It is a rare gift to meet, much less befriend, one of your heroes — a gift that fell upon the American poet, novelist, and diarist extraordinaire May Sarton (May 3, 1912–July 16, 1995) in her mid-twenties, just as she was starting out as a writer, when she met Virginia Woolf (January 15, 1882–March 28, 1941).
On a visit to England shortly after her literary debut, the young Sarton decided to leave a copy of her first poetry collection at Woolf’s doorstep, along with some flowers. To her surprise, the kindly maid opened the door and invited her in. Unprepared for the fortuitous opportunity to meet her idol, Sarton mumbled a polite declination, handed the maid the book, and walked away.
Knowing how desperately Sarton wanted to meet Woolf, the prominent writer Elizabeth Bowen took it upon herself to stage a more planned introduction. She decided to invite both Woolf and the young poet to dinner at her country house in Ireland — an epicenter of the era’s creative community, where she hosted such titans of literature as Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Iris Murdoch.
In The Writer’s Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the 20th Century’s Preeminent Writers (public library) — the wonderful 1989 collection of wisdom from Paris Review interviews, which also gave us great writers on how to handle criticism and James Baldwin’s advice on writing — Sarton recounts the moment Woolf entered, a strange and stunning vision:
She walked in, in a “robe de style,” a lovely, rather eighteenth-century-looking, long dress with a wide collar, and she came into the room like a dazzled deer and walked right across — this was a beautiful house on Rogent’s Park — to the long windows and stood there looking out. My memory is that she was not even introduced at that point, that she just walked across, very shyly, and stood there looking absolutely beautiful. She was much more beautiful than any of the photographs show. And then she discovered that I was the person who had left the poems.
Sarton remembers how brilliantly canny and gracious Woolf later was in her response, aware that the young writer’s fragile confidence might perch too precariously on her approval or disapproval:
She answered my gift of that book with a lovely note, which is now in the Berg collection, just saying: “Thank you so much, and the flowers came just as someone had given me a vase, and were perfect, and I shall look forward to reading the poems.” In other words, never put yourself in a position of having to judge. So he never said a word about the poems. But she was delighted to find out that I was the person who had left them.
At Bowen’s dinner, Sarton found herself in conversation with Woolf while “the gentlemen were having their brandy and cigars in the other room.” She recounts:
We talked about hairdressers. It was like something in The Waves! We all talked like characters in a Virginia Woolf novel. She had a great sense of humor. Very malicious. She liked to tease people, in a charming way, but she was a great tease.
But she put me at ease and I saw her quite often after that. Every time I was in England I would have tea with her, which was a two-hour talk. She would absolutely ply me with questions. That was the novelist. I always felt the novelist at work. Where did I buy my clothes? Whom was I seeing? Whom was I in love with? Everything. So it was enrapturing to a young woman to be that interesting to Virginia Woolf. But I think it was her way of living, in a sense. Vicariously. Through people.
She was never warm. That’s true. There was no warmth. It was partly physical, I think. She was a physically unwarm person. I can’t imagine kissing her, for instance, I mean on the cheek. But she was delightful, and zany, full of humor and laughter. Never did you feel a person on the brink of madness. That has distorted the image, because she was so in control.
Complement with Sarton’s stunning ode to solitude and Elizabeth Bishop’s memoir of Marianne Moore — the most loving remembrance of a role model and mentor ever composed — then revisit Woolf herself on what it takes to be an artist, the relationship between loneliness and creativity, why the most creative mind is the androgynous mind, and what makes love last.