Day 666: The Magnificent Spinster

Cover for The Magnificent SpinsterJust a quick update! The members of Literary Wives have just finished choosing books for the coming year. See my Literary Wives page for the list of upcoming books. If you want to read along, join us April 6 for a discussion of The Bishop’s Wife by Mette Ivie Harrison.


In 1985, May Sarton wrote The Magnificent Spinster in an attempt to honor her friend Anne Longfellow Thorp. It is a fictionalized biography of her friend’s life that is being reissued.

Cam has returned from her friend Jane Reid’s funeral thinking that no one will remember her extraordinary friend after her friends and relatives die. So, she sets out to write a novel about Jane.

This novel is just as concerned about the act of writing a novel as it is about the subject matter. Each section begins with a paragraph or two about the author’s uncertainties or difficulties and about her conversations with other friends of Jane while gathering information for the book.

The novel has feminist overtones, one of its purposes being clearly to illustrate how a single woman, even one born around the turn of the 20th century, could live an active and fulfilling life. Although I was interested especially in the depiction of Jane’s summer times spent on a family island, I felt there was too much worship in this portrait to really get a sense of Jane. Opportunities of real possible interest, like learning about her teaching, her reason for quitting teaching, or her work in Germany after World War II are lost in surfacy descriptions or ignored. When she helps found some sort of group house in Germany, the purpose of the project isn’t even explained until later in that section.

When some of the most interesting possibilities have to do with Cam’s own life, for example her experiences during the Spanish-American war, they are only alluded to. I understand that Sarton was trying to focus on the character of Jane, but Cam is a character in the novel, too, and the novel sometimes deals with her problems. The novel is missing some opportunities to gain interest from those experiences. In fact, it suffers overall from assuming a knowledge of both characters’ friends and activities that the reader cannot know. For example, some people come to visit Jane on her last summer on the island, but it takes a long time before Sarton explains who they are.

link to NetgalleyToo often the dialogue is trivial and to little purpose, and almost all conversations end with people agreeing what a wonderful, extraordinary person Jane is. Some of this rubbed me the wrong way, too, because it was clear her friends thought she was the more extraordinary for having decided to lead an active life of service rather than the one of privilege that she was born to. Although this decision is admirable, I don’t think she deserves more praise than anyone not born to privilege who leads a life of service, perhaps less, because another person would have a harder time affording to live the way Jane chooses to do. I have no doubt the original subject of this bio-fiction was an unusual and worthy woman, but Sarton doesn’t really make us feel it.

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