Help me choose a title for this post

I gave up trying to choose an appropriate title for this post about The Education of Harriet Hatfield by May Sarton and about Sarton in general. After you read this post, maybe you can let me know which one you think is most appropriate. The contenders are:

  • May Sarton is a goddess
  • Want to read a book about opening a bookstore?
  • If you don’t believe me just ask Rachel
  • The best author you only kind of know about
  • If you don’t try May Sarton we can’t be friends
  • Your next favorite author with a long back list
  • Cosy, literate, New England Lesbian seeks readers for mutual fulfillment
  • You don’t have to be a Lesbian to love this Lesbian

I have said much on My Porch about how much I love May Sarton. I waxed so rhapsodic about The Magnificent Spinster that I convinced Rachel at Book Snob to give her ago. And Rachel, as it turns out, loved it.

Still not convinced? Try this on for size: sixty year old Harriet whose wife of 30 years passes away and leaves her a legacy. With the money she decides to open a women’s bookshop. Harriet knows she is going to lose money at least for the first few years, but she opens it because she wants a place where women from all walks of life can gather and meet each other. This is not only a fun topic for those of us who love books and bookstores, but, having been published in 1989 it hearkens back to the day when opening a bookstore didn’t seem as crazy as it does now. Although Sarton is silent on the matter, this was a time when the Barnes and Noble juggernaut was steaming its way across the country. Remember how worried we were about independent booksellers back then? We were right to be, the big boxes certainly did their damage to the little guys. But now those days seem positively golden compared to the e-book and Amazon nightmare we are now embroiled in.

Upping the nostalgia factor, Harriet opens a women’s bookstore like the kind so perfectly satirized on the TV show Portlandia (see video below). For me this conjures up my early college years when Alison Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For followed a group of women whose lives were often centered around Madwimmin Books. Incidentally, when I was in college in the late 1980s the women’s bookstore in Minneapolis was actually called Amazon Books believe it or not. It was a wonderful shop, wonderfully located across the street from an urban park in the heart of the city which was also the heart of the Twin Cities Gay Pride Festival very June. These were the days when my roommate Becky and her girlfriend Kristi bought me a button that read “Honorary Lesbian”. (I used to always comment to them on how I preferred the Lesbian personal ads over the gay men’s ads.)

Okay, back to Sarton’s book: with her dog as companion, the recently widowed Harriet opens her bookstore in the a diverse blue-collar neighborhood of Boston. She meets wonderful people and she is confronted by a animus from a less than understanding neighborhood that thinks she is peddling smut and providing a safe haven for homos. She is also forced to confront her grief over the loss of Vicky and her own identity. That is, having spent 30 years in a Lesbian relationship but being old fashioned enough to never have really thought of herself as Lesbian.

Sarton’s novel also shows how much the LGBTQ landscape has changed since 1989 (in fact, in 1989 the BTQ’s existed but weren’t really part of the discussion in the way they are today).

I loved, loved, loved this book. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it so made be want to know Harriet and her customers and to sit for a while in one of the comfy chairs in her store.

Other posts about May Sarton
How I discovered her and a review of her journal Plant Dreaming Deep
My review of The Magnificent Spinster
My review of he sad and wonderful As We Are Now

And just in case you are wondering what else she has written (from Wikipedia):

Poetry books[edit]

  • Encounter in April (1937)
  • Inner Landscape (1939)
  • The Lion and the Rose (1948)
  • The Land of Silence (1953)
  • In Time Like Air (1958)
  • Cloud, Stone, Sun, Vine (1961)
  • A Private Mythology (1966)
  • As Does New Hampshire (1967)
  • A Grain of Mustard Seed (1971)
  • A Durable Fire (1972)
  • Collected Poems, 1930-1973 (1974)
  • Selected Poems of May Sarton (edited by Serena Sue Hilsinger and Lois Brynes) (1978)
  • Halfway to Silence (1980)
  • Letters from Maine (1984)
  • Collected Poems, 1930-1993 (1993)
  • Coming Into Eighty (1994) Winner of the Levinson Prize
  • From May Sarton’s Well: Writings of May Sarton (edited by Edith Royce Schade) (1999)


