The Small Room (thoughts)
I read The Small Room by May Sarton in one quiet Sunday about a week, week and a half ago. It was my second book for the Outmoded Authors Challenge. I’d heard good things about May Sarton, from visiting some of the other participants, and the setting of this book really appealed to me.
In The Small Room, we follow a young woman who suddenly finds herself (after the unexpected end of an engagement) a first-year professor at a small, private women’s liberal arts college in New England. Just as she’s settling in, getting to know the other professors of her department (English Literature), working out how to relate to students, adjusting to life in a small town, a case of plagiarism threatens to rip the community apart.
I went to a small private liberal arts college, and while it was co-ed and in the Midwest, I still felt back on campus through Sarton’s descriptions. At my college, a charge of plagarism was dealt with more seriously than a charge of rape (of course, that’s a whole different issue that I won’t get into here): we had an Honor Code and an Honor Board and violating that led to an immediate expulsion. So, I understand the way that such an event could seriously affect a lot of people, their lives and their beliefs. Also, the issue of endowments was a big one at my school, and it plays an important role in Sarton’s book as well; one of the president’s most important jobs (if not the most important) is to raise money for the school. I loved seeing such a college through the eyes of a professor, rather than a student.
I was also intrigued by the main character’s struggle to balance her relationship with her students; she didn’t want to become personally attached to them. Instead, she wanted a strong academic relationship without any other committment. I became very close to two of my professors while at college; I’d say with one of them, the relationship stayed almost entirely academic, however with the other one it was much more personal. In my experience, the relationship between me and both of these professors changed dramatically in my senior year; they really started to treat me almost more like a peer than a child. It was an interesting transition, at times disconcerting, and Sarton’s work brought all of that back as well.
I’ve been trying to decide what Sarton’s biggest strength as a writer is, but the truth is that she’s got all the bases covered. Her quick sketches of the campus, or a classroom, or an apartment immediately made the setting live in my mind. Her characterisation felt very true, and she has the talent of showing a character’s flaws while still making them sympathetic. Her plotting, while quiet, is very satisfying; the ending of the book didn’t leave me frustrated or annoyed. And her writing style is unostentatious but powerful.
In other words, I’ll definitely be reading more of May Sarton in the future. I highly recommend The Small Room to anyone interested in collegiate life; while it’s set in the fifties or sixties, it barely feels dated. Instead, it shows what happens when people suddenly have to decide what their values are and whether or not to stand up for them. Unfortunately, I can’t find my copy right now (my room’s a bit of a disaster zone), but when I do I’ll share my favourite passages!