When I saw May Sarton’s name on the list of writers for the Outmoded Authors’ Challenge
, I realized I had a copy of a May Sarton novel, Kinds of Love
, that had been languishing on my shelf for years. So I was thrilled to put it down as one of my choices for the challenge—I wouldn’t even have to buy, borrow or mooch the book. I realized I knew nothing about Sarton, except that she was on the Outmoded Authors’ list.
I did a quick internet reconnaissance, and found that Sarton was born in Belgium in 1912, but was raised in Massachusetts, her family having moved to the U.S. in 1916, ahead of the advancing Germans. She attended Vassar and was inspired by Eva La Galienne to act in the theater. While learning the craft of acting, she also wrote poetry. Eventually she gave up acting for writing, and wrote her first novel at age 26. She traveled often to Europe, and met Elizabeth Bowen (another Outmoded Author), Virginia Woolf, W. H. Auden, Hilda Doolittle, and Dame Edith Sitwell.
Sarton lived with a woman, Judith Matlack, for 15 years, and was devoted to her until her death in 1982. She wrote several novels and poems with lesbian relationships in them, but did not accept the label of “lesbian writer”, because she said she wanted to be seen as a “universal writer”.
This novel chronicles a year in the life of a New Hampshire town—it’s bicentennial year—and in the life of its inhabitants. It mainly concerns the rich “summer people”, Christina and Cornelius Chapman, who have decided to stay for the winter for the first time, and Christina’s childhood friend Ellen, the daughter of a farmer, who grew up in the town and does not have the benefits of wealth like the Chapmans. Sarton writes beautifully about Christina and Ellen’s friendship, about Christina and Cornelius’s marriage, and about the relationships between these older people and various people of younger generations, including Christina’s son, her granddaughter, and Ellen’s troubled son.Kinds of Love
has many themes, but one I felt is particularly eloquently presented is the theme of aging. Kinds of Love
was published in 1970, when Sarton was 58, but her main character, Christina Chapman, is a woman in her seventies, married to a man who is struggling along after having a stroke. I found Sarton’s portrait of the aging couple to be very affecting. Christina, who is able to express her thoughts unlike the other characters, as we are privy to passages from her diary, often muses on what it feels like to be aging, yet not to feel your age. She also speaks of the power of her feelings, which have grown as she is getting older, rather than waning, as she imagined they would.
…inside, the person I really am has no relation to this mask age is slowly attaching to my face. I feel so young, so exposed, under it. I simply cannot seem to learn to behave like the very old party I am. The young girl, arrogant, open, full of feelings she cannot analyze, longing to be told she is beautiful—that young girl lives inside this shell. And God knows, age is hard on her.
I used to envy the old; I always imagined old age as a kind of heaven. It never occurred to me that my knee would ache all the time, or that I would fight a daily battle against being slowed down, that memory would begin to fail, and all the rest. The young cannot imagine what it is to be fighting a battle that cannot be won.
Christina—optimistic, candid, sometimes a little naïve—is a refreshing character. She works well as counterpoint to her friend Ellen, who has been worn down by life and always takes a more pessimistic view of things. Through her characters, Sarton shows amazing insight into people. One of the few complaints I have about the book, though, is that her characters sometimes seem a little too self-aware. They tend to say too much about what they feel, and reveal more than is realistic. It works for the character of Christina, as we are able to read the innermost thoughts she reveals in her diary, but it seems less natural in the other characters, who are forced to speak their thoughts out loud.
The novel is also a fascinating look at the dynamics of class, in the crucible of a small town. Christina and Cornelius, the rich summer people, find out about the everyday hardships of life in their idyllic vacation spot when they decide to winter over there for the first time. Christina’s relationship with her old friend Ellen is difficult for Christina to navigate partly because Ellen is a prickly person, but partly because the fact of Christina’s money and privilege always stands between them. And Sarton makes much of the pride of Christina’s former suitor Eben, who successfully worked his way up the social, educational and economic ladder, but always resented that the father of his rival, Cornelius, put him through college.
While looking on the internet for biographical details about Sarton, I also came across an article in a journal of “educational gerontology”, entitled "Kinds of Love
by May Sarton: A Theoretical Framework for Educating Gerontologists." The beginning of the abstract states: Using Kinds of Love
by May Sarton in gerontology classes as a text for studying human development affords an opportunity to explore theory and research on aging. I thought this sounded like a great idea—certainly Sarton’s exploration of old age had struck me as real, and illuminating, and respectful, and now it seems to me that it would be very useful to medical students studying aging, or anyone who wants insight into old age.
Characters and their relationships are the main focus of the novel, but Sarton also makes the setting come alive. The town, the surrounding woods, and the mountain that looms over all, are described in rich detail. Sarton also shows us the amazing transformation the area goes through as the harsh winter comes, and life becomes more difficult for everyone. I felt Sarton’s reverence for nature, and her respect for its power and its effect on the people she wrote about.
I was happy to discover this author whose work had been sitting on my shelf, unread, for some fifteen years or so…and I don’t consider May Sarton to be outmoded at all.