The Magnificent Spinster by May Sarton

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!

61 comments

  1. I am delighted to read that May Sarton has entered your life; each one of her many books is splendid. If you are a cat lover I strongly recommend The Fur Person; if you are not a cat lover, you will be.

    1. I should have guessed you would already be an expert on her, Charles! I hope to one day have my reading catch up with yours.🙂 I am NOT a cat person – I am totally a dog person – but I am intrigued by a book that could change me. Anything by May Sarton sounds good to me right now and I am so excited about discovering her oeuvre.

      1. Well I am close to forty years older than you so I had quite a head start. But at the reading pace you set for yourself, you will be leaving me far behind very soon. I was very lucky in my youth to have a mentor/muse who guided my reading and helped develop my taste in literature. I will never forget her. Have you given any thought to teaching? You would be doing undeveloped minds a great favor.

      2. I don’t believe I shall ever leave you behind, Charles!

        Yes I have, I am actually in the process of applying to teacher training programmes at the moment, as it happens! I have always wanted to be an English teacher, I’ve just been waiting for the right time. Hopefully next year I will start training. I would be thrilled to be able to pass my love of literature onto teenagers all day every day!

  2. Wow! what a review and what a book this sounds to be. I have never read May Sarton though I have known about her for ages. Clearly time for that to change. Many thanks. And the new look is lovely too.

  3. What a fantastic review Rachel, I do think a review can be all about the feeling that a book gives you, not just its plot and characters and the reaction this has had with you I am sure will mean this book gets picked up by many… and passed on. I love the idea of a prose-like ‘pay it forward’.

    1. Good! This will be my atonement for the fact that I TOTALLY failed you on The Love Child front.😦 BUT I will read it…eventually. Once I am back in England! And don’t have a pile of guilt inducing American classics by my bed to read!

  4. wow, was hooked from your very first word. I have ordered other books you have mentioned and I so want to read this one. I would LOVE a copy of it and I would happily pass it on to an avid reader friend who could pass it one to someone else. Please keep me in mind. If I am not lucky enough to be one of the three I will eventually purchase it. I have to read this book. You gave it a superb review. Can’t wait to read it.
    Nora
    Co. Sligo
    Ireland

    1. I am delighted to hear it, Nora! I absolutely will – I’m glad that my enthusiasm has rubbed off -that’s exactly what I wanted to achieve!

  5. OK, Rachel. You have to stop reading so many books that you absolutely love and then giving rave reviews on the blog. My TBR pile from the inter-library loan service is growing way too quickly.🙂

    Glad you have found May Sarton – she is a good writer with a long backlist. I have only read her journals (which is fascinating) so would be interested in reading this copy. Plus I *promise* to review it on-line although not on a blog as I don’t have one. Still, it will be on-line and I will give you the URL. Additionally, I have a good friend who it will get passed to as she in the throes of a break-up of a long-term relationship and could do with a strong female role model right now.

    Great review (as always). Although you are forcing me to add this to the never-ending TBR pile.
    liz in texas

    1. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I know I keep doing this to people! But I have been on a reading roll lately!

      Well Liz we’ll see whether you get lucky twice in a row with one of my giveaways! Your friend definitely sounds like she needs to read this – Jane is a wonderfully inspiring role model!

  6. Here we go again! Another great author (whom I hadn’t heard of before) I will need to seek out! This book sounds unmissable and your review as wonderful as always.🙂

    One thing in your review confused me. You said she had no romance in her life, but referred to her long term partner, Ruth. Was she not a romantic attachment? Or did I miss something? (Probably!😉 )

    I can so sympathise with you sobbing on the train. I’ve done that, too…

    1. Thanks Penny!🙂 I just can’t resist leading others into temptation it seems, but it’s always totally worth it, I promise!

      Sorry, that must be my syntax at fault there! Ruth was Cam’s partner. Jane never had a romantic partner of either sex.

      Oh it’s awful. I cry in public all the time, it’s terrible. Often at stations/on trains, oddly.

  7. Well, May Sarton’s a favorite of mine, so I would be thrilled to review a copy of this online and pass it on should I be fortunate enough to have my name drawn. I will however, get around to purchasing it eventually for myself. I have read most things by Ms. Sarton and she is quite remarkable.

    1. I am so pleased to see that May Sarton has already been heard of by so many! I can’t believe she had never crossed my path before. I will certainly include you in the draw and I’m glad to hear you’ll be reading it eventually regardless!

