May Sarton was born Eléanore Marie Sarton in Wondelgem, Belgium, on May 3, 1912. Her mother, Mabel Elwes Sarton, a designer who worked at Maison Dangette, Brussels, was a determined craftsperson and an uncompromising seeker of high standards. Her father, George Sarton, pampered by his Belgian upper-middle-class family after losing his mother early, was an active socialist who did mathematical studies at the University of Brussels before settling into his life’s work as a major historian of science; he founded the leading journal in the field, Isis, in 1912. He was a methodical scholar who even after his day’s scholarly labors would make notes in the evening concerning recent research by other scholars. May’s mother compromised her talents for her husband’s career, but her gift of “refashioning things magically” inspired her daughter’s own verbal artistry.
One close friend of Sarton’s mother was Céline Dangotte Limbosch, or Mamie, whose home near Brussels Sarton has recalled as the one place in the world that would not change and whose traits appear in the heroine of The Bridge of Years. Mamie’s husband, Raumond Limbosch, a poet who never published his poems, also figures in that novel as a philosopher.
Sarton’s earliest years were spent in Belgium, but with the coming of World War I, the family fled to England. In 1915, the Sartons went to the United States, staying briefly in New York before settling in Washington, D.C., where the Carnegie Institute gave support to George Sarton’s projected history of science. Mabel Sarton founded Belgart, specializing in handmade fashion apparel. Sarton’s father’s somewhat informal appointment at Harvard University led the family to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1918. There, young Sarton attended Shady Hill School, a Spartan institution run by an educational innovator, Mrs. Hocking, wife of a well-known philosopher, who combined the study of philosophy with poetry. Miss Edgett, an imaginative math teacher, inspired Sarton to be a poet, but Sarton also received encouragement from a family friend in Cambridge, Edith Forbes Kennedy. Kennedy was the inspiration for a character, Willa MacPherson, in Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, whose friendship and encouragement push young Hilary Stevens along on her poetic career. School plays also awakened Sarton’s interest in drama.
In 1919, the family briefly returned to settle their affairs in Belgium. For a short time, Sarton attended the Institute Belge de Culture Française, which she later attended for a year at age twelve. The institute was presided over by Marie Closset, who published poetry as Jean Dominique, and two other women. Literature was taught from great works, and memorization was required. Sarton spent that year with the Limbosches while her parents were in Beirut, Lebanon, so that her father could learn Arabic for his research. The literary atmosphere and general culture that she encountered there influenced Sarton greatly.
A 1926 graduate of Cambridge Latin High School, Sarton recalled...
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