the terrace along the border inside the wall. Last year they were in flower until November. Thrilling. [. . .]
It is now eight-fifteen on my birthday night and Maggie and Nancy and Janice Oberacker are washing the dishes and tidying up downstairs. I suddenly felt I must get up here to bed, but before I go to sleep I also want to tell the big event - there were many, but one of the biggest events of today, in some ways the most moving, was when I went down after my nap at half past four and looked out at the bird feeder. There was a scarlet tanager! I have not seen a scarlet tanager here for twenty years. On the day I moved in, there was a scarlet tanager in the andromeda. I never saw him again. This magic bird was there again this evening as we had supper. [. . .]
The whole day has been a festival of love and friendship. And as I say goodnight I think of my mother and of how glad she must have been when I finally came out of her, alive and all right, and she took me in her arms.’