Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing

BOOK: Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing

Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing

A Novel

May Sarton


“From love one can only escape at the price of life itself; and no lessening of sorrow is worth exile from that stream of all things human and divine.”

Freya Stark


May Sarton’s life is a mirror image of the usual American success story. In those wildly famous lives where, Scott Fitzgerald has told us, there are no second acts, the glories and riches soon betray the writer to madness, impotence, alcohol, literary vendettas, and the ashes of despair. For Sarton, perhaps uniquely so, considering the accomplishment, there has been little organized acclamation, no academic attention,
indifference on the part of the critical establishment. Yet the inner life has been sustained: Neither alcohol, nor breakdown, nor the sinister satisfaction of personal cruelty has claimed her. Agonizing, in letters and conversation, over life’s injustices, she has never ceased to examine with artistry her demons of anger and despair, and her consolations of solitude and love. Her success, at least until now, has been with those who read books from desire rather than compulsion. Today, still ten years younger than Mrs. Stevens, Sarton can say with her, “They haven’t got me yet.” (“They” are the critics and her own demons.) She has published twenty-seven books and, widely read, is only now beginning to receive the critical attention properly due her. Success that comes late has its special flavor, particularly to a writer still productive, still capable of poetry and amazement.

May Sarton was born an outsider and has remained one. Even her closeness to the town of Nelson, New Hampshire, with which she became identified for fifteen years, had, as in friendship or a love affair, its beginning in suddenness and its end in passionless affection. Exiled many times over, from her native land, Belgium, from Cambridge, Massachusetts, the city of her youth, from any community of poets or artists, from established religion, from family life (the primal exile of the only child), she has sought salvation in exile no less fervently because it was frequently of her own choosing. But her chief place of exile, like Mrs. Stevens’s, was not her choice: that land between the “masculine” world of the critical establishment and the “feminine” world of wife and motherhood. In this between land, she has found a voice in which to express what she calls the intensities of private life, and that voice has continued its declaration that women, and disconnected men, might be explorers. Her readers have been outsiders like herself, primed for discovery, whose bags have been secretly packed for weeks, or for a lifetime.

“Women are afraid of their demon, want to control it, make it sensible like themselves,” Mrs. Stevens says. One remembers the lines from Louise Bogan’s poem “Women”

Women have no wilderness in them,
They are provident instead,
Content in the tight hot cell of their hearts
To eat dusty bread.

Wildernesses are not tidy and cannot be explored with elegant skills. Sarton has suffered critically because, improvidently, she has opened the wilderness within and faced it. Mrs. Stevens envies the male interviewer because “he would never be conflicted, rent in two as she was most of the time.” Sarton has long recognized and celebrated her doubleness in the wilderness: “I was broken in two/ By sheer definition,” she writes in the poem “Birthday on the Acropolis.”

Between her conventional self which perhaps, like Mrs. Stevens, “would have liked to be a woman, simple and fruitful, a woman with many children, a great husband … and no talent,” (ellipses are Sarton’s) and the talented, seeking self for whom the world has no preordained place, a dialogue of undiminished intensity has been carried on in Sarton’s work for thirty-seven years. Its greatest daring, the source of its greatest moral energy, has been openness: to experience, pain, the perils of passion, loneliness, and truthtelling. This has inevitably been the dialogue of an isolated human being, a self-dialogue, recognizable certainly to housewives, desperate in loneliness and devoid of the solitude Sarton has created.

Sarton has not avoided the dangers inherent in such an openness and such a dialogue: the appearance of self-indulgence, self-pity. These dangers might as well be mentioned in their harshest form, together with her other sin: a certain laxity of style, a tendency to seize the first metaphor to hand, rather than search out the one, perfect phrase. In the intensity of her exploration, Sarton has not eschewed the assistance of the familiar metaphor, nor always observed the niceties of point of view. She has, like all writers, the defects of her virtues. But critics, and particularly academics, are understandably prone to admire and overvalue the carefully construed, almost puzzlelike novel, not only for its profundities, but because it provides them, in explication, with their livelihood. We have learned to be very harsh with those who, unlike Flaubert and Joyce, our models, do not endlessly bend language to its ultimate uses; in that harshness, we have often deprived ourselves of literature which, though less abstruse, is not less valuable. Perhaps with the advent of women’s studies and the new approaches they make possible, perhaps in weariness at allusion hunting, we shall stop judging literature by its obstinacy in withstanding interpretation. Sarton has not escaped the fate of the readable, to be disdained by the unreadable.

However atypical, May Sarton shares one dominant characteristic with other modern writers: a concern with the life of the artist, and with the artistic rendering of life even by those who, like Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway or Conrad’s Marlow, work in the medium of moments of awareness rather than of words or paint. The question of why the artist should be so unequivocally the modern hero is complex and profound. In the fictions of Henry James, for example, each of his protagonists who is not actually an artist is concerned with rendering the stuff of life into artistic form; and it is clear that for James life becomes meaningful only as it is shaped in response to growing awareness. If events are not actually altered by the artist of life—and frequently they are—the consciousness of the hero is refined to an extent where life’s rewards lie as much in “awareness” (it was James’s favorite word), of moral complexities as in control of them. To suffer becomes meaningful when one understands the suffering and condones its inevitability. This is almost the moral principle of modern literature, and it is most readily symbolized in the hero as artist.

