May Sarton's 77 years of life have provided a lode of artistic subject matter and she has quarried a great quantity of it.
We have experienced her pleasures in friends both human and animal--and the passing of many of those friends. We've shared her "grand passion for gardening," her love of fine literature and music. We've listened to her acerbic reflections on the passing political scene, her candid assessments of other writers, her insights into the phases of aging. Through it all, she has fulminated unceasingly in both journal and interview over the "lack of serious critical attention" given her work. Whatever the critical response or lack of it, the significant value of Sarton's work lies in its clear relevance to women's emotional lives.
Her 1973 novel, "As We Are Now," is unusual in theme--a strong, moving, beautifully crafted story of a woman in a nursing home. "A Reckoning," about a woman coming to terms with her life before death takes her, is of transcendent importance because it belongs on that short shelf of novels dealing with this theme.
Reviewer Lore Dickstein, who had the temerity to call "A Reckoning" a lesbian novel in the pages of the New York Times, was raked over the fires of Sarton's fury throughout her journal, "Recovering." In a March interview in Writer's Digest, Sarton stated that she cannot be labeled a lesbian writer because "only one of my books deals with that subject."
Until now, Sarton's "only" (in her eyes) book about "that subject" was "Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing," published in 1965. This book emerges from the body of Sarton's work as an autobiographical study of the inner artistic workings of a poet whose muse is always a woman, whose creative force arises from her passionate emotion for that woman. The publication of "Mrs. Stevens" was a courageous act in its time, and Sarton later said of the book, ". . . I am well aware that I probably could not have 'leveled' as I did in that book had I had any family . . . and perhaps not if I had had a regular job."
Now another of Sarton's novels deals with "that subject," and unlike "Mrs. Stevens," which thematically dealt with homosexuality only as a creative source, "The Education of Harriet Hatfield" deals with it unequivocally as a social issue.
Harriet Hatfield is 60 years old. Her companion of 30 years, a professional woman who sheltered Harriet and dominated her, has died. After months of grief, Harriet attempts to reclaim her life by fulfilling a dream: to open a bookstore which will be "a haven for women."
Soon an assortment of women wend their way to her store, located in a carefully chosen lower-class suburb near Boston. Martha Blackstone, whose marriage is smothering her career as an artist, is a stock figure from a number of Sarton novels. There are Chris and Mary, two nuns at home between trips to El Salvador. And lesbians Erica and Veronica. And two gay men, Eddie and Joe. A black woman, Nan Blakely. And annoying Sue Bagley, whose disapproval of the store's "queer" clientele causes Harriet to reflect, "The image of gay and lesbian in the public's mind is, of course, the young and exhibitionist, the outre and the promiscuous, visible and shocking. And if none of the old and respectable like me ever admit what they are that image will reinforce discriminatory laws. . . ."
When she is visited by a reporter from the Boston Globe, Harriet speaks out: "I want it known that an elderly woman, as you see I am, can be a lesbian and certainly in the case of . . . my lifelong friend, a distinguished member of society. Isn't it time a whole submerged part of respectable society came out into the open?"
In response to the newspaper article, Harriet receives threatening letters and her store is hit by vandalism. Her cadre of supporters rally as best they can to protect her . . . .
Based on this scenario, "The Education of Harriet Hatfield" seems to have the potential to become a significant addition to Sarton's body of work. The problem is that within the social milieu of 1989, the "education" Harriet receives turns out to be conspicuously narrow.
A source of the problem is the background Sarton has set up for Harriet; her dead companion was the editor and owner of a small publishing house, and Harriet is a women's bookstore owner. Yet Harriet is so unaware of basic women's issues that she might have stepped into a time capsule in the '50s, to emerge in the '80s. She professes amazement at the inequitable results of no-fault divorce to the victimized divorcee who assists her in the store. She says of her bookstore clientele, "It never occurred to me that the women were bound to be feminists, and some of them lesbians."