The Small Room by May Sarton

This is the first book which I have read by May Sarton and I did enjoy it. The book is set in a prestigious women’s college in America but I’m not absolutely sure what age the students are supposed to be, they did seem quite young to me which wasn’t helped by the fact that there seemed to be a habit of women calling younger women ‘child’.

Lucy Winter had only done her Ph.D at Harvard because her fiance had been studying at the medical school nearby but the relationship founders and she accepts a teaching post, not at all sure that it is the right thing for her to do.

I think the relationships between the staff of the college were written very well as I’ve experienced similar conversations amongst university lecturers at a time in my life when almost everybody I knew had a Ph.D.

Anyway, it isn’t long before Lucy discovers that Jane, a supposedly brilliant student has nicked somebody else’s work obviously thinking that nobody will ever find out because it had been published years ago. Jane is a protege of Prof. Carryl Cope who is very well thought of within the academic world and is convinced that Jane does possess a ‘brilliant mind’. We don’t have any evidence of it though and I do find it a weird concept given the fact that we are talking about history.

Much as I love books and literature/history in particular, brilliant is not the adjective which would spring to mind. Let’s face it, nobody studying for an arts degree is going to cure cancer or do anything else really important for the world. Have I been influenced by my Chemistry Ph.D. husband in this? I don’t think so, it’s just common sense.

I digress. Eventually the rest of the students hear that Jane has been caught plagiarising but it has been hushed up. They were already upset by the favouritism shown to Jane previously and they revolt. Unknown to the other students, Jane feels that Prof. Cope has been pushing her too hard and it is decided that she is in need of a psychiatrist. This decision causes more problems for the college as Olive Hunt, a very wealthy elderly patron is dead against the idea of the college employing a psychiatrist and has always said that she won’t leave the college her money if they go against her wishes.

The whole experience has torn the college apart and even threatened a marriage as people take opposing views of the situation.

Was it just a simple case of Carryl Cope identifying with the young Jane and therefore giving her special treatment or, given the fact that Carryl was a lesbian was she attracted by her? If Carryl had been a male professor he would definitely have been suspected of having an ulterior motive for his behaviour. Carryl’s long term relationship with Olive Hunt had fizzled out so perhaps that was the reason for singling Jane out for special attention. Or, did Carryl feel that her own intellectual abilities were waning hence her pressure on Jane to come up with ‘brilliant’ work. Profs. have been known to nick student’s work or at least take the kudos for it.

Does this sort of thing happen every year in every university? It’s a sad fact that there are students who manipulate university staff for their own gains, it happened 30 odd years ago when my husband was a student and it was in evidence again more recently when my son was at uni. Am I being too Presbyterian about the whole thing?
Probably but I just think that the same rules should apply to everyone.

I could say a lot more but I’ve gone on too long already. This was an interesting book which was first published in 1961.

I read The Small Room for Slaves of Golconda where there is a discussion on the book taking place at the moment.

12 thoughts on “The Small Room by May Sarton

  1. So glad you joined the Slaves! I definitely understand why the students were upset about the hushing up of Janes’ theft. I’d be pretty miffed too because I know full well if I had got caught doing something like that it would all be over and no one would be concerned about they whys and wherefors. Totally with you on how the same rules should apply to everyone.

    • Stefanie,
      I’m so glad you agree about the same rules for everyone. I know that a lot of people would probably think that nothing is so ‘black and white’, but when life can be so unfair for people, through no fault of their own, it makes it all the more important to have fair dealings whenever possible.
      I’m glad I joined the Slaves, such a good idea.

      • I think one reason I have tended to be quite strict in my policies about attendance and late assignments is that as a student, I took for granted that I was expected to come to class and turn things in on time–even, sometimes, at quite a lot of personal sacrifice, between jobs and other demands on my time. So I was always really annoyed if I saw another student casually turning a paper in late and apparently facing no consequences! But as I’ve been teaching longer I have come to see that being fair does not always mean treating everyone exactly the same: I ask my students to trust that if I’m making an exception to a clearly stated rule or policy, it’s because a student’s extraordinary circumstances warrant it–but also, that they should not ask for such an exception unless their circumstances are in fact extraordinary. Justice tempered with mercy! Or so I fondly believe. But I have been lied to, to my face, by many students over the years, and cheated on (plagiarism) and so forth, which definitely erodes my trust in what they tell me.

