HAMLET'S MOTHER

And Other Women

By Carolyn G. Heilbrun

Columbia University Press. 266 pp. $29.95END NOTES

"There are three kinds of people, as Carolyn Heilbrun herself might well say: those ahead of their time, those of their time, and the belated." So begins Nancy K. Miller's introduction to this collection of essays and speeches by her distinguished colleague at Columbia University. Dichotomies do not suffice to encompass Carolyn Heilbrun either, who herself is at least three kinds of people: professor, scholar and critic, wife and mother, and detective story writer. In her mid-sixties now, she has always been well ahead of her time.

To the many readers who made a bestseller last year of Heilbrun's heartening "Writing a Woman's Life," her new book should have much the same appeal. "Hamlet's Mother and Other Women" is also an exhilarating feminist account of various women novelists: Louisa May Alcott and May Sarton, for example, and, inevitably, Virginia Woolf. (There are three Woolf pieces here, including a fine one on Woolf and Joyce.) But the Blooms-buried or Blooms-bored may prefer Heilbrun's affectionate essays on less familiar writers of the same period. Some she introduced briefly in her previous book, like the adored-by-all English novelist Winifred Holtby who died so young. From the description of her golden beauty and her selflessness, and Phyllis Bentley's comment that "when she left it was as if brightness fell from the air," it occurs to me that Winifred may have been a model for the radiant, saintly heroine of Rebecca West's great trilogy "Cousin Rosamund."

Problems arise when a number of works composed over a span of years for various audiences are finally rounded up in a book. An unenterprising editor may simply trot them out chronologically and hope that an evolution will emerge; an ambitious editor may try to corral them into plausible categories. Both devices often fail because of the fractious diversity of the material. But here the challenge is just the opposite: not how to lump but how to split. Rejecting chronological order since all but one of these pieces are post-1973 -- "within my life as a declared and dedicated feminist," as the author writes -- she or her editor has grouped them in five sections under various rubrics. But all five parts could as well bear the title given only to the third: "Literature and Women."

Still, there are differences, primarily of genre. While the first three parts concentrate on drama, fiction and poetry (studies of Margaret Mead and Anna Freud excepted), the last is devoted to detective fiction, especially that of Dorothy Sayers, whose Oxford tales and Lord Peter Wimsey are irresistible. Heilbrun is the perfect commentator because, under the pseudonym Amanda Cross, she also writes highly literate mysteries with heroines set in academe.

Finally, two sections of this volume contain reprints of speeches Heilbrun delivered between 1977 and 1986, mostly to the Modern Language Association, of which she eventually became president. Rich in myth, literature, psychology, social history and feminist argument, these artful discourses are far more lively than one would reasonably expect, given the setting. Too lively for some. A "Southern gentleman scholar" once sat behind Heilbrun on the platform as she recounted the calamities of Arachne, Philomela and Penelope; later she was told that "if looks could kill I would have dropped dead on the spot."

Although now "fairly inured" to the indignation of certain male academics (of which she wrote in 1979 with bitter candor in "Reinventing Womanhood"), Heilbrun makes an interesting distinction. Responding to science-fiction writer Ursula LeGuin's assertion that her goal "was to subvert as much as possible without hurting anyone's feelings," Heilbrun claims that this was her ideal too, but not feasible since she was part of a powerful and male-dominated institution.

Yet if no longer as troubled by the (diminishing?) hostility of a (declining?) patriarchy, at present Heilbrun is "pained to find younger women deriding feminism, even though the positions they now occupy would not have been open to them without the efforts of others who dared to call themselves feminists." At the other extreme are the female separatists who politically choose to become lesbians because they so resent male power. Within this spectrum Carolyn Heilbrun, like Betty Friedan, once seen as so radical, is now widely regarded as moderate. Nothing could be better proof of their achievements.

The reviewer is a Washington critic and translator.