May Sarton was born in 1912, in Belgium, to George Sarton, a prominent science historian, and Mabel Elwes, an English artist. The family fled Belgium during the first World War and settled in Boston, Massachusetts, where her father accepted a position at the Harvard University.

Sarton authored over fifty books, which can be segregated into four genres – poetry, novels, journals, and memoirs. Her notable works include Encounter in April (1937), The Lion and the Rose (1948), Coming into Eighty (1994), Private Mythology (1966), Halfway to Silence (1980), and Collected Poems: 1930-1993 (1993). She has also authored candid memoirs about her own life in Plant Dreaming Deep (1968) and Journal of a Solitude (1973) wherein she openly talks about her bouts of depression and self-doubt. These works also delve into the apprehensions that haunted Sarton throughout her life. Sarton was also vocal about her homosexuality in Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing (1965).

Nominated for the National Book Award on multiple occasions, Sarton also taught in several colleges and universities, including the Harvard University and Wellesley College. She breathed her last in 1995, succumbing to breast cancer. She is interred in Nelson, New Hampshire.


Journal of a Solitude relates the events that occurred over the one year that Sarton spent in the quiet, idyllic village of Nelson, New Hampshire, far away from the city humdrum. She reflects on her life in seclusion through this since account of her daily routine as well as her relationship with her pets, neighbors and the occasional visitor. The book is a genuine attempt at finding her inner anchor as she goes about her everyday activities.

At the same time, Sarton also explores her depression, inner fears, apprehensions, and her frustration over unresolved anger and the glories she is yet to achieve. This phase also marks the bitter end of her love relationship. Journal of a Solitude also touches upon numerous topics like art, poetry, and the author’s struggle to establish herself as a female artist. Her pursuit of solace and creativity and her craving for human compassion and intimacy tug at her in opposite directions. Sarton also candidly talks about her contemporary, Virginia Woolf.

Going through the book, one cannot help wondering if it takes a tortured soul for art to come its manifestation.


While Sarton’s words are sharp and stark, the overall flow is rather gentle and serene. Journal of a Solitude feels very lively, for the author isn’t relating her experiences from a vantage point, but from the very eye of the storm. Her forthright, sincere tone makes for a very intimate reading experience.

Sarton has set her activities, worldly interactions and self-talk in a much broader context to which one can easily relate. The philosophical distillation evident throughout the book has come from years of deep thought, insightful observations, and a well-defined sense of self. Journal of a Solitude is a process through which the writer goes and emerges as a much more evolved person. The entire work perfectly balances so many diametrically opposite concepts, including sensitivity and emotions.


Unfortunately, the book has a looming melancholy about it, which lingers on well after one has put the book down. The undertones of a constant conflict against mental disintegration and the desperate desire to preserve their sanity is agonizingly evident from start to finish. The onset of old age, the deprivation of human compassion, the trauma of a relationship gone awry, and the depression all these things entail are too hard-hitting, even for the most discerning readers.


The value of solitude – one of its values – is, of course that there is nothing to cushion against attacks from within, just as there is nothing to help balance at times of particular stress or depression.

It occurs to me that boredom and panic are the two devils the solitary must combat.

Neurotic depression is so boring because it is repetitive, literally a wheel that turns and turns.

Or are men really so afraid of women’s creativity (because they are not themselves at the center of creation, cannot bear children) that a woman writer of genius evokes murderous rage, must be brushed aside with a sneer as ‘irrelevant’?

Nobody stays special when they’re old, Anna. That’s what we have to learn.


Ameya Score:

Journal of a Solitude merits a four-star score for its impeccable depiction of a myriad of negative emotions that humans undergo. The book is a commendable take on one’s life, portraying how an author’s pain is, unfortunately, a prerequisite for a good book. The book may, however, not be an ideal read for readers accustomed to fast-paced memoirs.

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Madhu book review writer at Ameya

A reverential admirer of words, Madhu loves watching them weave their bewitching magic on cozy afternoons.