  • I Knew a Phoenix: Sketches for an Autobiography (1959)
  • Plant Dreaming Deep (1968)
  • Journal of a Solitude (1973)
  • A World of Light (1976)
  • The House by the Sea (1977)
  • Recovering: A Journal (1980)
  • Writings on Writing (1980)
  • May Sarton: A Self-Portrait (1982)
  • At Seventy: A Journal (1984)
  • After the Stroke (1988)
  • Encore: A Journal of the Eightieth Year (1993)
  • At Eighty-Two (1996)


  • The Single Hound (1938)
  • The Bridge of Years (1946)
  • The Return of Corporal Greene (1946)
  • Shadow of a Man (1950)
  • A Shower of Summer Days (1952)
  • Faithful are the Wounds (1955)
  • The Birth of a Grandfather (1957)
  • The Fur Person (1957)
  • The Small Room (1961)
  • Joanna and Ulysses (1963)
  • Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing (1965)
  • Miss Pickthorn and Mr. Hare (1966)
  • The Poet and the Donkey (1969)
  • Kinds of Love (1970)
  • As We Are Now (1973)
  • Crucial Conversations (1975)
  • A Reckoning (1978)
  • Anger (1982)
  • The Magnificent Spinster (1985)
  • The Education of Harriet Hatfield (1989)

Children’s books[edit]

  • Punch’s Secret (1974)
  • A Walk Through the Woods (1976)

For extra fun, check out this clip from Portlandia.

10 thoughts on “Help me choose a title for this post

  1. Ti July 15, 2013 / 1:59 pm

    Any of those titles would have been perfect, including the one you decided to go with.

    I have to read this book. After your write-up, I can't resist.


  2. Gilion Dumas July 15, 2013 / 8:12 pm

    The Portlandia tie-in is perfect! I hope the bookstore in the book wasn't so crazy!

    I have The Fur Person on my TBR shelf. So I promise to give Mary Sarton a try. Although I don't know if her book about her cat will be the best example.


  3. vicki (skiourophile) July 16, 2013 / 6:09 am

    I **LOVED** her Joanna & Ulysses, and have two more to read next – The Fur Person and Mrs Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing. She is a great find. Maybe someone should do a reading week to spread the love?!


  4. Nan July 16, 2013 / 10:31 am

    I love each of your May Sarton postings. I have a whole 'book bag' (list to borrow) at my local library. What you wrote about never thinking of herself as a Lesbian is so sad, and I'm sure very true of many people in older times.


  5. Chris Wolak July 17, 2013 / 1:16 am

    Wow, I had no idea she was that prolific! I read “Education” many moons ago but was too young/immature at the time to appreciate it. I've had it in the back of my mind to read more of her journals though. So far have only read Journal of a Solitude.


  6. Ruthiella July 17, 2013 / 11:06 pm

    For broad appeal “Want to read a book about opening a bookstore?” would probably work best, but my favorite is “If you don't try May Sarton we can't be friends”. What can I say? Negative reinforcement works for me. With that in mind, while I haven't actually read any May Sarton yet, I have, since following your blog, purchased second hand copies of “Crucial Conversations” and “Journal of a Solitude”. Plus my library has lots of her titles… If someone does sponsor a reading week as Vicki suggests, that might be the kick in the pants I need. I did read TWO Barbara Pyms thanks to you and Amanda (loved, loved, loved Excellent Women, BTW).


  7. Thomas Otto July 19, 2013 / 12:07 pm

    Ti: She is definitely worth looking into.

    Gilion: The Fur Person definitely feels like May Sarton, but probably will not grab you in the way Sarton can.

    Vicki: I haven't read J and U. Mrs. Stevens is my least favorite. If I had started with that one I am not sure I would have continued.

    Nan: Well the good thing is that she lived as a Lesbian even if she didn't call herself one.

    Stefan: You do need to watch Portlandia. Go to Netflix and start from the beginning.

    Chris: I have read many of her novels and journals, but never any of her poetry.

    Ruthiella: So glad Pym worked for you. Crucial Conversations is interesting but perhaps not as emotionally compelling. Her journals are wonderfully calming even when everything she is relating isn't.


  8. agoodstoppingpoint July 22, 2013 / 4:53 pm

    I'd seen another Portlandia sketch with that same bookstore but I think I like the one you picked better. I have May Sarton's The House by the Sea on my to-read list and my note on the list names you/your blog as the recommendation source, so I haven't forgotten that I need to try her.


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