May Sarton: Mrs Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing (1965)

Mrs Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing

I came across May Sarton for the first time when I was reading Susan Tiberghien’s memoir Looking for Gold, in which Tiberghien wrote about her year in Jungian analysis. The books she mentioned were Sarton’s famous diaries Plant Dreaming Deep and Journal of a Solitude. I got them both but never read them so far. When Danielle (A Work in Progress) started writing regularly about Journal of a Solitude last year, mentioning in particular one entry in which Sarton wrote how much a negative review of one of her novels hurt her, I realized that I hadn’t even been aware that Sarton had also been a novelist and not only a poet and diarist. That made me curious and I decided to read one of her novels. Since the title Mrs Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing reminded me of one of my favourite movies I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (I’m sure it’s no coincidence that Rozema chose that title) I picked that novel.

Mrs Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing is the story of an elderly poet, Mrs Hilary Stevens, who has just published a highly successful volume of poems. The story focuses on one particular day on which an interview takes place but her whole life is unfolded as well. Two younger people, an aspiring young woman poet and a male critic are coming to see Hilary to interview her. Mrs Stevens is very anxious. She is aware that if the interviewers are any good, they will dig deep and trigger a lot of buried emotions and memories.

The book consists of four parts. The first called “Hilary” shows us the poet on her own, the morning before the young interviewers arrive. The second part “The Interviewers” describes the two young people on their way to Mrs Stevens and shows just how anxious they are as well. The third part is dedicated to “The Interview” and moves back and forth in time. We follow the interview and flashbacks reveal episodes of Hilary’s life, which she doesn’t want to share with her interviewers. The last part is called “Mar”. Mar is the name of Hilary’s protegé, a young gay poet who reminds her of herself as a young person.

The part I liked best was the first in which we see Hilary on her own. She has chosen to live a solitary life (I guess pretty much like the author) and relishes every minute. She lives close to the sea and finds solace and inspiration in watching the landscape, the trees, how sunlight falls on certain flowers. She has her small rituals and fixed schedule to which she sticks unrelentlessly. In this part she also thinks about what it means to get older and how the inner young self contrasts with the older out self, the aging body, and what it means to face the frailties of old age for someone living a solitary life.

The interview was broken up by pauses. Hilary has to interrupt the interview several times when memories overwhelm her and she retreats to her room, leaving the two interviewers on their own. In these pauses she thinks of the past which is revealed in flashbacks. I found this technique somewhat heavy-handed but it was still powerful. The topics of the interview circle around inspiration, the muse, the difference between men and women as artists.

Mrs Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing is of importance in Sarton’s work because it is the first book in which she wrote about homosexual love. I found it interesting that Hilary had relationships with men and women and didn’t try to compare but felt each brought out another part of herself. Not all of the relationships are love affairs. The strong bond she has with Mar, for example, is free of physical attraction.

I found this novel highly engaging and inspiring. It’s full of insights and subtle observations on mundane and sublime things alike. There is a moment in the beginning in which Hilary complains that the world seems to strive towards chaos at all times. She takes her ashtrays as an example and states that she sometimes has the feeling, all she’s doing is emptying her ashtrays which get full again within seconds. I can’t say I haven’t had similar thoughts – not with regard to ashtrays -; there definitely is an absurd futility in housework.

At times reading this novel was like meeting a very interesting person who has given thought to everything. She finds thinking about housework, her cat, the light in the corner of a room, just as important as to ponder the deeper meaning of her life, the sources for her creativity, the deep bond between human beings. What I didn’t care for were those many observations on the difference between men and women and the assumption that it is dangerous for a woman to become a poet because it can endanger her fulfillment as a wife and mother. Yeah well. I agree to some extent but the problem isn’t an essential one, as she tries to make us believe, but a social one. If our society was different, these problems wouldn’t exist in that way. Unfortunately these thoughts and reflexions made the book feel quite dated.

As much as I liked reading this, it never really felt like a novel. On the other hand, I loved to get a glimpse at someone’s rich inner life and I might even read this again some day. Since I have a feeling Hilary Stevens is a lot like May Sarton, it certainly made me keen to read Sarton’s diaries, but I’m not sure I’ll read many more of her novels.

