Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

May Sarton notes in her preface to A World of Light: Portraits and Celebrations that she carried this book in her mind for twenty years. Its purpose is to fill the gap in her autobiography between I Knew a Phoenix (1959), which covers her life from childhood to age twenty-six, and Plant Dreaming Deep (1968), which begins when she was forty-five. Sarton knew all the people described in the book by the time that she was forty, but by the time that she came to write the book, all but one were dead. The book is a joyful celebration of those deep and enduring friendships that shaped Sarton as a woman and as an artist. Its importance lies as much in what it reveals about her as in what it reveals about the friends whom she “celebrates.”

The twelve portraits, each introduced by a photograph, are divided into four sections, based on a loose chronology. The first section contains descriptions of Sarton’s parents, whom she had already sketched in I Knew a Phoenix. The most significant difference between the portraits is Sarton’s acceptance of and reconciliation with her father, which came only late in her life. Significant friends from her early womanhood, Celine Dangotte Limbosch and Edith Forbes Kennedy, are the subjects of the second section. The third section groups together friends from different times in Sarton’s life but is unified by the sense of place that rooted all four, a sense which Sarton acquired only...

(The entire section is 541 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

May Sarton has often been criticized for her sentimentality and laxity of style. A World of Light has not escaped such censure. She suffers, too, from her essential readability in a literary climate that prizes the difficult and obscure. Her output, nevertheless, has been prolific; she published almost a volume a year for more than fifty years. Throughout her career, she has been one of the few self-supporting women writers of her time. Indeed, one aspect of her significance to women’s literature is that she has persevered in the face of almost overwhelming obstacles.

In A World of Light, what some have seen as self-indulgence and self-pity can also be seen as the understandable self-doubt of a serious writer who had courageously given the best of herself only to be overlooked or discounted. Taken with the other volumes of her autobiography, A World of Light proves the strength of Sarton as a forthright person and a skilled memoirist. It is as much a celebration of the fulfillment possible for a solitary woman as a celebration of enduring friendships. Indeed, Sarton has persistently written of women who have chosen to face and even welcome their extraordinary feelings, their independent lives, their solitude.

Although a political liberal, as seen in her journals, Sarton has refused to align herself with any particular movement. She has written courageously of her sexuality and of her choice to live a solitary life in her autobiography and in her novel Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing (1965), yet to label her a feminist or a lesbian is to deny the universality of her themes. She is at once an idealist and a humanist, proving through her memoirs the value of the struggle inherent in love and friendship. Critical acclaim has come late to Sarton; however, it has come. She has received a Guggenheim Award and the Tidewater Prize, has been nominated for a National Book Award in both fiction and poetry, and has been awarded numerous honorary degrees.

A World of Light

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

In Plant Dreaming Deep (1967), May Sarton remarks that, like Yeats, she wants her works, (a formidable collection of poetry, novels, articles, and autobiography, published at a rate of almost one volume per year since 1937) “to be seen as a whole ... a vision of life, which, though unfashionable all the way, has validity.” Her works before and since that time seem to fulfill that criterion through recurring themes that bind them together. That her vision of life was “unfashionable” is easily attributed to the fashionable despair and skepticism about the nature of man, of his relationship with nature, with others, with himself, and the ultimate fate of the civilization that he had created—ideas prevalent in major writers following World War I and World War II. With these attitudes, nearly every one of Sarton’s books has taken issue.

Conscious as she is of the dual heritage of Europe and America, Sarton finds her roots in humanism and romanticism, pointing the way back to an older tradition. For her, the “true tradition” of American Romanticism is that of Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman—a tradition which, while acknowledging the imperfection of man and this world, still emphasizes the potentials and joys of man’s journey to self-awareness, the significance of the individual, the importance and complexity of man’s relationships with nature and with other men, and the final importance of the truth of the human heart. The need for a greater, more intense life achieved only with some struggle and pain, a desire for an order and harmony between past and present, between the inner and outer world, and a celebration of the basic human values—all these themes mark May Sarton’s best works. A World of Light: Portraits and Celebrations, Sarton’s fourth autobiographical work, both reiterates these unifying themes and helps the reader understand how and why they became the basis of the author’s vision of life and of her work.

In her Preface, Sarton poses the question of how a person grows and changes, in part “through the influence of friends,” and thus states one focus of her book: the complex interweavings of human relationships. Likewise, she acknowledges the artistic challenge of trying to capture “the essence of a person and our relationship” made all the more difficult by her awareness of the past as an ever-shifting flux. This interpretation of past and present becomes another important theme of the book. In spite of the flux, Sarton affirms the daily presence of each of the friends (now all dead but one) in her daily life: “We become what we have loved.” The persons developed here have imagination, dedication, warmth, and intensity, qualities shared by Sarton and apparent in all her work. The effort “to capture the essence” is more successful in some portraits than in others, yet the reader will find in the wealth and range of characters and relationships ones that echo the fabric of his own life. To some degree, also, because of the ages and backgrounds of the persons included, the book is partially a history of an age, of changing times, and of the effect of history upon individuals and entire classes.

