Rebecca's Reviews > Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing

Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing by May Sarton
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Although I’m a huge fan of Sarton’s memoirs (especially Journal of a Solitude) and enjoyed her Collected Poems, this was my first taste of her fiction. I confess to being underwhelmed: this book is rather slight and strangely unfeminist. Part of the problem may be that I know so much about Sarton’s life that I couldn’t help but see all the autobiographical detail in her descriptions of Hilary F. Stevens’s life and habits. Like Sarton, she’s a somewhat reclusive writer who has had success with both poetry and novels and now lives alone, with only the memory of a number of passionate love affairs to sustain her.

This was 1965, so the fact that several of Mrs. Stevens’s lovers were women may have been revolutionary at the time – certainly it was seen as Sarton’s coming-out book, although it’s not at all sexually explicit.

Most of the novel’s action takes place in one day, as Mrs. Stevens awaits the arrival of two interviewers. She’s a mentor of sorts to a young man named Mar who helps her with the gardening now that she is in her seventies. Mar is a budding poet and a frustrated homosexual – two experiences she can weigh in on. “I saw you as a person of primary intensity,” she tells him; “they are rare. They live in Hell a good part of their lives, a Hell of their own making, but they are the only people who ever amount to anything.”

The arrival of interviewers Peter and Jenny prompts much discussion of the Muse and the artist’s development as well as many private flashbacks to Mrs. Stevens’s past in the moments when she steps away to compose herself. Here are a few of the typical Mrs. Stevens statements that I objected to:

Powerful women may be driven to seek the masculine in each other.

Women have moved and shaken me, but I have been nourished by men.

After all, admit it, a woman is meant to create children not works of art—that’s what she has been engined to do, so to speak. A man with a talent does what is expected of him, makes his way, constructs, is an engineer, a composer, a builder of bridges. It’s the natural order of things that he construct objects outside himself and his family. The woman who does so is aberrant.

What backward, binary thinking! Had society not advanced since 1897, when Havelock Ellis’s Sexual Inversion suggested that lesbians are men trapped in female bodies? I truly didn’t expect this from Sarton. I can only explain it away as the influence of the age. I also rather detested this sentence: “Hilary knew that she must be very quiet, not let her enormously articulate person overwhelm or break the small thread that was at last there between them [her and Mar].”

All the same, there are some great one-liners about creativity and passion here:

Yet one writes to find out.

How to separate art and craft from life?

We live in a curious age, in an age where passion is suspect.

There was a secret joy when they walked down the street together … to know that from the outside what people saw was two middle aged women, but inside they were wild children, wild with joy.

Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self.

For me, though, Sarton’s journals are a better source of deep thoughts on the writer’s vocation, the value of solitude and the memory of love. I’ll certainly read more of Sarton’s novels (I have The Magnificent Spinster and Faithful Are the Wounds on my Kindle), but I doubt I’ll ever appreciate them as much as her nonfiction.


Note: Looking through some of the reviews of Mrs. Stevens that came out at the time (in May Sarton: A Bibliography, second edition, Lenora P. Blouin), I can see I’m not the only one to think the book thin and ideologically questionable:

New Yorker: “This is hardly a novel but a nice book.”

Saturday Review: “embarrassing because of its acute self-consciousness”

Southern Review: “Sarton is a careful craftsman with considerable intelligence, but she is shallow. Mrs. Stevens is a self-pitying phony … and Sarton, for understandable reasons, can’t see through her. … Sarton leaves us with fine craftsmanship and a trivial view of man and … poetry.”

Kirkus: “The tone of Hilary’s rambling is adolescent, self-admiring, and full of adroit self-justifications.”

Time: “Hilary gushes about lyrical art and Mar moons about his poetry and love for a sailor. Nothing else happens.”

Times Literary Supplement: “the form of the book is not viable; there are too many pronouncements of truths and the moments of real fiction occur too rarely.”
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Reading Progress

November 6, 2013 – Shelved as: to-read
November 6, 2013 – Shelved
October 2, 2015 – Started Reading
October 8, 2015 – Shelved as: writers-and-writing
October 17, 2015 – Finished Reading
October 21, 2017 – Shelved as: university-library
June 4, 2019 – Shelved as: book-thing-free

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