May Sarton, The Education of Harriet Hatfield

The Education of Harriet Hatfield is an awkward novel, struggling–or so it seemed to me–to maintain a difficult equilibrium between the human stories it tells and the didactic message those stories are designed to convey. The awkwardness is palpable, I think, because Sarton doesn’t trust her readers enough to infer her message from the stories, but instead makes it an insistently explicit part of her characters’ conversations, or her narrator’s commentary. The characters, especially Harriet herself, have the same distinctive individuality that marked the people in Sarton’s The Small Room, and the story itself is engaging and rich with thematic and political potential. Harriet, who has lived for many years with the somewhat overpowering Vicky, decides after Vicky’s death to use her inheritance to open a woman’s bookstore in the Boston neighborhood of Somerville. She has no business experience and no specific agenda except that she hopes the store will become a gathering place for women of all kinds as well as a repository of books by, for, or about women. What she hasn’t anticipated is that opening the store will also open up her life, both by challenging her to rethink her own values and relationships, and by exposing her–and those values and relationships–to the sometimes hostile scrutiny of her new community. Harriet realizes belatedly that her economically privileged life with Vicky has sheltered her in many ways, but particularly from any pressure to define or defend their relationship. She thinks of it in the context of the “Boston marriage,” shying away from the label “lesbian” (“That word always makes me wince,” she remarks); she feels strongly about women’s need to express themselves and take strength from each other, but she does not consider herself a feminst. But her naivete about herself and her store is immediately challenged, by supporters who applaud her venture for being something she never quite imagined it as, and by opponents who target her with graffiti, hate mail, and, eventually, vandalism and violence. “Dear manager or whoever you are,” reads the letter that first forces her to see herself through the eyes of hate:

This was a clean blue collar neighborhood until you and your ilk arrived. Now it is full of filthy gay men and lesbians. This is a warning. We do not want your obscene bookstore and we will do everything we can to get you out.

Harriet is a reluctant and unlikely revolutionary. But she comes to see her very conventionality as her strength: she is seen by all around her as a “lady,” and she decides that by coming out she can counter stereotypes and provide what she thinks of as one version of an “exemplary life,” an example to prove the point that gays and lesbians are people too. If that conclusion sounds a bit shallow or trite, I fear that impression is fair to the novel, which is preoccupied with showing examples of gays and lesbians who are Perfectly Nice People living Unobjectionable Lives despite being misunderstood, insulted, or actively discriminated against. Some subtlety is in play because to some extent it is Harriet herself who is gradually enlightened, losing her anxiety about labels, realizing that the privacy she and Vicky valued can also be seen as avoidance, perhaps even a form of repression or denial–not sexually, but politically. It’s a shock to her when an interview with her about the threats against her and her shop appears under the large headline “Lesbian Bookseller in Somerville Threatened,” but by the novel’s end she has embraced the changes this involuntary exposure brings to her life. ‘It has been in some ways excruciating,’ she tells the private detective finally called in to find out who is behind the attacks;

‘but I have to admit that it is giving me an education I had missed. It has forced me to be honest about myself. That is a salutary thing. I can identify for the first time with any persecuted minority and’–here I can’t help laughing–‘I know it is absurd, but I am proud of being in the front line. Because, you see, I am safer than most gay people are. By that I mean I am more or less self-supporting and no one else, except Patapouf [her dog] has been intimately involved. So I can dare without fear of hurting.’

The story of Harriet’s education is a good one in many ways, and the earnest intentions behind the novel’s broader agenda are unobjectionable–but those who need the lesson it teaches are, surely, hardly likely to pick up the novel, which is perhaps why I started to find its preachier moments so tedious, even though the individual stories that are woven in with Harriet’s have plenty of intrinsic interest and are often deftly indicated, like the story of Martha, the unhappy wife who longs to be an artist and paints uncomfortable dark pictures of trees with encroaching roots. I liked the bookstore stuff the bes. Like many bookish people, I have totally inaccurate but cherished fantasies about what it must be like to run an independent bookstore (yes, this despite the tales I’ve heard from actual bookstore owners like Colleen of Bookphilia!). I would love to have a store like Harriet’s nearby, where tea is served in the late afternoon and all kinds of interesting women hang around and find support and friendship. Sarton is honest enough to make it clear that Harriet’s business may never make money, that it’s only her inheritance that enables her to embark on this adventure. Knowing that Sarton and Carolyn Heilbrun were friends, I was amused to see Harriet recommending the Amanda Cross mysteries to a customer. Also, recalling Heilbrun’s chapter on Sarton in The Last Gift of Time, I remembered her saying that Sarton hated criticism and resisted editorial advice. The Education of Harriet Hatfield is a book that might have benefited from some advice, particularly if it had led Sarton to let Harriet go through her internal and political transformations without talking about them so much and so laboriously.

4 thoughts on “May Sarton, The Education of Harriet Hatfield

  1. Bookboxed February 21, 2011 / 4:42 pm

    I wish your review had been able to be more positive as I’m a sucker for Bookshop based books, and how many more will it be possible for authors to write when the real things have the big chains gobbling them up on one side and the internet nibbling away on the other? I’ve heard good things of Penelope Fitzgerald’s ‘The Bookshop’, although I have only read some of her others like ‘Offshore’, which I liked.


  2. Rohan Maitzen February 21, 2011 / 5:32 pm

    I second the good things you’ve heard about The Bookshop.


  3. Annie February 22, 2011 / 6:38 am

    I’ve read very little of Sarton’s Fiction. I’ve just checked my shelves and the only novel I have is ‘The Magnificent Spinster’, which I do remember enjoying. However, I have all her journals and they have been read and re-read. I first came across her ‘Journal of a Solitude’ at a time when it was exactly the book I needed and coincidentally, I found it in just such a bookshop as you describe here. The Silver Moon was on the Charing Cross Road and when it first opened it was just for books by women authors and the cafe area, downstairs was only available for women and children. It was at a time when the public consciousness concerning abusive relationships was growing and the idea was to create a safe space where women could meet and talk together. Sadly, as it’s popularity grew and it expanded into the shop next door, it became more commercial and eventually vanished completely. A great shame. Three or Four years ago, I picked up a biography of Sarton and was sorry I did, because she came over as a very difficult person, very different from the individual I’d thought I’d got to know through the journals. Perhaps I should go back and do a re-assessment. Thanks for directing my mind in that way.


  4. Dorothy W. February 25, 2011 / 10:26 pm

    This sounds like an interesting, if imperfect, book. After A Small Room, I picked up a copy of this one and am looking forward to reading it.


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