May Sarton was a prolific writer, publishing something in the region of 50 books in her lifetime covering fiction, non-fiction and poetry. She, in her youth, knew the Bloomsbury set though not well (though I am somewhat jealous she met Virginia Woolf). In 1973 she published Journal of a Solitude, a diary covering a year of her life during which she mused on a period of isolation, living alone whilst working on a collection of poetry. At the time she was 58 years old, she was, it appears, in a relationship which was failing though this is only barely alluded to throughout the book. Instead the book is a collection of her thoughts, her experiences. It is quite a meditative read.
Sarton, it seems, struggles with social contact and her time in ‘isolation’ is somewhat self-imposed, a protective measure, perhaps. As she describes here:
“For a long time now, every meeting with another human being has been a collision. I feel too much, sense too much, am exhausted by the reverberations after even the simplest conversation. But the deep collision is and has been with my unregenerate, tormenting and tormenting self. I have written every poem, every novel, for the same purpose – to find out what I think, to know where I stand. I am unable to become what I see. I feel like an inadequate machine, a machine that breaks down at crucial moments, grinds to a dreadful halt ‘won’t go,’ or, even worse, explodes in some innocent person’s face.”
As a person with introverted tendencies, I well understand that feeling of ‘collision’ and the need to protect both oneself and others from the danger this inflicts. In this way Sarton wants to protect herself from these dangerous ‘collisions’ and the inevitable guilt that follows when the collision strikes out onto others. She describes often through the diary her difficulties with relationships, her desires to be friendly spilling over into difficult behaviour and the annoyance she feels with herself afterwards. And yet there are friendships which she manages to sustain, largely at a distance but which come together positively and as a force for good in her life. Yet she still, sometimes, resents them. The way they take her away from her art, from her poetry, from her quiet and calm, from contemplation of a vase of fresh cut flowers or the way a beam of light moves about the room at a certain time of day.
The entries expose Sarton’s thoughts; it takes some self-security to expose oneself to the kind of scrutiny Sarton opens herself up to. And yet she is an intelligent and insightful woman, she opines on art, on life, on relationships, on the feminine situation and how it affects women’s ability to create art. She seems singularly concerned about the question of female creativity, perhaps on account of her admiration of Woolf who was not, at the time, a well-received and recognised artist as she is today. As she explains:
“There may be a lot of self-involvement in the Writer’s Journal, but there is no self-pity (and one has to remember that what Leonard published at that time was only a small part of all the journals, the part that concerned her work, so it had to be self-involved). It is painful that such genius should evoke such mean-spirited response at present. Is genius so common that we can afford to brush it aside? What does it matter whether she is major or minor, whether she imitated Joyce (I believe she did not), whether her genius was a limited one, limited by class? What remains true is that one cannot pick up a single one of her books and read a page without feeling more alive. If art is not to be life-enhancing, what is it to be? Half the world is feminine – why is there resentment at a female-oriented art? Nobody asks The Tale of Genji to be masculine! Women certainly learn a lot from books orientated towards a masculine world. Why is not the reverse also true? Or are men really so afraid of women’s creativity (because they are not themselves at the centre of creation, cannot bear children) that a woman writer of genius evokes murderous rage, must be brushed aside with a sneer as ‘irrelevant’?’
Yet her admiration of Woolf is not blind to the faults of the woman, she does not blindly idolise. As mentioned, she met Woolf as a younger woman and found her intelligent, interested yet cold. Yet she admires how she achieved what she did. Sarton herself never married or had children, she had both heterosexual and homosexual relationships, and in the book she explains a little about her discovery of the idea that gender was not binary, that we are, perhaps, all a little bit of this and a little bit of that and it seems she found the idea comforting. She had some sympathy for women who found their lives altered immeasurably by marriage, and the way this impacted their hopes and expectations for their lives. Perhaps the polarity of it is somewhat outdated, but it is surprising, still, how little has changed bearing in mind she wrote this in the early 1970s and yet I suspect there are many women who would recognise her description of their lives (gleaned from her continued relationship with former students) even now:
“Whatever college does not do, it does create a climate where work is demanded and where nearly every student finds him or herself meeting the demand with powers he did not know he had. Then quite suddenly a young woman, if she marries, has to diverge completely from this way of life, while her husband simply goes on towards the goals set in college. She is expected to cope not with ideas, but with cooking food, washing dishes, doing laundry, and if she insists on keeping a job, she needs both a lot of energy and the ability to organise her time. If she has an infant to care for, the jump from the intellectual life to that of being a nurse must be immense. “The work” she may long to do has been replaced by various kinds of labour for which she has been totally unprepared. She has longed for children, let us say, she is deeply in love, she has what she thought she wanted, so she suffers guilt and dismay to feel so disoriented. Young husbands these days can and do help with the chores and, far more important, are aware of the problem and will talk anxiously about it – anxiously because a wife’s conflict affects their peace of mind. But the fact remains that, in marrying, the wife has suffered an earthquake and the husband has not. His goals have not been radically changed, his mode of being has not been radically changed.”
I very much enjoyed reading Journal of a Solitude. It wasn’t quite what I had expected (I have a great interest in books about imposed isolation) as Sarton’s isolation was both desired and not, and it existed and did not. She wrote extensively to people who wrote to her during the time, she delivered talks, she attended workshops and readings and she met with friends. But what she did which I haven’t seen so well expressed elsewhere is shone a light on the conflict between desiring company (or love) and the reality of it, of the conflict between desiring time to oneself and the empty hours, uncertainty and depression this can bring. She exposes herself to the truth that she likes people but hates how she is with them, finds it difficult to breathe after hours of company. And she also shows the conflict of being a creator of art: the excuses for not writing coupled with the knowledge that the ‘disturbance’ that gets in the way of creation is all, really, with oneself. It is a lovely book, despite Sarton’s frustrations and the sadness and honesty that underlies the reason for writing it in the first place.