The Small Room
paper, 249 pages
The Small Room was first published in 1961, and it really does represent a byegone era. In some ways that is a very good thing. Lucy Winter, the main character in May Sarton's novel is a young woman who has recently earned her PhD; with her engagement called off, she turns to teaching almost as an afterthought. Lucy gets a position teaching English at an elite New England women's college, and enters the cloistered and intense environment of academia. This is the part I feel somewhat nostalgic for: it is all so intense; everyone talks about books, learning, relationships, and this is what the characters stake their life on--not careerism or advancement. And the assumption that a liberal arts education is a noble goal: now that seems quaint.
Put yourself in a past not unlike that of television's Madmen (everyone in this book smokes) only very intellectual. Women in college are still girls, and it is presumed that only some of them will be scholars. Of course, if they are scholars, they will probably be like the redoubtable Carryl Cope, whose lesbian relationship with a wealthy donor to the college is an open secret. Learning matters in this world, and so do the relationships between student and teacher. As a new teacher, and a teacher not even sure of her profession, Lucy Winter is trying to walk the fine line between mentoring the student and mentoring the woman. Lucy is uncomfortable with the personal disclosures of one student, and asks herself constantly whether she is too close or too distant in her relationships with students. The scenes in the classroom are very well written and emotionally resonant. I found this interesting, since it is a question May Sarton poses often in her Journal of a Solitude--how close can she or should she allow others to come. Sarton was evidently both warm and loving and extremely private and reserved. The character of Lucy at times seems like a stand-in for Sarton--her inwardness, her self-doubt.
The conflict in the novel comes when Carryl Cope's protege, a brilliant young scholar named Jane Seaman, is discovered to have plagiarized an essay due to be published in the college's journal. Lucy makes the discovery, and has the unpleasant, and possibly career-threatening duty of reporting what she has found.
The rest of the novel focuses on the turmoil and moral quandaries caused by Lucy's discovery. The novel delves into the moral and ethical questions of teaching, of relationships, and of the responsibility of a teacher toward her student. What should the relationship be between a student and a teacher; should the teacher, must the teacher give of herself personally as well as professionally? The act of teaching is about relationships, and that makes it quite different from most other professions. The beauty of The Small Room is that May Sarton renders those relationships with a miniaturist's paintbrush.
I loved The Small Room. I highly recommend this novel for those who like May Sarton's books and for those interested in teaching or the liberal arts.