The Magnificent Spinster (1985)

by May Sarton

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.

Because 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.

Where Sarton 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.

But even 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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