(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 35)

Margot Peters has created a detailed portrait of writer May Sarton, which illuminates the differences between Sarton’s life and the image Sarton created for her audience.

Sarton was born in Belgium in 1911, the only child of George Sarton, a withdrawn Belgian scientist, and Mabel Elwes Sarton, an English artist. Even as a toddler, Sarton was willful and bad- tempered; her parents alternated between coddling her and leaving her in the care of others. When staying with others, Sarton exhibited a sad need to adopt them as her family; she craved the family life that was absent in her own home and liked it even more if the family was wealthy. Sarton was always attracted to the affluence that her parents no longer had. She displayed a constant and intense need for attention—from family, friends, and, eventually, audiences. After the start of World War I, the family moved to England, later settling permanently in the United States. Sarton maintained European friendships and kept emotional ties to Europe, however, and visited there often throughout her life.

Sarton was a striking and fashionable woman with a commanding presence. Both women and men were attracted to her, and although she had crushes on men and a few heterosexual affairs, her primary attraction was always to women. Still, she struggled to clarify her sexual identity and did not consider herself to be a lesbian for many years.

Sarton expected to make a career in the theater and worked as an actress and the director of a theater company. During this time a few of her poems were published, but she did not consider writing to be her life’s work. In fact, when her father expressed his opinion that the theater was a waste of time that could better be spent advancing a literary career, she replied, “I don’t think if I felt my profession was writing I could write a line. . . . It would be madness to give [the stage] up now. . . . It’s the only thing I have which doesn’t change—poetry is so much a thing of mood.” This was reflected throughout her life; she could only produce poetry when she had a muse, that is, when she was in love with a woman—whether the muse returned her love or not.

Sarton’s first book of poetry, Encounter in April, was published in 1937, followed in 1938 by her first novel, The Single Hound. The novel was highly autobiographical, despite her casting the protagonist, based on herself, as a young man.

In 1940, living in the United States with her parents, Sarton was unable to travel to Europe because of the war. In an effort to keep busy, as well as to supplement the money she received from her father, Sarton wrote to a number of small colleges offering to be a guest lecturer on poetry. After receiving fifteen acceptances, she set off on the first of the many lecture tours that became a staple of her working life. Although many of the students she encountered were disinterested in listening to the little-known poet, she built on her experience as an actress and found that she was a talented public speaker and an expressive reader of poetry.

While her writing and lecturing began to provide a foundation for her literary life, her emotional life continued to be chaotic. “So far I have always done what I felt and then found reasons afterward. Usually it wasn’t hard,” Sarton wrote to a friend at the age of nineteen. This was the creed by which she lived her life. She fell quickly in and out of love with a succession of older, glamorous, well-to-do women, many of whom were unwilling or unable to return her passion. Sarton often focused her passion on married women, once writing to a psychiatrist that she was never attracted to “the typical lesbian.” While Sarton seemed compelled to seduce and conquer, and often lost interest once a woman became smitten with her, she generally tried to remain friends with her conquests after her passion wore off. Still, in 1944, when she had a number of female lovers, she wrote to a friend, “I wish that I could marry now. It is time and for the first time in my life I think I am ready inside.”

Perhaps the need for the solid base that marriage might offer was what drew her to the one stable companion in her life: Judith Matlock. Unlike the other women Sarton pursued, Matlock was neither wealthy, beautiful, brilliant, nor given to the excesses that marked Sarton’s emotional, personal, and financial life. Rather than a muse, Matlock was a safe harbor from which Sarton continued to venture on speaking engagements, on trips to Europe, and to other women’s beds. Matlock, a Quaker, had little interest in sex, a fact that Sarton used to justify her continuing conquests of other women. Matlock suffered silently, steadfastly maintaining their home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, despite Sarton’s often flagrant affairs.

In 1955, Sarton saw the first of several psychiatrists, trying to deal...

(The entire section is 1998 words.)