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The Education of Harriet Hatfield
By May Sarton
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1989 Estate of May Sarton
All rights reserved.
How rarely is it possible for anyone to begin a new life at sixty! When Vicky died our friends took it for granted that I would simply go on living, gardening, and reading for pleasure in our house; that I would go on unchanged by her death, as though I were not recovering from an earthquake, and persuaded that I must recreate a self I can live with for the rest of my life. Vicky had always been a power, and I suppose until now I was simply an adjunct to that power, doing volunteer work to keep busy, and managing the household for her. We were closely united, I see now, partly because I accepted early on that she had to be in control and so did everything I could to follow her lead.
I have been living since her death in a strange empty silence, wondering who I am now, and perhaps also who I was while she lived. In some ways it was rather like living with a thunderstorm, you see. Is a good marriage always founded on one of the partners willingly abdicating for the sake of peace?
I loved Vicky because she was such a fountain of energy and conviction, such a giver to life in her profession as editor and owner of a small publishing house, and, frankly, so devoted to me that I was carried along on her tides. We had a truly happy life together for thirty years. Who could ask for more?
But now that I have inherited money (she left me comfortably off) and a huge space around me and inside me, the question is what shall I do with them? I even thought of joining the Peace Corps; more than one woman my age has done so. But I knew really that the Peace Corps did not fit my needs or capacities and would be a temporary escape. So, what then?
It came to me one night that it had to be something useful, needed, and close to home, something I could invest in and make grow, something I could control for a change. That night I began to dream of a women's bookstore, a bookstore which would be not only a place for buying books, but a meeting place, a welcoming refuge where people could browse and talk. Maybe there could be a fireplace and a table with comfortable chairs around it. As soon as I began to imagine this I realized it was exactly what I must do and I did not sleep a wink, my head was so absorbed in thinking and planning.
I had to laugh at myself for thinking I could embark on such a venture with no business experience whatever, but it felt like an instinct as powerful as a cow's instinct to eat grass. That is what made me laugh, the certainty that I was at the same time a little crazy, no doubt, and absolutely right that this was the adventure for me, godsent, in fact. Hatfield House: A Bookstore for Women was the name that came to me at dawn.
More than once in our peregrinations, Vicky and I had stopped in at this sort of bookstore. There is one in Andover, for instance. Vicky liked to drop in at bookstores and talk with the owners. "You have to keep your hand on the pulse of what people want," she often said. And of course the small bookstores were the great support of the sort of thing she published. "I can talk them into taking things they would never have thought of," she also said. And I, tagging along, was amused to see what effect she did have. A stout woman as she grew older, she had, I suppose, what is called "presence," a flashing blue eye, a hearty laugh, a vivid sense of who she was, and if no one there knew it, they soon would.
"Victoria Chilton," she would announce and wait for an appropriate response. If none was forthcoming, for sometimes she had addressed a young part-time person, she would add, "May I speak to the owner, please?"
"Where is Fairfield?" she would ask, having glanced around the new-books table and not found her last success.
"We had it, we had it, Miss Chilton," the owner might say, "but it's sold out."
"You mean you ordered two copies and they have sold?" She was laughing by then at herself as well as at the unfortunate owner of the bookstore. Vicky was aggressive, I have to admit, but not in a mean-spirited way. People liked her. "No reason why you should order more but people are crazy about English houses these days and this is really a remarkable evocation of what country house life was like fifty years ago. I'll make a deal with you. Take twenty more and if they don't sell we'll take them back."
And by then I had been introduced, we were drinking coffee, and it was all quite friendly and cozy.
The trouble is that evoking Vicky is dangerous for me because even six months after her death, it brings on a wave of acute loneliness. And at the same time, a wave of self-doubt. I am still the prisoner of the past, still overshadowed by my powerful and loving friend. Shall I ever discover who I am alone? And feel free to be that hidden person, whoever she may be?
The middle one in a family of three children, two boys and me, I have had to learn to be most of my life what other people expected of me. My brothers are awful teases and I learned early on to hide whatever was precious to me so it would not be laughed at. Vicky, on the other hand, an only child brought up like a boy, never doubted that what she most wanted she could have, and went about happily seeing that she got it. Her parents adored her, showing only faint surprise that they had produced such a determined character, and by their standards at least, such a maverick. So she decided against anything as usual as Barnard or Radcliffe and instead enrolled in the Sorbonne and spent two years in Paris. She made her way into the publishing business first as an adviser on foreign books to a university press, translated avant-garde works from the French, and had made a niche for herself in literary circles before she was thirty. We met at an Alliance Française luncheon in Boston where she introduced a French poet. I remember envying her evident enjoyment of being herself and doing what she did so well, but I was a little put off by her laugh that day. It did not occur to me that she had noticed me and when she came over to introduce herself and invited me to dinner that night at her parents' house in Chestnut Hill, I was amazed.
