May Sarton’s The Small Room was a satisfying, thought-provoking read. I’m a sucker for academic novels, so I was delighted to find out that this book is about a young woman who travels to small-town New England to begin her first college teaching job. Lucy Winter is fresh out of grad school, although she wasn’t your typical grad student: she went through her Ph.D. program merely because she wanted a reason to stay near her fiance who was in medical school. But now the engagement is over and she unexpectedly finds herself with a job. As the novel opens, she is on the train heading north to Appleton, a women’s college.
What she finds is a small, close-knit community that appears to be sleepy and peaceful. She goes to a beginning of semester cocktail party to meet fellow faculty and teaches her classes for the first time, all the while trying to figure out her role in this new place. She opens her first class with a long account of her educational life, hoping to make an impression on the students, but she immediately doubts herself afterward. She wants to do a good job and is willing to take risks in the classroom, but she knows she is not entirely sure what she is doing.
Of course, she can’t stay on the outside of this community for long, and, of course, it’s not nearly as sleepy and peaceful as it seems. She gets pulled into its dramas and intrigues through one of her students, a star pupil of the campus star professor. When she discovers this student has plagiarized, she immediately reveals it to a colleague, an act that sets a whole train of events in motion, events that not only cause controversy, but that make the college think hard about what it is and what it stands for.
The novel is fundamentally about teaching — what it means to be a teacher and a student and the ways the two can interact. Lucy struggles with the question of how much of herself she should share with her students. Her opening speech about her education starts things off on a personal note, but she is reluctant to respond warmly when a student shares her private troubles. She feels there should be boundaries between teachers and students, and she also knows that allowing those boundaries to drop away can be exhausting. Teaching demands a great deal of energy, and teachers need to protect themselves from giving up too much of themselves to others.
And yet strict boundaries are impossible to maintain: students are persistent in their efforts to get a personal response from Lucy, and once she stumbles into the plagiarism scandal, she is drawn even further into their lives.
The novel is also about what it means to be a woman who teaches. Early on one of the characters says, “Is there a life more riddled with self-doubt than that of a woman professor, I wonder?” The novel was published in 1961, and the question of whether it’s worth while to educate women who will just get married and raise children lingers in the air. The faculty at Appleton take a strong stand on this: as one character claims, “We don’t teach domestic science; we are not interested especially in producing marriageable young ladies.” Lucy wonders, though, what her own commitment to the intellectual life is, and what it would mean for her to stay on at Appleton. She wants a family, but with her engagement over and her life established in a quiet town full of married couples, she is not sure that will be possible. She considered her Ph.D. program as a joke, after all; does she really want to devote her life to scholarship and teaching, at the possible expense of other relationships? As I read this, I kept thinking about Dorothy Sayers’s novel Gaudy Night, which is also about women intellectuals struggling with the sacrifices the intellectual life can demand. In a culture that expects women to be wives and mothers or, if they want to take work seriously, to give up those roles, what is a smart woman supposed to do?
The novel is short and is a quick read, but it takes up a lot of great questions and offers some interesting answers. It’s satisfying to watch Lucy figure out who she is as a teacher and what she wants her place in the Appleton community to be. It’s also interesting to think about teaching generally — what really helps students learn and what roles a teacher can and can’t play. The novel shows well what a complicated job it is to try to inspire other people with the love of learning and at the same time to remain a satisfied, whole person oneself.