As a record of the changing forces of history, A World of Light is fascinating in its wealth of detail and anecdote. Mabel Elwes Sarton, for instance, discovers her illegitimacy, a fact that leads her to break off her relationship with George Sarton and contributes to a nervous breakdown; even after her recovery and their reconcilement, she is painfully aware that his family looks down on her as a “poor match.” Both reactions are remnants of a society that no longer exists. The married Sartons escape with almost nothing in front of the advancing German army, and their reestablishment in America represents the displacement of many previously well-to-do European immigrants during those chaotic times. The gradual decay and final sale of Céline’s estate, Pignon Rouge (the first place May Sarton had found roots and thought of as “home”), and Céline’s removal to an apartment in the city, is the history of a whole class whose fortunes were irrevocably changed by the war. Likewise, Elizabeth Bowen’s aunt’s old estate is described as becoming a ruin with the gardeners and servants no longer available. “Bowen’s Court” in Ireland after the war, was also sold and later torn down by the new owners.

The process of modernization and the irretrievable loss of old values is presented most poignantly in the portrait of Marc Turian, the Swiss vigneron, whose winery and land had been owned by his family for generations. Being pushed out of the market after the war by cheaper wines, Marc joined a cooperative to try to compete, but finally returned to his own independent operation, regaining his sense of pride, independence, and family heritage, but at the risk of losing his vineyards. Sarton herself often gives vent to this sense of loss, of growing chaos, of a modern world losing its grip on what is humanly important. Yet, more importantly, she also finds certain places and persons that contain a sense of “vertical past” fused with the present in which stable humanistic values are preserved and celebrated. Marc Turian, doomed to be a species that will ultimately lose to the conglomerates, will endure forever, not just for the writer, but for the reader, both as an individual and as a symbol of values to cherish.

The changeless “black and white” values of Céline and “Kot,” different though they may be, both convey a sense of stability in the midst of a changing world. So does the ritualistic ceremony of having tea with “Kot.” This same sense of stasis is found in the depiction of Grace Eliot Dudley and her home, Le Petit Bois. Returning to the house several years after Grace’s death, Sarton finds the house still “full of peace, of Grace’s own presence, all alive and still, all in depth ... a healing balm.” Even places touched by loved ones, like the memory, preserve some things from change. The seasonal “ceremonies” of the Longs in their Santa Fe garden likewise are linked to a sense of the changeless. Descendants of the original Indians of the area still celebrate seasonal rites, fused long ago with the seasonal rites of the Roman Catholic Church. In this portrait, Sarton’s gift of “catching the essence” is especially remarkable in the evocation and celebration of the harmony of past and present, of pagan and Christian, of place and person. Indeed, she remarks that...

(The entire section is 2675 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Anderson, Dawn Holt. “May Sarton’s Women.” In Images of Women in Fiction: Feminist Perspectives. Bowling Green, Ohio.: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1972. While this essay analyzes only three of Sarton’s novels—The Small Room (1961), Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, and Joanna and Ulysses (1963)—the entire collection offers a variety of interesting background essays on various aspects of feminist literary criticism, many of a general nature such as those in the section “Feminist Aesthetics.” The lengthy annotated bibliography includes sections on women writers before the twentieth century, twentieth century women, and works about literature.

Evans, Elizabeth. May Sarton, Revisited. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1989. A useful study organized by the genres in which Sarton has worked, the book includes an entire chapter on the journals and memoirs. The discussion of the influential friendship of Louise Bogan is particularly interesting. Evans includes an annotated bibliography.

Heilbrun, Caroline. Hamlet’s Mother and Other Women. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990. This fascinating study by a foremost feminist critic contains two essays on Sarton, one a study of Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing and the other of her memoirs, including A World of Light.

Rule, Jane. Lesbian Images. London: Peter Davis, 1975. In the chapter on Sarton, Rule discusses two novels, The Small Room and Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing. She also gives useful information about Sarton’s attitude toward her sexuality as seen through her novels.

Sibley, Agnes. May Sarton. New York: Twayne, 1972. Published before A World of Light, Sibley’s is the first book-length study of Sarton’s work. Provides good background discussions of the novels and poetry and an annotated bibliography of reviews of her work.