A World of Light Analysis
As with Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth (1933), Testament of Friendship (1940), and Testament of Experience (1957), Sarton’s memoirs transcend fact to present essential truth. Indeed, the volume Plant Dreaming Deep, marked by its extended narrative of single experience yet unified thematically and chronologically, transforms the genre. I Knew a Phoenix and A World of Light follow the more conventional form of discrete pieces, most of which were published individually in The New Yorker. While critics accepted the republication of these pieces in a collection, Sarton has been criticized for lifting verbatim from the first volume the pieces on Albert Quigley, her New Hampshire friend, and S. S. Koteliansky, her Russian mentor, and at the same time claiming in the preface that she has brought to the work fresh judgments and new insights.
A similar charge might be leveled against the portraits of her mother and father, since Sarton has already written of them in I Knew a Phoenix. Yet Sarton’s depiction of their marriage—a marriage between an obsessive, self-centered, childlike husband and a frustrated, thwarted, artistic wife—requires much distance and compassion; it reflects the anger and courage that Sarton herself has displayed throughout her career. The “informal” portrait of her father remains a unique combination of intuitive insights and rich detail.
The portraits of the middle two sections emphasize Sarton’s remarkable talent for establishing friendships. The descriptions of Sarton’s two early friends, Celine Dangotte Limbosch and Edith Forbes Kennedy, acknowledge her need for stability, understanding, appreciation, and encouragement in her early years during the awakening of her sexuality and her first attempts at writing poetry. Limbosch was the closest friend of Sarton’s mother; she cared for Sarton as a child during the pastoral early years in Belgium before her family was uprooted by war. Limbosch’s intense love for Sarton’s mother made her capable of understanding Sarton’s own passionate attachments to other women. Their friendship and Limbosch’s home in Belgium, which Sarton visited almost yearly, remained the only absolute continuity in Sarton’s nomadic life. Edith Kennedy was a similar anchor for Sarton in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Sarton’s family finally settled. This friendship, marked by the shared love of music and conversation, made possible Sarton’s early poetry.
In the middle section of four portraits, Sarton attempts to create what she calls a Renaissance portrait, in which the subject is painted with an emblematic landscape in the background. Some have criticized these sketches as being too removed by time from the intensity of Sarton’s experience, yet they contain some of the best examples of Sarton’s effective and accurate descriptions of nature, as the Southwestern landscape in the piece on Haniel Long and the garden at Grace Eliot Dudley’s estate Le Petite Bois. Perhaps the most charming portrait in the book is of Marc Turin, the impoverished Swiss winemaker whose family tenaciously held onto their vineyards for three hundred years. His time was spent equally between the real world of his grapevines and the imaginative world of the literature that he loved.
The final section, particularly the portraits of Elizabeth Bowen and Louise Bogan, reveals Sarton at her best as a memoirist. She illuminates the character of these two well-known writers while at the same time teaching the theme of the entire volume: that love and friendship are rare and costly experiences. Sarton met Bowen in London after the failure of Sarton’s theatrical career when she was just beginning as a writer. Bowen had already attained renown, and she graciously took Sarton under her wing. After a one-night love affair, they settled into a long and artistically valuable friendship that Bowen ended abruptly, much to Sarton’s dismay. Sarton describes Bowen as the witty, charming host of a literary circle which included Leonard and Virginia Woolf; Bowen was also happily married to a man who either did not know or did not care to know about his wife’s affairs with both men and women. Sarton recognizes that the powerful tension that Bowen creates in her work springs from the turbulent personality hidden deep within the cool, placid social persona.
In the case of Bogan, the portrait that Sarton creates is of a fragile artist, held together by sheer force of will. Sarton’s compassionate understanding of Bogan’s fight against depression counteracts the impression that Sarton writes as a scorned lover who gave more than she received. Unlike the cruel ending to her relationship with Bowen, Sarton and Bogan remained friends until Bogan’s death. Their remarkable friendship celebrated here is also recorded in their correspondence.