"You don't even know my name," I remember saying.
"No, but I like your face."
"My name is Harriet Hatfield."
"Please come to dinner, Harriet Hatfield."
Oh dear me, how long ago that was! Thirty years.
The trouble with overpowering people is that they tend to take over. I am a rather shy and private person and at first Vicky's pursuit of me was alarming. I was not ready to enter into any such relationship. I had, I suppose, always been drawn to women rather than men but I had never even imagined what Henry James called a Boston Marriage. At twenty I had been in love once with a young man when I was a student at Smith but by the time we graduated I had come to see that I was not deeply in love, only dazzled, and I did not see myself as a doctor's wife. I am really a rather selfish person and at that time as intact as a clam in a shell. I had a stopgap job at the Museum of Fine Arts in the order department of their shop, took a course or two there in history of art and watercolor painting, but I had no illusions about my gifts. Marriage was what I thought I wanted and there were various young men who "liked my face" as Vicky had said she did, and took me out to dinner. My brothers introduced me to their friends always hoping, and then teased me unmercifully because I did not fall in love.
"Harriet is immune," Fred used to say.
By then he was married, which did not help. Only Andrew, the youngest, took my side. And my dear father, who sometimes intervened with a twinkle in his eye, said more than once that he liked me just the way I was and did not look forward to the day when I might leave home.
Meanwhile Victoria Chilton had erupted like a volcano on the domestic scene, making me feel more uncomfortable than I had been before, more on the defensive, more vulnerable than ever to family pressures. At the same time I was experiencing a strong undertow of feeling, and quite unable to see my way, in fact terrified of drowning. It was a year of battling Victoria, myself, and my family; a painful year which I would rather forget. But of course in the end she won and carried me off to Venice and the Italian Alps where I had never been.
How strange life is! With all the talk and analysis that goes on these days it astonishes me to think how little we talked about ourselves, how much we simply took for granted, for we were deeply in love. What we did was make plans, to find a house somewhere near Boston where Vicky could embark on publishing, for she knew exactly what she wanted to do, of course. She said things like, "You'll cook and I'll garden," and sometimes I laughed at her because she seemed so sure about everything.
"What if I don't want to cook?"
"Then you won't, that's all. We'll hire someone."
We were having a picnic in an olive grove, I remember, and it seemed to me that we were making a map of a new world, ours, and I knew I was committed to it. It was an extraordinary elation and sense of adventure that possessed me, and also, looking out over that peaceful landscape and its eternal images of olives and white oxen plowing in the distance, a sense of safety as though I had arrived at my destination after a long journey.
We are like the philopena in a double almond, I thought.
And now I have the same feeling, that Hatfield House will be the second great adventure for me, and that again I am arriving at my destination after the long journey through grief. And I am ready for whatever comes.CHAPTER 2
Today I have found the right place, I think, after weeks of searching first in Brookline, then in Wellesley, then in Somerville ... looking for the right neighborhood as well as a house I can afford. I am sure I want to be in a neighborhood of diverse kinds of people but they must be readers, after all. I had been looking for a Victorian house, if possible with a mansard roof, large enough for at least two rooms for the bookshop and where I could myself live upstairs. Everything that seemed possible was too expensive, or so said my lawyer, Jonathan Fremont, an old Bostonian WASP who is Vicky's executor and perhaps fears I may squander my inheritance. "You will lose money on this venture for some years before you can establish yourself, so you must be wary, Miss Hatfield."
Nevertheless, all caution to the winds, I knew when I saw the house in Somerville that this was it. Many academic people taking refuge from Cambridge prices have settled there recently and there is as well a large "working" community of what Vicky called "ordinary people": black, white, and Puerto Rican, Italian, Irish—a good mixture. When I saw the house I knew I had found the right nest. Downstairs there are three large rooms and a kitchen which I shall close off and use as a storeroom eventually. Upstairs, two big rooms plus a delightful old-fashioned bathroom with a copper tub in it, and a back room I shall convert into a small kitchen. There is a small barn where I can garage my car. What persuaded me was an atmosphere, a kind of distinction and charm that reached me at once, even though the place is rather run-down, needs paint and a lot of bringing back from years of neglect. In the front room there is a fireplace, I am glad to say, and that will be the center of the shop, with a round table perhaps and three or four comfortable chairs around it where customers can sit and browse.
