The Testament of a Lesbian Widow : THE EDUCATION OF HARRIET HATFIELD by May Sarton (W. W. Norton: $17.95; 307 pp.)

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."

She listens to the clamoring voices of 1980s women, yet never hears the hard-won wisdom shouting from her own bookshelves--such as the shelf of books about battered women. So when artist friend Martha ends up hospitalized from her husband's assault, Harriet recommends a visit to a psychiatrist, and is pleased when Martha afterward returns to her husband. The Pollyanna-like resolution is, regrettably, typical of this anachronistic novel.

Lesbian Harriet concedes the literary existence of Gertrude Stein and poet Adrienne Rich, but says dismissively, "I am not chiefly interested in lesbians or the very little lesbian literature there is, not at all." Last year alone, more than 1,000 gay and lesbian books were published--but none of this dynamic activity manages to swim into Harriet's ken.

After Harriet's interview is published in the Globe, her younger brother discloses to her that he is gay. If he were your brother, wouldn't you give immediate thought to the peril of AIDS? Not Harriet, not until pages later, as an afterthought in another scene. Then Harriet learns that Eddie, one of her two new gay friends, has contracted AIDS because he has not been monogamous in his relationship with Joe. Never is there any hint that Joe is in any jeopardy--only Eddie, the straying partner. And at a time when drugs are prolonging the lives of people with AIDS, Eddie is immediately on his deathbed.

The characters who assemble in Harriet Hatfield's bookstore are clothed in both stereotype and sentimentality, the women all conforming to Harriet's Panglossian view of her "haven for women." Despite the store's blue-collar location, scarcely anyone who comes in is poor by any realistic definition of that term. Eddie's untidy dying is kept off stage; gay-bashing violence is confined to the shooting of a beloved pet; even the vandalism to the store consists of washable graffiti on the store windows.

Repetitive language and surprisingly poor craft add to the problems. We are given a scene, only to have Harriet repeat the events of the scene to one character after another. W. W. Norton, with whom Sarton has published for decades, owed this author better editorial support.

However, Sarton chooses to view her many fictional portraits of women who identify emotionally with other women, she has always had a devoted lesbian following, especially in the past when quality fiction for or about lesbians was rarely published. But "Harriet Hatfield" contains such scant relevance to the real lives of women today, whether heterosexual or lesbian, that the primary audience for this book would appear to be Sarton's faithful readers in her own age group.

In a 1982 interview for the Paris Review, Sarton stated that she considered herself a bridge between the homosexual and heterosexual worlds. In this new novel she may be speaking for both her art and her life when she says through Harriet, "But if only the obvious, the exhibitionist, the aggressively role-conscious women 'come out,' how is a bridge ever to be made? And is it not precisely that bridge that I had envisioned, though not consciously, when I dreamed of a women's bookstore?"

Sarton has termed herself "a solitary." Indeed she is. Because the sad, lonely fact about being a bridge is that one does not, in actuality, belong anywhere.

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