While the photographer is present, her hands rest demurely folded in her lap, stationary, well-bred hands, tightly clasped. "Everyone I meet says, 'Oh, you're so much better looking than your pictures,'" she says mildly. Then, later, "Cheekbones are essential." She does not have prominent cheekbones; she has a large, soft face, and regards the camera with civilized distaste. "Always, I'm a nervous wreck," she sighs. And yet, for the longest time, photographs were as much a manifestation of her external life as the words she and her husband spoke publicly.

Even when the photographer leaves, Abigail McCarthy allows her hands to move only fractionally from their base, as if fearful that once free, they might stray too far. Her writing is very much like that.

At 62, she has just come out with what is known as a Washington novel, its main departure from the usual kind being that women figure prominently in it. It is called "Circles," and although its focal point is the attempt of a senator to become President, it is not at all autobiographical.

The book emerges two years after its author wrote an article that began, "It is quite likely that i will never finish the Washington novel at which I have been at work this past year." Washington novels, explained Abigail McCarthy, are never very gripping.

"Take them all one by one," she wrote despairingly. "In Washington novels, one-dimensional and allegorical figures -- not real human beings -- move beneath the large proscenium of a city which dwarfs them and their concerns."

And -- as Abigail McCarthy says now -- "It's an awful thing to write a novel after you've said that."

She seems somewhat nervous about her book, a mood that corresponds with her tentative smile. What I was trying to do was use the power struggle as a setting for all these human relationships. But I was very uncertain about it. Almost to the point of trying to take it back."

It is not, of course, her first attempt at writing, one of those earlier flights having resulted long ago in an article called "How to Get Along With Other Women."

More important, five years ago she wrote "Private Faces/Public Places," an autobiography that detailed very precisely the life she spent as a young teacher freshly emerged from her native Wabasha, Minn., and then with Eugene McCarthy, who was to become the ephemeral hero of the anti-war movement. It was written --like her novel -- in rather discreet, lady-like prose.

"I don't think that's what you mean," she writes in a letter following the interview.

"I think it's an imprecise term unless you would characterize the writing of James Edith Wharton, Fitzgerald, even Gore Vidal in his 'Julian' as ladylike. I don't compare myself to them, but I think I write in that tradition -- the non-introspective, non-experimental writing of the observer. . ."

But "ladylike" is, in fact, exactly what one means; there seems to be a curious remoteness in Abigail McCarthy, a bemused distance between herself and those she writes about, between herself and herself, for that matter. Discussing the break-up of her marriage to Eugene McCarthy, who still lives here, who is also a writer, she is more philosophical than explanatory. She accorded it very short shrift in her autobiography, and so one must ask -- Why?

"To tell you the truth, I don't suppose I know, either," she replies. "What happened to us, happens so often in our society. People say, 'You don't write about it.' I think they see something hidden, but it isn't. There were tensions in the campaign. . . So many ups and downs, frustrations, and unfulfilled desires."

She shrugs almost imperceptibly at the next question. "I certainly don't regret the marriage. I think one of the things people find so annoying about me -- well, I don't mean to annoy -- but I don't want to deny (the marriage)."

A slow smile creases her face as she says apologetically, "I hope this doesn't sound too female, but I couldn't imagine my life without the children."

There are four of those, one of whom has just come for a visit. He is Michael, her 25-year-old, who is (inevitably) a photographer; she steals a look at her only son before continuing:

"I Try to think what would I have been otherwise. Well, I know my talents. I was valedictorian of my high school class. My mother and father thought I was a child prodigy.

"Seriously, they did," she insists, although this statement had not been contested. "They taught me to read before I even entered school. But I didn't want any of that too much. I never had any drive for fame of my own.

"So I try to think -- what would I have been? Well, maybe I might have been a president of a small college some day. But I never would have had as interesting a life as the one I had married to Gene."

Well, are they still friendly?

She considers briefly. "Yes -- in a sort of limited way."

"Spacey," supplies her son.

"What?" She looks unsettled, but amused. "Oh. Spacey. Yes, well, we talk quite often about mutual problems. . . I can't say that we're really friends. Just that there is so much basic experience and knowledge we have in common. The basic fact remains, we are separated. . . I wouldn't have chosen to get separated, myself. But I can certainly see it liberated me. That I've grown and become free in a way I never was before.

"But" -- Abigail McCarthy laughs out loud for the first time -- "but I'm not recommending it." Sainthood and Grace

"Why do you want to marry him anyway?" a perturbed young man demanded of Abigail Quigley when she announced her intention of living out her life with Gene McCarthy.

Well, if you really want to know," she replied, "because I think I have a better chance of being a saint that way."

Not exactly the most conventional explanation for choosing a husband, even for one who picks and chooses her conventions. Abigail McCarthy is asked if she was serious about her urge for sainthood. She nods gravely.

"I think I was probably serious. I grew up a very average Catholic. I mean" -- she smiles wryly -- "I was just normally pious. But I was segmented. Because I was brought up, too, in a liberal family. And the church had not done much on the social scene, and you tended to find that your heroes were in the cooperative movement, or some of our Marxists. They were just separate.