  8. What a remarkable review. I have been a reader of May Sarton’s oeuvre for years now having discovered her in high school. I own all she has written with the exception of one book of poetry, and cherish each and every book. I don’t think that you can choose a bad book, but like liz in texas mentioned, I would highly recommend her journals as well, particularly Journal of a Solitude.

    Thank you for sharing such a wonderful book with the world and I hope that those who discover May Sarton through your Pay it Forward find as much joy in her writing as you did!

    1. Oh wow, David – how lucky you are to have had May Sarton as a companion for so long. I will take you up on that recommendation and see if I can track down the journals.

      I am just so delighted that I can pass on my wonderful discovery – I have high hopes for the Pay it Forward scheme!

  9. Can I enter the giveaway even though you know me in real life? I read something else by May Sarton last year and liked it, and it made me think, which is lovely in a book. But if I cannot enter I promise I shall still check it out of the library. You are very persuasive!

    1. Oh dear Jenny, you may find yourself with a copy of this next time we meet as part of that belated birthday present…or you may not. We will see.😉 Which means you will, by the way! But I have another present for you too so you get one surprise at least!!

  10. It is such a joy to read a review as heartfelt as this one, Rachel. To be brought to tears, to want to share it as you do, to extoll the virtues of reading makes my heart sing. I have not read May Sarton, and will add her to my list for sure.

    Since I cannot promise to read The Magnificent Spinster soon, I will pass on receiving it and leave that chance to someone who can, but, I will strive to get to it someday soon.

    1. Thank you Penny! You are so sweet. I hope you will get to this soon – I know you will love it and that it will leave a striking impression with you.

  11. This sounds fantastic and I can’t wait to read it! I love the fact that your blog features so many lesser-known books as well as classics – it’s wonderfully refreshing, not to mention fascinating!

    1. Thank you! I’m so glad you enjoy it so much! I like to try and highlight authors who may not get much press these days, but I’m also a bit of an old fashioned reader so it works well!

  12. I’m game! Count me in! If you choose me to share in the wonders of Ms. Sarton, it will add to my arsenal of recommended reads to my ever-growing population of teen readers:) This English teacher is always up for new books to recommend:)

  13. How could anyone resist a book with a review like that to recommend it? While I’ve heard of May Sarton, I’ve never read anything by her – I can see that will have to change.

    I loved reading a review focusing on how the book made you feel. I find I want to write reviews of books but get away from focusing on plot or even character necessarily, yet it’s hard to do. Your writing was so infectiously joyful I swear even the sun shone here in Belgium (for a nanosecond).

    Would love to join in your pay it forward scheme but will definitely read the book anyway.

    1. Well thank you Helen! I am glad I have convinced you to give May a try!

      You are so kind – I enjoy writing about how books make me feel and I loved writing this review because I could put all of my passion into it! I’m glad you enjoyed it!

      Well I hope that you will come up in the draw Helen!

  14. Thanks for your heartfelt review Rachel! I have ordered myself a copy from ebay… this sounds like a book I would like to keep, although your sharing forward idea is also wonderful.

    1. Thank you Merenia! I’m glad you enjoyed it! Oh fantastic! I am so happy that you’ve ordered it and you must come back and tell me what you think!

  15. I finished reading your review of this book with tears in my eyes. I was so moved by what you wrote. I can’t wait to read this book and would happily review it on my blog. I have always admired May Sarton as a great writer, but have not read anything by her for a long time. Now it’s time to revisit her body of work!

  16. Despite Thomas thinking he is a bit on the gruff side every now and then I find him to be a thoroughly wonderful man. I just love the way he offers up books to people he knows will enjoy them or roots through his collection for prizes. Anyway, enough gushing about Thomas…my haven’t you had a fabulous reading season? And you’ve accomplished quite a feat in making me sit up and take notice of two pieces of American literature lately…The Came Like Swallows and this one. My library has plenty of Sarton so a hold has been placed. And how lovely of you as well, Rachel, to share your fondness for certain books with others. It is so appreciated!

    1. Oh he really thinks he’s gruff does he? I have never heard a gruff word from him in my life, bless him! I think he’s just so generous and I am so grateful for him sending me this book!

      I am just so excited that I have made you intrigued by American literature! Hahahahaha! I am just going to keep sending random books to you until you get so infuriated that I’ll have to stop for fear of the consequences!

      May Sarton is so brilliant Darlene – I hope you will love her! I look forward to hearing your further adventures in….AMERICAN LITERATURE!!! YEAH!

