May Sarton’s narrator reports on a character’s reaction to her father comparing her to an aunt known for her artistic talent but also locked up. The character reacts initially with disavowal and then with a kind of grudging recognition that Aunt Ida was as the character emphasizes, human. Between the two reactions is a portrait of Aunt Ida. Here is Hilary’s recollection:
When she had calmed down, Hilary felt shame, she had spoken cynically and without compassion of an old woman whom she loved. Aunt Ida had given her her first pair of opera glasses; she had talked to her as if she were a human being, not a child; and when she had been locked up (“Aunt Ida is very ill,” she was told, “and in a hospital”), Hilary at twelve had felt real grief. The old woman had tried to commit suicide — this fact oozed out somehow from under the pretenses. Then she was buried alive, and one more item was added to Alice Frothingham’s lists of “things to do,” the weekly visit to McLean with books and flowers, with paints and canvases, for there had been times when Aunt Ida moved from depression to elation and could for brief periods paint again. Hilary had not been allowed to see her. Perhaps they imagined that insanity was contagious.
After this review Hilary manages to say to her father, through her tears, that she loved Aunt Ida and would be glad to be like her, an assertion capped by the emphatic “She was human.”
The figure of the artist on the verge of madness, taken up by the intensity of feeling so necessary for the production of truthful art, comes to haunt the novel Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing and the twelve year old cut off from a beloved aunt becomes a story that is “dangerously close to the surface again” for the old woman recollecting her life. May Sarton doesn’t just set this as a set piece of a scene, she doesn’t settle for reportage. The recollection induces an interior dialogue where Hilary, our protagonist, chides herself and turns her thoughts to the question of mourning one’s parents. She wanted parental recognition; she wanted them to be proud. She comes to realize
You can’t break the mould and also be consoled for breaking it, old fool! Be realistic — every book you published must have caused them embarassment and dismay. Yet the cry that escaped her lips, as she searched for the handkerchief in her pocket was, “Mother! Father!” Does the mourning for parents ever end? she asked herself, blowing her nose, and resting her eyes on the quiet green light in the room. Searingly, excruciatingly private, this pain, yet she suspected that it might be the universal condition. Children have to hurt their parents or die, have to break themselves off, whatever the cost, even though the wound never heals.
And Sarton has her character circle back and young Hilary reminds old Hilary (note the temporal flow involved in the recollection of the wisdom of a younger self) that she did not break down like Aunt Ida, that she kept going. And on it goes as Mrs. Stevens prepares for an interview …
And so for day 1063