Nostalgia for the fun-loving '50s may be blossoming now, but the era was no hothouse for the flowering of feminism. In "Class Notes," Kate Stimpson joins the recent group of writers, like Marilyn French in "The Women's Room," who portray women coming of age in this time of spaghetti-strap formals and priming for marriage.
"Class Notes" is a straightforward tale of a smart girl from a small town who discovers herself after four years at a first-rate Eastern women's college and a stay in New York. Harriet Elizabeth Springer gets good grades, but isn't popular; dreams, as her mother does for her, of escaping the Pacific Northwest town of her youth; attends Harwyn College, where her friends include a tall, moody Army brat, Sloan Trouver, who flirts with lesbian love. The split between Harriet's adolescence and college, the desirability of the new world, is made very clear: "She was not home in Northville. Here [at Harwyn] Louisa Lacey alluded to Mozart; there Darlene Le-Sueur rhapsodized about Johnny Mathis."
In New York Harriet works as a researcher for a second-rate encyclopedia, then as assistant to a beauty-advice columnist. She has few friends; but, when she campaigns for reform political candidates, she meets Marcia, the first woman to become her lover. Throughout "Class Notes" Harriet's feelings about women -- her attractions, needs, denials, guilt, her struggle to understand them -- have been an important theme. Finding herself means acknowledging these desires. The prose style of the didactic, almost clinical moment of discovery clashes, however, with the tentative explorations that have come before. Stimpson considers the Harriet who hesitated to embrace lesbian love: "If that Harriet were to be Harriet, she would rule out possibility. Care would become constriction, constriction cowardice. That Harriet would rein in and regulate those impulses that were urging another Harriet to explore the world of the body and the self, to transform for herself those drives that had compelled her ancestors to march and struggle across a continent."
For most of "Class Notes," however, Harriet is not decisive or active. She is, rather, both product and symbol of her times. She seems almost stubbornly passive, reacting internally to events without expressing the frustrations or unhappiness she feels. She submits to painful electrolysis to remove hair from her upper lip: "Harriet wanted to pull off the mask, tear the needles out of her face and run away. But what would her mother... say?" She condemns the D.A.R. for bigotry to herself, but accepts their State Good Citizen award; lets the father of a college friend insult her; loses her virginity to a Frenchman who keeps himself covered with a robe, not expecting him to make love to her.
This tentativeness, this asking less of life, makes her less interesting than the sum of the supporting characters. They provide the period background against which her tale of growing up is played. Overdramatic, enigmatic Sloan can get away with lines like: "Look at the dogwood trees.'... 'In the spring we can see marks on the petals... like stigmata.'... 'I wonder if my stigmata will ever show.'" Dr. Hill, Harriet's boss at the encyclopedia, calls his staff the "Hill Climbers" and explains: "'Every morning at ten we get our coffee, and then we sit together in my office and chat about current affairs. It gives us a sense of perspective on the past.'" And Mrs. Bennett, Harwyn's Career Office director, capsulizes the irony of the decade when she says. "'A Harwyn education is a wonderful background for an enduring marriage.'"
The irony of "Class Notes," its wry look at Harriet's environment and her achievements in spite of it, is less inherent in the story itself than in the perspective gained from the passage of 20 years. In the '50s and early '60s society assumed more readily than now that women, even the best educated, would marry; that, leaving a school like Radcliffe or Vassar, they would start careers as secretaries; that their sex lives would be straight, their experiments secret and brief. The success of this novel depends on our willingness to no longer assume such things, and to understand how they create and define Harriet's struggles and measure her success. Otherwise, "Class Notes" is merely chronicle with no meassage; and because it relies on a cognizant reader, it set its own limits. It should appeal most to those who have had a similar experience, or share similar smpathies with Stimpson and the Harriet who emerges.