When I first moved to Minnesota back in 1994 there was a bit of a May Sarton revival going on here. The Minnesota Women’s Press put out a free newspaper every two weeks that had a book section and blurbs about what their various book groups were reading. One of the groups was a May Sarton group reading everything she had ever written. I never joined any of the Women’s Press book groups because they weren’t free. Held in a big room of the Press offices in St. Paul and facilitated by a “professional” the price tag was heftier than I was willing to fork over. That didn’t keep me from reading any of the books though. And I did. I read about three or four of Sarton’s journals, her poetry, a biography, and a couple of novels. Then I noticed everything started feeling and sounding the same and I lost interest and haven’t read anything else by her until now.
The last bit, how Sarton started having a sameness about her is probably why, as I read The Small Room I kept having this feeling that I had read this book before. It seemed like I even remembered scenes from it. But combing back through my booklists I can’t find this book listed as one I had read. It is possible I read it and forgot to record but I will never know for sure. The feeling that I had read the book before didn’t stop me from enjoying, however.
The story takes place in the early 1960s. Lucy Winter arrives at a small New England all-girls college called Appleton to take up her first teaching position as a new professor of English literature. Lucy got her doctorate from Harvard because she needed something to do while her boyfriend went to med school. Lucy planned on marrying said boyfriend. But they break up and now she needs to work instead of be a wife.
Appleton is not a first-tier sort of college with the implication that it is partly because of the all-girls status. The atmosphere of the school is one of scholarship, however, and the professors strive to wake the girls up from their daydreams to try and take their studies seriously. When one of the girls turns out to have great potential she has the admiration and resources of the entire school behind her. One such student, Jane Seaman, is the particular protege of Carryl Cope, professor of Medieval Studies and a big fish in a small pond. Carryl is the university superstar and she invests everything in Jane’s success. Poor Jane cracks under pressure and is caught by Lucy plagiarizing an essay on The Iliad written by Simone Weil. The consequences of how the incident is handled creates a perfect storm in a teacup.
The plot provides many opportunities for ruminations by Lucy, by Carryl, and others on what it means to be a good teacher. There is also a weird and disturbing subset of the good teacher question that asks whether a woman scholar can have a well-rounded life or does she have to sacrifice everything in order to have a life of the mind. There is, of course, no doubt that men can be married with children and still be good teachers. There is a married male professor with children in the book. I don’t seem to recall that any of the women professors are married though Carryl enjoys a subtle lesbian relationship with the formidable Olive Hunt, an older, wealthy woman who is planning on leaving her estate to the college.
In the melee of university politics, the book also proposes a generation gap as part of the conflict. The university wants to hire a psychiatrist to provide therapy services for students in trouble. The younger generation of teachers is all for it, the older generation thinks it is ridiculous, and the middle generation is torn between the two. The psychiatrist issue is another means of examining what it means to be a good teacher.
The Small Room is an engaging, fast read. The tone is light which keeps it from being gloomy and preachy. And of course the question of what it means to be a good teacher is one that continues today; one that every new and experienced teacher no doubt wrestles with on a frequent basis.