May Sarton’s 1961 novel, The Small Room, was a perfect read for me. It’s the story of Lucy Winter, newly qualified teacher in American literature and headed off for her first job as instructor at an all women’s college, Appleton. It’s a bittersweet moment for her, the excitement of a fresh start but undercut by the sorrow that comes from the recent breaking off of an engagement. Had the relationship lasted, she would be getting married rather than starting work, and Lucy doesn’t hold out the highest hopes for loving her new profession. But as soon as she arrives, the sheer charisma of the faculty members she meets draws her in, and the students turn out to pose wholly unexpected problems.
Like all colleges, Appleton contains its resident luminaries, and professor in medieval history, Carryl Cope, is Appleton’s. A formidable woman, brilliant, forthright and yet capable of sympathy, Professor Cope attracts Lucy and intimidates her at the same time. Lucy is intrigued to find that Carryl Cope’s pet student, the supposedly outstanding Jane Seaman has signed up for her American literature classes. Jane turns out to be an awkward creature, supercilious, cold, unresponsive. But far worse is to come when Lucy discovers by chance that an award-winning essay she has written turns out to be an act of direct plagiarism. The incident rocks Appleton to the core; Jane’s crime is so serious that she should by rights be expelled for it, yet the subsequent smear on her record will put paid to any chances she might have of continuing her education elsewhere. Is this an appropriate punishment, then, when it seems that Jane’s action stems from the strain of expectation and pressure that has been placed upon her? And yet not enacting punishment looks like a very unfair and unpleasant form of favouritism, one that shows up the power of Carryl Cope and tars Jane with the sins of nepotism as well. Beyond this personal drama lies a further tricky question: the college is considering taking on a resident psychiatrist to deal with exactly this sort of problem, but the main sponsor of the college, Olive Hunt, who also happens to be Carryl Cope’s partner, is virulently against the idea and threatening to donate her millions elsewhere. The situation is complex and highly charged.
I thought this was a wonderfully written book, compelling and full of psychological insight. What I appreciated most about it was the exploration into the relationship between teachers and students and whether this should – or indeed ever could – remain wholly impersonal. But why this book struck me so was because it seemed to be talking directly to me about my life as it was spent in the university. For instance, Lucy is reflecting on the early weeks of her teaching and the difficulties of teaching Thoreau to a class of students who had thoroughly disliked him, and were not afraid to say so:
‘This was exhausting but exhilarating, quite different from one of the freshman sections which seemed like a huge passive elephant she had to try to lift each morning. At times Lucy felt desperation, as if she would never catch up, never be really prepared for the next day, or that her head would burst with the sustained hours of concentration she must ask of herself. She marveled at how much vitality was required’.
And as I read this I was transported back to my own early days (and indeed the later ones, the exhausting-ness of teaching never really seemed to fade) and thinking, so it’s not just me, then? This IS how it feels to teach. Goodness knows I have lifted enough passive elephants in my own time. So I had that utterly poignant experience of reading a novel that placed my own experience before my eyes and offered solidarity, always a special and unexpected sort of moment. And yet, because of this, I have no real perspective on this book. I loved it and I felt I had lived it; it gave back to me that experience with the gloss of meaning and the reassurance of its real and irreducible complexity. But others, I know, will not necessarily feel that way. I read this book for the Slaves of Golconda, and in a brief email exchange in anticipation of our posting on it this weekend, one other Slave described the book as ‘odd’. Now, I feel fairly sure that my own experience was odd, in its way, and so I am full of curiosity to read the others’ reviews and can’t wait for the discussion. But I’ll certainly be seeking out and reading more May Sarton. Her cool, insightful, intelligent style really appealed.