Have you ever experienced a book so truly beautiful that you could quite happily read none other for the rest of your life? Have you ever experienced a book where every page delights you and moves you and writes itself onto your heart so that the book becomes a part of your very self, and the characters part of the person you wish you could be? The Magnificent Spinster gave me these experiences and I will be eternally grateful for it, as well as to Thomas, who sent this treasure into my life. So many people don’t appreciate the power of literature, or think reading is a waste of time; why bury yourself in imaginary worlds when you can live in the real one? I often hear these people cry. My answer to them would be that books are vessels of alternative selves, people we could be, lives we could have, if only we were wiser, braver, kinder, more adventurous, more giving…books, stories , fairytales…they all show us another version of this life, this world, and of ourselves, and they help us to aspire to a better existence. They allow us to imagine the possibility of a different life. They hold an immense power, if we allow them to wield that power over us.
I don’t want to massively discuss the plot or the characters of The Magnificent Spinster. I want to talk about how it made me feel, instead, because that really is the core of this book’s brilliance; its power to move and inspire through the story of the life of Jane Reid, the eponymous magnificent spinster. Based on the real life friendship between May Sarton and Anne Longfellow Thorp, a granddaughter of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, it chronicles Jane’s life from childhood to death, told through the eyes of Cam, once her pupil and later her friend, a historian whose love for Jane and desire to keep her memory alive has prompted her to write a novel /memoir of this remarkable woman who touched so many lives. From the halcyon days of her privileged, warm, carefree childhood spent with her four sisters and wonderful parents between a private Maine island and a large house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to her days as a young student teacher, her experiences in France in WW1 and in postwar Germany, to the many examples of love and generosity she showed to her multitudes of friends and family members, Cam shows us the true meaning of a life well lived, and reveals the enormity of Jane’s heart, the grace and wisdom and generosity of her spirit, and the childlike simplicity of her outlook on life that remained with her until the end.
I laughed, I cried, I rejoiced, I mourned…it was a profoundly moving and humbling and inspiring experience. Jane was a woman who gave everything of herself constantly, never begrudging others, never judging, always trying to understand and offer her help. Just her presence is a comfort to many, and her infectious enthusiasm, delight in life, and desire to bring joy and peace to those around her ensure that she is truly loved by all she meets, and treasured by those who can call themselves her friends. She had the opportunity to marry, many times; she was a beautiful woman, inside and out, and had men desperate to marry her throughout the course of her life. However, so full was her heart with love for everyone in her life, so great was her desire to teach children and devote herself to their education, so ambitious were her dreams and adventures, so invigorated was she by her independence, that she never thought marriage worth the sacrifices she would have to make of herself in order to become a wife and mother. Jane’s vitality was due to the fact that she belonged to everyone, her ability to give people a safe harbor in her heart and home because she had no one with a more pressing claim upon her than anybody else. Instead of loving one, Jane chose to love everyone. As Jane’s favourite poet, Robert Frost, would say; for a woman, she chose the path less travelled by, and that made all the difference.
A book extolling the merits of spinsterhood, of showing a woman who has chosen not to marry as being a beautiful, vibrant, vital spirit whose life impacted hundreds of people and made a truly great impression on all she met despite not having a significant romantic relationship with a man, is a rare thing indeed. Single women are usually figures of pity, considered to have missed out on the fullness of a woman’s true callings in life. Sarton’s depiction of Jane could not be further from that limited and patronising view. In fact, the married women of Jane’s acquaintance come to Jane for a rest; exhausted, their spirits diminished, their energy spent, their dreams subdued, due to the demands and pressures of family life. Jane is never spent, her lifeforce is always freshly springing forth, no matter what demands are placed upon her. Her soul is free to flourish, her dreams free to soar. Her spinsterhood is not a state to be pitied, but to be envied; it has given her the chance to be all she could be, and to give all of herself to those she loves. She has not had to compromise herself. As such, she does not regret her decision not to marry, and surrounds herself with a family of her own making, drawing in those she meets in all stages of her life to the magic of her beautiful, enriching, inspiring world.
From the opening pages of Jane’s Edwardian childhood, spent in large houses filled with girls and mischief and affection, to her last years, spent giving others wonderful, treasured summers on the beautiful family island off the coast of Maine, and supporting friends in need, as well as gathering together her grandfather’s papers for the archives and continuing to take an interest in world politics and the fate of the school she gave much of her youth to, Sarton infuses such love, such gratitude within her words, that Jane becomes completely real, and so does Cam, her delightfully flawed, uncertain, grieving biographer, whose own life is revealed through her friendship with Jane. The pages where the death of her long term partner, Ruth, is described (this death is part of the book from the beginning, so it’s not a spoiler!), were unbearable. I cried uncontrollably on the train while I read them; big, messy, heaving sobs. Cam, Jane, their friends, their partners and their loves became mine. Leaving them behind on the closing of the pages was impossible; I will carry them and the lessons they taught with me forever.
For this is what The Magnificent Spinster has done for me; it has reminded me that a life without a romantic partner is not a life without romance; it has shown me that a life without motherhood does not prevent you from being a mother; it has demonstrated that love should never be rationed, dreams should never be discounted, joy, even in the face of sorrow, should never cease, and that to live life fully has nothing whatsoever to do with how financially successful you are or how great your career heights soar, and everything to do with how much you are willing to give of yourself to the world and to the people you share it with. It has shown me that greatness is a trait possessed by many ordinary individuals who never grace the pages of history books, and yet whose lives left a deeper impression than any famous King or General, simply by virtue of the love they left behind in the hearts of every single person they touched. It has made me look at myself and vow to be a better person. If I could develop just an ounce of the qualities Jane/Anne possessed, I will consider my life one well lived. May Sarton’s writing is exquisite, her ability to bring forth the essence of a person on the pages, absolutely magnificent. I can’t tell you strongly enough how much you need to read this book. It is truly divine, and if you let it, might just have the power to change the way you view this life.
I feel so certain of the brilliance of The Magnificent Spinster that I am going to buy three copies of the book and send them out to anyone who wants them. The caveat is that you must read it within one month of receipt – because this is not a book to languish on a TBR pile – and that you must review it online – not necessarily on a blog, I know not everyone who reads this has one – before passing it on to at least one other person who also agrees to review it somewhere online. If you are not willing to do this, then please don’t put your name down. I am envisioning some sort of Pay it Forward situation with this whereby the joy and beauty of The Magnificent Spinster makes its way slowly around the world by people continuing to pass it on, and if the copies I send out just end up gathering dust somewhere, this magnificent vision will never come true!