For women, this fascination with the role of artist has, however, held great danger. Virginia Woolf, unlike her readers, was never confused about this. She did not suggest, though for years it was supposed she had, that Mrs. Ramsay in
To the Lighthouse
was as satisfactory an artist as Lily Briscoe. James’s heroes might be artists of life, but women with babies in their arms and dinner for twenty to be arranged were not. Mrs. Ramsay has been mistakenly celebrated as an artist of life because it satisfied both men and women to think of the wife-mother, whether as servant or earth-goddess, as fulfilling a role equally important to that of the true artist. But Woolf knew that to be truly an artist is to retain control of one’s own destiny (one may use that “control” for self-destruction, but that does not contradict the point) and that the women struggling their way to a sense of identity through the encircling meshes of domesticity were not artists, but victims.

Women have not perceived this and, perhaps, have moved too easily into the fantasy of being an artist. No doubt they have been influenced by the apparent autonomy of the artist, the apparent ease with which art can be fitted in with the domestic life. In fact, however, in seeing the artist as their own ideal, women have to a large extent betrayed themselves. They do not understand that unless they are ready to sacrifice all the “feminine” virtues to their art, they have not changed their relation to their own destiny, which is one of powerlessness and passivity. Art cannot be achieved by those for whom anything else matters more. Art, like passion, is not a part-time occupation.

May Sarton has not only been an artist—poet, novelist, memoirist—but, like other modern writers, she has seen her life as interacting with her art. Experience becomes meaningful, reveals itself, when it has been transformed into art. She has, furthermore, put artists at the center of many of her novels or, if not artists, teachers or craftsmen. But she has not failed to make explicit the division between Mrs. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe: Mrs. Ramsay, who would have liked always to have a baby in her arms, and Lily Briscoe, who thought about her painting and realized with relief that she would not have to marry anyone. Hilary Stevens, with her chance at marriage and the passivity of a “feminine” destiny, realizes after the death of her husband that she never wrote a poem to him. For poems are written to, or inspired by muses, and muses, Hilary tells us, are women. This is a very intricate concept which must be looked at more closely, but it is well at the start to realize that if Sarton seems to bow too low to the convention of the proper wifely functions, she does know that the real artist is not the fantasy creature imagined by women trapped in domesticity. The real artist is engaged in a full-time struggle, which is harder for women, among other reasons, because they do not have wives.

At first glance,
Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaid Singing
seems conventional in its acceptance of male and female roles. Hilary is responsible for the following: “She had no idea what these two [men] would be like together alone, in their world, the impenetrable masculine world.” “The women who have tried to be men have always lacked something.” “Women do not thrive in cities.” And so on. Yet the novel in its searching dialogue reveals in the end the misconceptions of women who, like Jenny, want to be “whole.” “I want to believe that a woman writer must be a whole woman,” Jenny says, wanting to marry, have children, the whole bag. But women cannot have the whole bag, and
Mrs. Stevens
is one of the few novels whose attention is centered on this theme. The theme is never made explicit, nor does Sarton allow herself to suggest that Mary’s work is holier than Martha’s. She does, however, refuse to the woman with a spare hour stolen from the kitchen or nursery the deluding daydream of being an artist. In marriages, at least as we know them at the time of the novel, the woman’s role is to be loved, to lie protected in a man’s arms, and the artist cannot be the loved one. The artist must be the loving one which is, as Hilary points out, more convenient if someone else is cooking the stew and arranging the flowers. We remind ourselves that of the great women writers, most have been unmarried, and those who have written in the state of wedlock have done so in peaceful kingdoms guarded by devoted husbands. Few have had children. The dream of the girl interviewer, Jenny, is a silly dream, though Hilary is too kind to say so. Yet with singularity, Sarton has allowed Martha into the dialogue. Jesus had said that Mary’s was the better part, and the world has almost unanimously exalted Martha. Sarton alone has allowed them to converse with one another.

Hilary, like Sarton, knows that poems begin in passion, an emotion hard to retain for him who wears the socks one darns. In any case, passion of this sort does not belong to marriage, which is quite a different state, however fervent its sexual life. Muses are never husbands, and rarely wives.

For Hilary then, as for Sarton, the muses have been women. Must they inevitably be women, even for women writers? The question is premature at this stage of our knowledge. Edna St. Vincent Millay appears to have had male muses, but we know little about her. Emily Dickinson’s muse was apparently male, but we know even less about her. For Hilary, in any case, it was women who inspired her to poetry, and that fact must be considered in two ways.

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