"Then there came this great resurgence in the church, and everything seemed to be coming together. In graduate school I discovered the great mystics. It was" -- another grin -- "it was a born-again experience. I mean that, though, in the Catholic sense. So I was quite serious about that remark. And at the time, you know -- well, at that time our ideals were the same."

At that time -- or rather, a bit before that time -- their ideals may have coincided but their ambitions differed. Gene McCarthy wanted to become a priest for awhile.

And she -- well, Abigail McCarthy accepted her fiance's decision with tears, but also with amazing stoicism, shocking good grace.

"Well, see, you just had this idea," she explains, "well if God wanted it --who were you?" Two Abigails

And now? Has she changed much over the years?

"I don't know." She turns to her son. "Mike? Do you think I've changed."

He shakes his head. "Um. I don't think so. Not terribly much. Same general attitude."

She pursues it. "Which is what?"

"Well, I think you were flexible in your attitudes. In the last 10 years you've been exposed to different sorts of people. From nuns to a guy who was sort of a Weatherman. Yes, he was the type who'd come to my mother for reasonable advice."

Abigail McCarthy smiles, pleased. "Motherly advice." She ponders that a second, the smile unabated. "See people who knew me when I was young, see me and say, 'Same old Abbie.' [word illigible]

"But people who knew me [word illigible] political wife, say 'Oh, how you changed!' So I think-there must have been two different me's.

"But you know this whole business of The New Kind of Political Wife -- yes, well, I just saw an interview with Muriel Humphrey, and she said, in effect. 'We were all doing those things 30 years ago in Minnesota and taking them for granted.'

"So I think we started a lot of things and took them for granted. Part of it is, this Washington thing. People don't look at wives."

When Abigail McCarthy was still a wife, and a political wife at that, she took the job as seriously as she takes herself. When her husband wanted to be president, she advised her children on how to reply to the press: Whatever they ask, don't worry about. Just get around to your line.

"By which she meant," Michael McCarthy recounts with obvious relish, "the anti-war line." He chuckles to himself. "When they'd ask a question, we'd reply, 'That's not the question. The real question is' -- and you'd get around to your line."

But when Abigail McCarthy was no longer a political wife, when, as she writes, "Gene left our home in August of 1969," she still had the persona of Abigail McCarthy. It was an important thing to have. There was no alchemy involved -- before her marriage she'd written short studies and articles -- but she turned it in a very important thing.

"If I could advise anyone getting married," she says, "I'd say: Keep a part of your life for yourself. It wasn't as if one day I had something and the next day I had nothing at all. My life wasn't that much different.

"And as for people's reaction, well . . ."She glances up sharply. "Suppose you lost your job tomorrow. All of a sudden you become a little infectious, don't you?" Please Read It All

"I suffer," says Abigail McCarthy, "from being out in front. I think it's conditioning. It was easy for me to speak for Gene. But not for me to go on a talk show and speak for myself.

She doesn't want to be portrayed mainly in terms of her relationship to Gene McCarthy. She wants people to know she writes for Commonweal. She tells you that. There are, in addition, a number of other suggestions, some of which arrive in a letter following the interview, which begins, "Please read it all, even if it's a supreme effort!" And which goes on to say, "Don't tell anyone how old Eric is, also please!" er huge boxer, a delapidated, rheumy-eyed dog who wheezes with every step.

And she would also like to respond more succinctly to questions she has already tackled orally.

"DO I STILL WANT TO BE A SAINT?

"I think so -- but my idea of what a saint is has probably changed. I think being a saint means trying to be as completely as you can what you were created to be. . . It involves the acceptance of the uniqueness of every other person, the effort not to hurt others, and the effort to be 'a man for others. . .'

"DO I REGRET GENE IN THE PASTOR OR NOW, AND ARE WE FRIENDS?

". . . I think now we are like people who were very close on a long voyage. . . but who now have different lives. I occasionally regret the Gene who was, but not the Gene who is --a comparative stranger to me who I, nevertheless, think is interesting and whom I wish well."

Back in her home, she speaks of the effects of the break-up with the same relative detachment.

"People say Washington is a hard town. I can't say, though, that I lost a lot of friends in the process. The wives went right on being friends. But some of the men were a little wary until they saw which way the wind was blowing.

"But once the book was out (her autobiography) and I had an identity of my own -- well, I had no idea it would be received that well -- it was easier.

"There were only a few people I felt were really quite awful. I thought I'd been very good friends to them over the years."

She purses her lips in an exasperated smile. "In season, and out of season. And for reasons of insecurity, they were afraid to be friends."

She leans back in her chair, takes a sip of coffee. Eric wheezes by, demanding love; she obliges him. then she resumes her train of thought, an endless thread she always, somehow, manages to retrieve before it's too late.

"Then too," she concludes cheerfully, "I always felt about Washington. . . You come. You go. You're up. You're down. But it's always an interesting show. I wouldn't leave Washington. I look on it as my town. I find I'm much more relaxed with people now. Because really, it doesn't matter to me, whether they invite me or don't invite me.

"Yes," says Abigail McCarthy. "I think that's the only way to look at Washington. It's a very interesting show."