31 thoughts on “May Sarton: Mrs Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing (1965)

    • Thanks’s so much for telling me this. I had no idea. I came to this novel completely unprepared and must admit I’ve never read Eliot’s The Love Song and now that I see how recent your review is, I think I may not have seen it.
      The title is never mentioned in the novel.
      It’s a very rich book but there were elements I was not keen on. They must have been impiortant for Sarton at the time. I found it was an engaging book despite these flwas but I’m sure, I’ll like her journals much more.

      • The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock is my favourite poem. If you’ve not read it I do recommend checking it out. It’s not necessarily easy, but it is brilliant and incredibly powerful.

        The title wouldn’t need to be mentioned if you know the poem. It immediately evokes a sense of age, of potential loss or never having had, of melancholy and desire. It’s a hugely powerful image.

        Then again, I do tend not to worry about missing references. One can never get them all after all.

        • I just skimmed you rpost and will return to it when I have more time. It seesm an incredibly beautiful poem, I’ve ordered right away. It’s funny though. I was sure I’ve never read it but many lines were familiar.
          I’m not sure now the title is well chose for this novel as I didn’t find it melancholy.
          I’m sure I miss many references.

  1. “At times reading this novel was like meeting a very interesting person who has given thought to everything.”
    Not sure if this is for me, but what a fantastic recommendation! What more could you ask for from a book?

    • Yes, absolutely. it was think on plot but so rich in everything else. It had dated moments but overall it was great because Mrs Stevens is someone who thinks about almost everyting in a fascinatig way. I’m pretty sure May Sarton put a lot of herself into this book.

  2. Another post I didn’t know about until I came looking. WordPress is buggy. I enjoy books (thinking Graham Swift’s The Sweet Shop Owner) in which someone thinks over their entire lives. We can usually wrap it all up in a few hours, can’t we?

    • It depneds a bit. Some parts take longer than others. It depends on how much you want to relive it. That’s what she illustrates nicely. And how memories are triggered.
      I don’t know whether this would be for you but it’s a rich book.
      I don’t rely on wordpress for new posts. I’m quite happy with Bloglovin now but it took me over a month to get used to it.

  3. Hi, Caroline. Happy New Year. As I’m sure you know already, the reference in both the books you mention to “hearing the mermaids singing” comes from T. S. Eliot’s poem, “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock.” In that poem, he says something like (and I may be paraphasing) “I have heard the mermaids singing,/Each to each. I do not feel that they will sing for me.” That’s curious: he’s heard them, but doesn’t feel that the song is for him. So, what are we to make of May Sarton’s title, in which Hilary Stevens hears the mermaids singing? Are they singing for her, or not? Is it the adulation of her interviewers that constitutes the singing, or what? Maybe I’ve missed something, but I feel that Sarton picked an evocative title and then didn’t fulfill the promise of it fully. Like you (if I’ve interpreted you correctly) I found a number of flaws in the book, from various angles, which made me conclude that however good a diarist Sarton may have been, she was a minor talent decidedly as a novelist. But it was an interesting read, period-history wise. Is that what you feel too, or have I misinterpreted?
    Happy New Year indeed. 🙂

    • Happy New Year indeed. 🙂
      You got me perfectly. We feel exactly the same about it and as soon as Max mentioned the poem I thought she wanted to make more of the novel as there is as I don’t really found she captured the feeling the poem seesm to evoke. It’s really a promise that hasn’t been fulfilled.
      I’d say she’s not a superior novelist but I liked what she wrote, it felt like getting to know her. I might be wrong but I think Mrs Stevens must be a lot like Sarton. I could imagine spending an afternoon – or longer – with her and have this type of conversation and I’d probably enjoy it (apart from anything focussing too much on the difference of men and wmen – that was quite tiring) but I know it’s the kind of book I’ll not remeber well in a year or so but I still liked it.

  4. Excellent review, Caroline. I too thought of Eliot’s poem and wondered why she chose the title. I think she may feel the same way that Eliot did–the moment has passed.
    My TBR pile is getting quite unmanageable; I need to get reading.

    • Thanks, Carole. I wasn’t familiar with the poem so didn’t make the connection but I’ll read it as soon as I get a chance. I wonder if I had found the book as a whole more melancholic if I’d known the poem before.
      My piles are so bad.

