August 05, 1996 12:00 PM

IN 1993, SARAH BAN BREATHNACH was a successful journalist, the author of two well-received books on 19th-century life and a wife and mother living in suburban Washington. Yet, like millions of other women juggling too many responsibilities, she was angry and frustrated. “I thought I could only be happy if everything was perfect,” says Breathnach, 49. “I wanted to live in a Martha Stewart world.”

But instead of buying new slipcovers, Breathnach became what she calls “a detective of my own life.” She concluded, six months later, that she had let minor frustrations—bad hair days, cluttered closets—get in the way of contentment. Last year she turned her insights into Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy, 528 pages of homey essays—one for each day of the year—with titles on the order of “The Art of Puttering” and “Caring for Your Soul.” The book’s mantra—”All you have is all you need”—has kept it near the top of The New York Times bestseller list since April, with more than 1.1 million copies in print.

Breathnach, who next year will release Authentic Success, a series of essays on spiritual and material fulfillment, isn’t surprised by Simple’s appeal. “I knew I wasn’t the only woman who was frazzled and at times depressed,” says Breathnach, who saw frustration in the faces of her friends. “We were sleepwalking through life.” Her commonsense advice: Learn to appreciate little pleasures like a great dish of pasta, a serendipitous discovery at a tag sale, a new lipstick.

Finding an editor who believed in her was no simple task: 30 publishers turned down her initial proposal, which some considered unfocused. “I cried myself to sleep at night,” she says. “I really felt I was born to write this book.” Her daughter Katie, now 13, began ending her nightly prayers by pleading, “Please help Mommy find a publisher.” Eventually, Liv Blumer, then of Warner Books, came to Breathnach’s rescue, pruning her 977-page manuscript and releasing it with little fanfare but lots of faith. “I felt it was a word-of-mouth book,” Blumer says. “There are some books that are so good, they can’t be stopped.” Blumer herself offers a dramatic testimonial: The book inspired her to quit her job and join a small literary agency so she could have more free time. “I had this nameless unease,” says Blumer. “When I read certain pages in the book, it was like, ‘Eureka!’ My direction became much clearer.”

Breathnach had taken far longer to find her own direction. Born in West-bury, N.Y., to Pat Crean, a construction equipment salesman, and his wife, Drusilla, a nurse, she wanted to be an actress, while her practical mother insisted she go to business school. At 25, Breathnach (a pen name) moved to London, where, she says, “I thought it would be easier to set the world on fire. I was wrong.” She worked as a $100-a-week secretary and lived in a grim one-room walkup while auditioning, unsuccessfully, for acting jobs. Breathnach soon gave up the stage and tried writing, but once again there were rejections, until she finally sold a fashion article to a London trade publication. By the time she moved to Washington in 1975, she was accomplished enough to be published in newspapers like The Washington Post—though she still had to work as a secretary to pay the bills.

Then in 1977, after losing a secretarial job, she applied for unemployment benefits and met claims examiner Ed Sharp, now 47, who remembers that Breathnach “seemed very exotic and intriguing.” Two years later they were married. After Katie was born, Breathnach continued freelance writing until one day in 1985 when she was lunching in a fast-food restaurant. A ceiling panel fell on her head, causing a concussion and landing her in bed for months. Blurry vision persisted for more than a year.

While recovering in her Takoma Park, Md., home, she became fascinated with some Victorian-era magazines she’d bought earlier. Then she captured her passion for the past in two lifestyle books: 1990’s Mrs. Sharp’s Traditions and 1992’s The Victorian Nursery Companion. Both sold well, but when her publisher asked for another, similar book, Breathnach balked. “I just didn’t think I could ruminate on Victorian ruffles for a year,” she says. Instead, she ruminated on her unhappiness. “Nothing that I had was ever enough,” she says. “I decided I had to put my life in a new perspective.” Her soul-searching led to Simple Abundance, which found a small audience before Oprah Winfrey discovered it and, this spring, put Breathnach on her show—and on the bestseller map.

True to her convictions, Breathnach hasn’t let fame and fortune shift her back into fast-forward. Her house is still far from Martha Stewart perfect—the kitchen ceiling is peeling, and a retaining wall needs repair. She’ll get around to those chores one of these days—after her daily stroll to the post office and her leisurely cup of coffee at her favorite local cafe.

ALEX TRESNIOWSKI

ROCHELLE JONES in Takoma Park

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