Journal of a Solitude, by May Sarton

I recently reread this book of journal excerpts in preparation for a discussion of Sarton’s poetry that I was scheduled to lead. I first read the book over thirty years ago, and I was completely blown away by it.

Sarton published this journal in order to correct the mistaken impression created by her memoir Plant Dreaming Deep which described her life since moving in 1956 from the Boston area to Nelson, a small town in New Hampshire, where she bought a white frame house and proceeded to create a garden and a home. In the memoir, she also described the people she met in Nelson: Pearley Cole who cut her fields with a scythe, Bessie Lyman from the parsonage who addressed her in Turkish, Quig who made violins and painted, the Warners who cut the hay in her meadow with a team of horses.

Her life in Nelson sounded idyllic to many readers, so in Journal of a Solitude Sarton set out to tell the truth about what it was like for her to live alone for the first time, in a strange town, while wrestling with her first house, a house where the well ran dry in drought and let in marauding squirrels. She writes frankly about loneliness and depression and winter that never seems to end. But also about arranging flowers from her garden and entertaining friends in her first real home. And poetry.

Not having read the earlier memoir, I didn’t realise that this book was supposed to dampen my enthusiasm. I fell in love with the book and read it over and over. She seemed to be speaking directly to me. I too was living alone, trying to write, creating a home in bleak, beloved New England.

I fell in love as well with Sarton’s life, even as I despaired of ever having anything like it. What was not to love? She wrote poetry all morning, gardened in the afternoon, had a wide circle of friends—goodness, in her youth she had known and been encouraged by none other than Virginia Woolf! I skimmed over Sarton’s complaints that the critics ignored her work, her formalist poems running counter to the free-wheeling trend of the times. She seemed very successful to me. Didn’t Norton continue to publish her poetry collections? I somehow missed the fact that she had to teach classes and Wellesley and go on speaking tours in order to make a living.

I missed also that she was so much older than I. Born in 1912 in Belgium, brought to this country by her parents after the outbreak of the Great War, she wrote these journal entries the year she turned 59. Now I have to laugh at my youthful self: how could I, so much younger, expect to have achieved what had taken her so many decades to attain?

I was not the only one who fell in love with Sarton and her life through this journal. Arriving in the early days of the Women’s Movement, it seemed a model for how a creative woman could lead an independent and rewarding existence. Young women swelled her fan base and made her for the first time able to live off of her writing alone. We bought her journals, which continued to appear every few years, her novels and her poetry.

Now I am almost the age she was when she wrote this journal. Rereading it for the first time, I ruefully acknowledge that my earlier despair was groundless. If I haven’t achieved her success as a writer (being nowhere near as good a poet), I have created a life for myself that balances friends and solitude, writing and earning. And one that is full of beauty: sunlight on the trees, birds at the feeder, roses on the table. A perfect life.

I must also acknowledge what an influence she has had on my life. Even though we never met, her example gave me courage over the years to stick to my unorthodox path. Reading this journal now, I don’t see the strong, independent woman I remember. Instead, I see the loneliness of a woman who is not solitary by nature and the persistence needed in her struggle to succeed as a writer. And I recognise my debt to her.

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