  5. I’ve had this out from the library for ages, but haven’t started it yet. I loved the only other book by her that I read – Joanne and Ulysses: about a woman and a donkey she rescues. Quite marvellous. I also have The Fur Person, but I always worry that cat books will be too sad for me, so I’ve been putting that off too. I enjoyed your review immensely.

    • Thanks so much, Vicki. I always meant to read Fur Person but just like you I’m scared of cat books because they are so often sad.
      I think you’d like Mrs Stevens … There is too much to like in this book. There’s of course a cat as well, about which she writes quite nicely.
      While reading this book I thought I would have enjoyed talking to May Sarton and that it’s sad that will never happen.

  6. Interesting review and discussion. From the reactions about the title, it’s as if a French novelist had picked a title with Le dormeur du val in it.

    I didn’t know you could put so much thinking about housework. But now that I think about the laundry basket with two kids at home, it can well be a modern version of the Danaus Daughters bathtub.
    I would have been irritated by the comments about being a poet and a mother, but I guess that doesn’t surprise you. 🙂

    • No it doesn’t surprise me because it annoyed me too. The thoughts about housework were interesting but unfortunately to some extent tied into the gender “theory”. She states it’s harder for a woman (poet) not to think of housework. Duh. I can happily let housework slide and forget al about it.
      I’m still not sure about how well chosen that title is.
      This is the type of book, while flawed as a novel would still make a great book for a discussion group.

  7. Beautiful review, Caroline! I enjoyed reading the story of how you discovered the book. It is quite fascinating how we stumble upon beautiful books, isn’t it? I love the theme and the structure of the book – depicting the inner life of a poet through an interview and through flashbacks into her past. I think I will love this book. It is a little bit disappointing to read about what Sarton says about being a poet and being a mother at the same time – maybe she was echoing the views of the era in which the book was written. But glad to know that except for this little glitch, you liked the book very much. I love the title of the book too. I will add it to my ‘TBR’ list and I will look for it. Thanks for writing about this beautiful book and introducing me to a new-to-me author.

    • Thank you, Vishy. I hope you will enjoy it. I think a lot will speak to you. we have to forgive her for her dated views on men and women but when se wrote this she wasn’t a young woman anymore and clearly these are dated views but there is so much in this book, it would be sad not to read it just because of that.
      It was an interesting way to find her books. The best in my opinion, when one book leads to another.
      I’ll read her diaries soon.

  8. Stories about people who think a lot, perhaps at time too much, about all sorts of things big and small, appeal to me as I may be a bit guilty of doing that. As for the views on men and women, anyone who has that many views are bound to have a few that are off base and reflect some of the biases of their time.

    • Brian, that’s totally true and a reason why I forgive her. There are so many lovely and interesting other thoughts in this book, a few “off base” refelctions, as you call them, are OK.

  9. I read The Small Room by May Sarton for an online book group and was very struck by it. I had a very similar sort of analysis to yours – beautiful insights, slightly dated. It did feel more like a novel though. You remind me that I must read more of her work. I found her to be a constantly engaging and intelligent writer.

    • I might have to give that novel you read a chance but first I want to get to the diaries.
      I think she will possibly not be remembered much as a novelist but there were still so many wonderful elements in this book that i could imagine I would read it again. Too bad the one you read had also slightly dated insights.

  10. I read The Small Room, too, and think you might like it better than this one. You should definitely try her diaries, though. I think I am more drawn to those than her novels at this point, but I might try something else by her later. Maybe it’s partially that she is a product of her times and that is why her novels, too, feel somewhat dated. I know in her journal she struggles with the life she has chosen to lead (one of solitude) and about women’s experiences as artists/writers.

    • Now that you mention it as well, I’ll certainly read The Small Room sooner or later but really sghould start her diaries.
      She certainly was a product of her time, I understand that but it still annoyed me as she put a lot of things as given by nature.

  11. I read this yesterday but didn’t have time to leave a comment.
    it sounds interesting but I am not sure it’s for me. I have never heard of this author before, I wonder why you will not read many of her books?

  12. Pingback: BookReview – Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton | Vishy's Blog

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