Why do we stop reading an author? Sometimes we grow out of them, sometimes we stop reading what they write eg science fiction or Regency romances. In my case, I stopped reading May Sarton because I read a biography of her by Margot Peters & didn’t like what I found out about her. This is not logical or reasonable, I know. But I can remember being so annoyed by the fact that the wonderful journals Sarton wrote about her solitary life in New Hampshire & Maine with her house, her garden, her pets, were not what they seemed to be, that I stopped reading her altogether. In the journals – Plant Dreaming Deep, Journal of a Solitude, House by the Sea – she presents herself as a solitary woman, working in isolation & exploring the joys of solitude. Discovering through the biography that she was hardly ever alone during this period was a real shock. I know that journals written for publication are often shaped just as much as a novel, but I was still annoyed. I couldn’t quite bring myself to get rid of my Sartons but they’ve sat on the shelf, unread, ever since.
Then, a few weeks ago, I was listening to The Readers podcast & Thomas mentioned that he’d had an email from a woman in Melbourne about May Sarton & how they were going to revive her reputation between them. I immediately wondered if this could be my friend L, & it was! I’m also interested in why a writer’s reputation often suffers a dip after they die. This has certainly happened to Sarton since her death in 1995. Maybe it’s because she was one of the first writers to write about lesbian relationships as though they were just like any other relationship. In Journal of a Solitude, Sarton wrote “The fear of homosexuality is so great that it took courage to write Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing… to write a novel about a woman homosexual who is not a sex maniac, a drunkard, a drug-taker, or in any way repulsive, to portray a homosexual who is neither pitiable nor disgusting, without sentimentality ..” Once a subject becomes more mainstream, the pioneers who first wrote about it are often marginalised.
So, I decided to reread one of my favourite May Sarton novels, A Reckoning, which was published in 1978. This is the story of Laura Spelman, a 60 year old woman who has terminal lung cancer. Laura decides that she wants her death to be on her own terms. The cancer is inoperable but she refuses treatment that might prolong her life in favour of making the most of whatever time she has left. Laura wants to remember the real connections in her life & to try to understand some of the more contentious relationships, particularly her relationship with her mother, Sybille, & her daughter, Daisy.
In some ways, Laura’s life is quite ordinary. She had a long, happy marriage to Charles, who died a few years earlier. She has three children – Brooks, married to Ann with two children, Ben, an artist & Daisy – lives alone in a comfortable house in Boston with her dog, Grindle & cat, Sasha. Laura has worked as an editor with Houghton Mifflin & is keen to keep working as long as possible, especially as she’s just started work on a novel by a young lesbian writer, Harriet Moors. Harriet’s novel is based on her own life & her partner is terrified that she will lose her job if it’s published. Harriet’s parents disapprove of her lifestyle so she’s torn between upsetting her parents, maybe breaking up her relationship & publishing a book that she believes should be published.
Laura’s plans to go on this final journey alone are soon stymied by her family & her own body. Brooks & Ann feel shut out when she reluctantly tells them of her illness but refuses any help. Her sympathetic doctor, Jim Goodwin, arranges for a nurse to live in, & though at first, Laura is opposed to this, she soon realises that she can’t cope alone. Mary O’Brien becomes, in fact, one of the most important people in Laura’s final weeks, with her sympathetic, detached presence. Laura’s family are divided into those who are shocked & upset & thinking more about themselves than Laura like Brooks & her sister, Jo & then there are others like Aunt Minna, who comes to read to her, & her sister Daphne, who takes Laura on a journey to their childhood summer house on the coast.
This is a very quiet book. Much of it takes place within Laura’s consciousness as she remembers the past & analyses her relationships, looking for those real connections that are so important to her. She visits her mother, Sybille, now suffering from dementia, & remembers a childhood dominated by this beautiful woman who wanted to be an actress but never really connected with any of her children. All she was able to do was dominate them & try to control their lives, often with disastrous effects. The most important relationship in Laura’s life was her friendship with Ella, a young woman she met at the Sorbonne when she studied in Europe as a young woman. Their friendship was passionate, not explicitly sexual, but the most profound relationship of Laura’s life. Sybille did her best to separate them when Laura spent two years in Switzerland, recovering from tuberculosis. Laura realises that her closest connections have been with women. As she grows physically weaker, she has to let go of all these memories & prepare for her death in her own way.
I enjoyed reading A Reckoning again after so many years. It’s the kind of novel I enjoy – quiet, domestic & grounded in the everyday. Laura concentrates on beauty, flowers, Mozart concertos, the desire to see the spring one more time & gradually retreats within herself. The novel is a long reflection on one woman’s life & the final journey towards death.
… Laura felt joy rising, filling her to the brim, yet not overflowing. what had become almost uncontrollable grief at the door seemed now a blessed state. It was not a state she could easily define in words. But it felt like some extraordinary dance, the dance of life itself, of atoms and molecules, that had never been as beautiful or as poignant as at this instant, a dance that must be danced more carefully and with greater fervor to the very end.