      You are so welcome Darlene – likewise!🙂

  17. I would love so much to read this! Please enter me in the giveaway–if I don’t win a copy I’ll surely read it at some point regardless, but you really made me want to read it now🙂

  18. What a wonderful review, Rachel. I can’t seem to help rate books according to the emotional impact it has on me, so it’s really nice to read a post about just that. I’ve put this on my wishlist (as I’m all booked up for the month) but will definitely be keeping an eye out for a copy when I next go book hunting.

    1. Hi Sakura! Thank you very much, I’m so glad you enjoyed it. It was lovely to do a review about the emotional impact of a book for a change. I hope you will find a copy of this soon-ish and enjoy it as much as I did! It’s such a truly beautiful book.

  19. It’s been a long while since I had the exquisite pleasure of reading any books by the brilliant and evocative May Sarton. Like you lamented in a post earlier this week, I too had to leave behind many, many books when we moved from New York to Ireland (I’m originally from NYC, himself is from Dublin). In amongst the hundreds of books I had to say farewell to (by way of donating them to friends and to second-hand shops and charity-based bookshops), May’s ‘A Solitude’ was one of them. I would take great joy and delight io reading anything by her once again, and this sounds just the ticket. If that giveaway is still going on, and I’m eligible (not living in the US any longer), then yes, please, I’d love to read this.

    Thanks for being so generous – both yourself and Thomas (whose wonderful blog I’ve also just discovered and have subbed to). Books, for me, equals heaven. Great books and great authors, like Ms. Sarton and Henry Roth, for me, are nirvana.

    1. How sad, June! Though I hope living in Ireland has been worth the loss!

      You are so kind – you weren’t too late for the draw and living in Ireland is no barrier – I’ve decided everyone gets a copy so just send me your address please!

    2. Oh…my…stars! This is so wonderfully generous of you, Rachel. I am over the moon delighted, and cannot begin to express my joy at the thought of receiving such a gift. Thank you so, so very much. When you return home to England, if ever you’re over in Ireland, it’d be an honour and a pleasure to meet you and to chat with you over a cuppa. You are an gem and a half, Rachel. Thank you for reuniting me with May.

  20. Am I too late to enter for the draw?

    I don’t review very often (have done, encouraged by you!) but I would love the chance.

    I want to see if I cry too – but I’ll have to hide when I do. My husband worries when I sob. The other day, tears actually poured down my face (weird feeling) when I was reading The Hand That First Held Mine, probably because it involved a lost baby (well, not lost exactly but that’s another subject).

    1. No, and you get a copy so you’ll have to write a review now! Yay!

      Oh my goodness – I’ve heard that book is particularly sad. Your poor husband couldn’t cope with me – I’m always in tears! I love a good cry! Can’t wait to read your thoughts on May, Chrissy!

  21. Rachel, what an inspiring and inspired review!

    I have a favor to ask of you: I have posted on my blog about three books that I started to read but decided not to finish. One of those was The Magnificent Spinster. I did read 220 pages before I gave it up.

    What I would really appreciate from you is some sort of critique on my experience. Am I approaching the book the wrong way? Have improper expectations? If I can find the same experience that you describe here by adjusting my attitude and reading the remaining 160 pages, then I’ll do it. Your review makes me feel that I’m missing out incredibly.

    You’ll find my post at http://www.exurbanis.com/archives/4300

    Thanks so much!

  22. Finally, I got this book through inter-library-loan and I am more than entranced. Your recommendations are always wonderful! I am only halfway through, but don’t want the book to end. How magnificently Sarton captures Jane’s personality! And what a great role model she is. Makes me think a lot about my own life.
    What is sad, though: that such a devoted teacher decides to stop teaching at a relatively young age. I would have loved to hear strategies how to go on despite struggles – I guess at a certain age, everyone has to face those.
    Like many of the authors I got to know through you, Sarton is sadly almost not translated into German. I don’t understand it and regret it. Many not-English-reading-people I know surely would love this book. Maybe, hopefully, somebody will discover her?!

    1. I’m so glad you’re loving this Martina, and yes, it is a shame she hasn’t been translated into German. I want to re-read it now I am a teacher myself. I thought it was very sad how she was practically forced out of teaching…it made me wonder whether it truly can be a lifelong job. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts as you read through it, and I’m delighted to hear it praised so highly. It’s a stunning treasure of a book and I need to revisit it myself.

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