May Sarton had an
admirable plan in The
Magnificent Spinster: to write a tribute to a woman who
lived for love — not the love for husband and children that's
typically portrayed in a novel but love for friends and the greater
society. She wanted, in fact, to offer a tribute to a real person she
knew and admired but to do it in novel form rather than biography so
that she could be "free of the struggle with minute detail . . . and
facts." The character of the magnificent spinster Jane Reid was based
on Anne Longfellow Thorp, a former teacher and lifelong friend and
mentor of Sarton's.
Sarton didn't want to offend the woman's friends and relatives,
however, she reined in her fictionalizing, keeping the plot of A Magnificent Spinster
close to events that actually happened. The perspective of the
narrator, Cam, is always that of an outsider, so readers never get into
Reid's head. Cam says that Jane doesn't talk much about herself. She
wonders but never finds out whether Jane is really asexual. Much of
Jane's magnificence is communicated through the adjectives her friends
use to praise her. Extravagantly generous to them as well as committed
to social service, she is indeed praiseworthy; one just wishes
to get to know her better.
fell short with Jane, she succeeds with Cam. Because she is the
narrator, Cam can let us in on her conflicts, vulnerabilities, and
loves. She comes alive more than Jane.
though Sarton doesn't pull off the portrayal of Jane, she is to be
commended for her unconventional choice of heroine. It's the rare novel
that features a woman who loves everyone but no single someone.
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