The Small Room, a novel dealing with women training women as intellectual disciples in the atmosphere of a small women’s college, was written while Sarton lived in Nelson. The novel also introduced a lesbian love affair between Carryl Cope, a brilliant but flinty scholar, and Olive Hunt, a benefactor of the college. Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, which Sarton wrote at a time of gloom because of worries over her financial situation, was at first refused publication because it depicted a lesbian relationship, and the publishers required excisions before the book was accepted. Kinds of Love, As We Are Now, Crucial Conversations, and A Reckoning explore various marital or amatory dilemmas along with the problem of being a woman and an artist. The Bridge of Years is, perhaps, Sarton’s most complex work. This is partly because the prototypes of the main characters were close to Sarton’s own experience and the themes were motivated by intellectual friendships established in Europe prior to World War II.
The Bridge of Years
Based on Sarton’s student years in Belgium and memories of her own family, The Bridge of Years centers on a Belgian family, Paul and Melanie Duchesne, and their three daughters, during four segments of their lives. These periods, besides accounting for personal growth in the major characters, also demarcate the stages of political change after World War I: optimism in the immediate postwar period; the decline of public morale and search for political solutions to the Depression of the 1930’s; the fear of renewed European conflict attendant upon the rise of Adolf Hitler; and the outbreak of that conflict as liberal, humanitarian values come under attack with World War II.
Melaine Duchesne, a designer of furniture, a stickler for fine craftsmanship, a courageous and optimistic woman whose country home is a model of stability, is based on Sarton’s mother and her longtime friend Céline Limbosch. Paul, the temperamental philosopher who cannot express his thoughts, is partly based on Raymond Limbosch and partly on George Sarton, May’s father, especially in his need for an ordered existence and exact routine. Paul’s breakthrough into true philosophical statement under the pressure of the war is, as much as anything, Sarton’s own search for authentic expression. Her father’s leftist socialism and critical intelligence are reflected in Pierre Poiret, the university student son of close friends of the Duchesne family. The immemorial Bo Bo, the stiff but protective Teutonic nursemaid, is a portrait of Sarton’s childhood governess.
Of the daughters, Colette, the youngest, is the poet, a romanticist living in a fairy world, Sarton’s view of herself as a child. Solange, who becomes a veterinarian, has the patient skill with animals that Sarton herself possessed. The eldest daughter, Françoise, with her long affection for Jacques Croll, a fatigued soldier from World War I, believes that art is everything, turning herself inward when Jacques, maneuvered by Melanie, marries a local girl. Françoise feels compromised when Jacques tips her a wink as he walks down the church aisle with his bride. Her resulting emotional breakdown, and the awareness that art cannot be everything when “life [is] lived near the point of conflict,” reflect Sarton’s own emotional turmoil in the 1930’s as she sought to become an artist.
Paul Duchesne’s skepticism about the perfectibility of the human spirit is tempered by his German friend, the intellectual Gerhard Schmidt, who sees the need for individual effort to resist tyranny. After escaping from his homeland during Hitler’s purge of intellectuals, he goes to fight with the Loyalists in Spain while his son, Hans, hypnotized by the Nazis, becomes a storm trooper. This opposition of father and son is repeated in the case of Emile Poiret, a pious Catholic floral illustrator with a sense of cosmic presence in things, and his antireligious son, Pierre. The novel presents facets of the European response to the breakdown of democratic civilization in the 1920’s and 1930’s and, at a more personal level, reflects the idea that some persons must extend themselves in love if civilization is to continue.
The Birth of a Grandfather
The question of who one is, especially in the context of generations and of change, was a continuing concern of Sarton. It is presented through the dramatic, carefully staged scenes of The Birth of a Grandfather, in which the omniscient author moves among the characters, heightening the effect by the questions they ask themselves. The interior speculation is in the style of Henry James, though the consciousness attributed to a given character does not always seem consistent with his personality or inner life. This novel begins at the Maine island retreat of the wealthy and established Wyeth family. Tom Dorgan, a Boston Irish Catholic, is romantically involved with Betsy Wyeth, Frances and Sprig Wyeth’s daughter. In contrast to these young lovers, Lucy, Frances’s sister, is undergoing a divorce. It is Frances, the major character, and her husband, Sprig, from the middle-aged generation, whose painful readjustment to marriage and to age form the basis of the plot.
The older generation includes Uncle Joe, an urbane retired diplomat, Aunt Jane, a wise old woman capable of immersing herself in others, and Gran-Quan, Sprig’s father, a man consumed by dramatic self-pity over the death of his wife and constantly supported by his sister, Jane. The Wyeths’ son, Caleb, is reluctantly in the heart of family matters, biding his time until he gains independence from them. Appropriately enough, a major scene is the family’s Fourth of July celebration on a nearby island. The fireworks are, for Frances, like moments of purity amid darkness, but they also herald the sudden death of Aunt Jane and the breaking up of Gran-Quan’s private world and descent into insanity. Betsy and Caleb see their parents in new ways: Frances represents human frailty, and Sprig is seen as one sheltered from the pains of life.
The second part of the novel, “Ice Age,” set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, shows the threat that tension and obligation bring to family unity. Tom and Betsy have married, and a child is on the way. This potentially joyful event threatens Sprig, who cannot accept the loss of direction in his life, which has settled into traditional philanthropy and conservation of the family wealth. By contrast, his friend Bill Waterford, who treats life with saving grace, calmly announces his impending death from cancer. Bill’s life has had a sense of purpose. Two...
(The entire section is 2749 words.)