I have been writing this late at night because I am too excited to sleep. I suppose I am a crazy old woman, but what fun it is to be free to be just that!
Fred, my older brother, who has now retired, has been unexpectedly quite a help. He volunteered to come and see the house, thought it a good investment much to my astonishment, and persuaded Mr. Fremont, who seems to regard me as some kind of incompetent old woman, that we should buy quickly. Somerville is changing rapidly, and all its real estate values are rising as a result of the influx of academic people.
"But is the business itself a good investment?" Mr. Fremont asked, his nose trembling slightly like a rabbit's, his right hand twiddling his watch chain.
"Of course not," Fred said. Oh how delighted I was! "Harriet is not going into this for money, but as a public service, what? And," he said pointedly, "surely Miss Chilton must have had some idea how her fortune would be spent, not on first-class round-the-world trips on the QE II, for instance!"
"I wonder what she did envisage," John Fremont murmured. "She was such a definite woman herself."
"Vicky never felt more at home than in a bookstore, you know," I ventured, "and actually our library will be an asset as I start building up an inventory ... if that is the word."
"You are not intending to sell the library?" Mr. Fremont was acutely upset and red in the face.
"Oh not the important first editions, not the books we loved, but there might be five thousand or more accumulated over the years and all in good condition."
"I can see that you have very clear ideas about all this," Mr. Fremont admitted grudgingly, "but you have no business experience, after all."
"I intend to hire an accountant, a business manager, whatever it is called."
"Very good, but you can expect, from what I hear, to lose money for at least five years."
"Where did you hear that?" Fred asked.
"I have made it my business to look into things."
At this I glanced over at Fred, who had taken out his pipe and was busy filling it. "It's going to take months to get work done in the house and it's my intention to make a survey of women's bookstores in various cities, talk to the managers, get some idea what the special problems and assets are. Do that while workmen are busy ..."
"It's to be a women's bookstore, is it?"
It was Fred who had asked the question, puffing a cloud of delicious sweet hay smell from his pipe, but I sensed at once a certain chill in the air emanating from both these men.
"What in hell is a women's bookstore? Books have no gender, do they?"
"Oh Fred," I winced, remembering all the times he had put me down when I wanted to ride a boy's bicycle, when I played Hamlet in a school production—always, it seemed, when I wanted to do something women were not supposed to do. He is five years older than I and his power always has been in his ability to make me feel ridiculous in some way. But at the same instant I realized with a sense of triumph that I had gone beyond his ironies now because I had money. I had real power to do what I wanted to do, regardless of what anyone might say.
And I plunged in forcefully. "The women's bookstores are the equivalent these days of men's clubs, I suppose. Places where women can talk to each other, find sustenance, and come to some idea of who they really are."
"And complain about how insensitive and brutal men like your brother are, I presume." Fred blew out a cloud of smoke.
There they were, already, I thought, two men who have no idea what I am up to and already resent whatever it may be. "Sorry, but my mind is made up. I know what I want to do and I am going to do it."
"Thanks to Victoria's money," said Mr. Fremont.
"Let me tell you something, Mr. Fremont. For thirty years I helped Vicky run her business. I kept the household going. I made the garden. I ran her errands. I considered myself, and I was, an active helpmeet. I have earned that money, and Vicky, I feel sure, would be the first to back this adventure of the bookstore."
"Are you so sure?" Fred asked, putting on now that familiar mask of knowing it all. "I did not get the impression that Vicky was a feminist."
That was, and he knew it, a body blow, for Vicky had been rather violently antifeminist. Like many powerful women with successful careers she was apt to identify with men rather than women and felt a little superior, perhaps, to women. "Any woman who proves that she can do successfully what men do, in her case running a publishing house, is by her action rather than her belief, a feminist." It was said vehemently out of my own convictions, but once said, I saw the humor of it, and laughed. "No feminist she, but don't you see she taught me to be one by being what she was?"
Excerpted from The Education of Harriet Hatfield by May Sarton. Copyright © 1989 Estate of May Sarton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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