“mirror, mirror” . . .
Whilst (love using that word!) I was looking through more books yesterday, I came across a thick paperback, a biography of May Sarton, a writer of books that had almost a cult following by women during the years when I was a housebound mother of three daughters, living in a suburb of Boston.
Her book, “Plant Dreaming Deep” about moving and settling into a small house in Nelson, New Hampshire and “Journal of a Solitude” fed my fantasies of domestic bliss by a woman writer who described poignant scenes of rooms, furnishings from her family, plants of all kinds on the windowsills, bouquets of seasonal flowers from the rich garden outdoors and delicious meals served with friends and visitors from diverse places. Christmas was a generous preoccupation of decorated trees, loads of presents, bountiful drink and carefully prepared meals with polished silver and napery on the dining table. I loved all that stuff.
Yesterday, while I was reading the biography, I was surprised but not shocked by the portrait of May Sarton’s actual life. She was ignored by her parents, an only child and a spoiled one even though not given much actual attention. Her personality was dramatic and her demands were many. She was often met with disappointment as her temper tantrums and tirades at people gradually and oftentimes put them off from helping her, although a few loyalists pitched in for a long time with housesitting, plant tending and doing chores, even when met with Sarton’s criticism and ingratitude.
Most interesting of all, was the way that she used her environs and the people around her in an idealized way that served as props for her most well-received book, “Plant Dreaming Deep.” I was astonished to read that buying the small house in Nelson, New Hampshire, was meant as a venue for a love tryst with someone who was already involved with someone else in Cambridge. So, this melodramatic back story was going on in parallel to writing “PDD”, an incredible real-life contrast to the beautifully written domestic memoir that inspired legions of women at the time, myself included.
She sought out situations where she fixated on a potential lover in order to stoke her writing, using the projection as a “muse” for writing poetry. The most astonishing example was her pursuit of Margaret Clapp, President of Wellesley College where Sarton taught on a yearly contract until it was not renewed. Flowers, elaborate engraved gifts, incessant phone calls and poems about her were sent by Sarton to Clapp for FIVE YEARS to no avail.
By the end of the book and her life, she hadn’t changed at all. Still complaining and full of self-pity, still searching for a fulfilling love affair according to her terms, there didn’t seem to be much difference between the May Sarton in her twenties from the one who died in her eighties. Granted, she wrote many books and had them published. She had a following of readers whom she wanted but also decried for the attention that they sought from her. She wanted fame but not what came along with it.
She also had a better opinion of her writing than any of the critics and academic writers she knew (serious writers such as the poet, Louise Bogan and teacher, Carolyn Heilbrun.) She refused to learn from comments that her work was “sloppy, casual, not rigorous enough and often too sentimental.” Instead, she felt that critics did not understand her work nor appreciate it enough. She once said, “If I won the Nobel Prize this year, it wouldn’t make up for the years of bad reviews I have received!”
What a revelation reading this biography was yesterday on the heels of the Dale Carnegie golden rules post the day before. For whatever cause in her childhood, she cared about nobody but herself throughout her whole life, criticizing almost everyone she came across, friends, lovers, fans and critics. She did have a long-term relationship with Judy Matlock who was patient, caring and loyal while Sarton pursued other lovers. Sarton’s callous treatment of Judy during her weakened state was something she regretted afterwards but which she didn’t avoid while Matlock was still alive.
May Sarton’s biography is an ironic case study of how not to live your life or treat those who care about you. She travelled the world, had sophisticated friends in different social and literary circles. Her friends helped her afford the luxurious lifestyle that she felt she was entitled to, like renting the Maine house with an ocean view that she let readers think she owned.
I wonder if we lived in parallel universes and if she had a chance to read this biography of herself whether she’d do it differently the next time around.