        I do think studying literature does a lot for the human condition! What would our world be worth without the arts? And how would we all live in it together–especially, but not exclusively–because more and more we need to understand history, and differences, and customs, and traditions, in as rich a way as possible, and to weigh so many factors in questions of ethics and so on? It’s the arts and humanities that foster understanding of the human context within which medicine is practised, or computers are programmed and used. Living a longer life is a wonderful gift–but what to use that gift of time for, after all?

        • Rohan,
          I can understand that there are times when students have to be given some lee way. Unfortunately, as you have found there are always going to be people who will take advantage of any situation. My husband is a teacher and I know that sometimes terrible things have happened to particular students but they just get on with life quietly and expect no special treatment. Often there will be a ‘drama queen’ type in the very same class, causing mayhem for no good reason and expecting all the attention. There are plenty of spoiled brats about and sadly no amount of literature is going to improve them.

          You are correct. It would be a desperately dull world without the arts and history. I say that as someone who is lucky enough to be able to visit some wonderful nearby museums and galleries which have become a home from home for me. History has always been a great love for me, but it frustrates me that people never seem to be able to learn lessons from it and so keep making the same mistakes. As I said previously, I’m not a science person at all.
          However there are many people of a scientific disposition who never pick up a work of fiction and I think that we just have to accept that it holds no interest for them. It doesn’t make them a bad person in the same way that someone only interested in literature is not a lesser person either. Thankfully, we are all different.
          But, if you ask the parents of a seriously ill child what is more important – research to cure their child or research in an arts subject, I know what the reply would be.

  2. ‘Let’s face it, nobody studying for an arts degree is going to cure cancer or do anything else really important for the world. Have I been influenced by my Chemistry Ph.D. husband in this? I don’t think so, it’s just common sense.’

    You’ve just broken my heart. I taught French literature at Cambridge for a decade or so. My feeling was that if more people actively considered their lives, and lived self-aware, mindfully, thoughtfully, the way that the study of literature (which is really the study of the human condition) encourages them to do, then they would have richer lives before whatever was going to kill them caught up with them.

    • litlove,
      Sorry about your heart, superglue required. To begin with I have to say that I’ve always been a literary person rather than a scientific one.
      I know what you mean and studying and teaching literature must be wonderful for the individual, but do you think it does much to improve the human condition? A friend of mine studied Philosphy, she loved it because all she did was sit around and talk for four years (Scotland) and that was it. Degree gained, had loads of babies, never got a job outside the home. I think that people doing arts degrees are often clueless about what they want to do. The scientists tend to be much more driven, which is just as well because the work load involved is enormous compared with that of an art/humanities student. I know from experience as my sons graduated recently. One in Computing and the other in Economics/Politics. The computing graduate did medical research developing computer software which helped with the early diagnosis and treatment of cancer and diabetes. Enabling people to live longer lives, which is really important if something nasty catches up with you when you’re still a young thing.

  3. We’ll have to agree to disagree, I think. At my university there is no difference in the workload for science and arts students, we work them all very hard. I don’t really think it’s fair to take one philosophy student as the prime example for the destiny of all arts students, and who’s to say that bringing up children well and thoughtfully isn’t an extremely valuable thing?

    I do think that the arts can make a difference because they teach us to look critically at our society and culture, and ask searching questions about ourselves. And I’m of the school of thought that believes change happens only at the level of the individual. As for science, it has given us weapons and biological warfare, wreaked havoc on the environment, wasted billions of pounds in research that hasn’t come off and has altered the way we think, and not in good ways – we’re seeing a lack of empathy and compassion, a greater inability to tolerate ambiguity, and an emphasis on knowledge over experience (that has lead to a denigration of older people because their life experience is no longer understood to be valuable), these things arising out of the shift towards a harder, black-and-white, fact-based form of thought. As we come across ever more morally taxing areas of science, like genetics, for instance, we need the training in philosophical thought to make good decisions about how best to use the possibilities that arise from it. It’s not just me saying this, I can list several books that make convincing cases for it. Anyhow, science hasn’t just done good things, whilst I don’t think the arts have ever hurt anyone (well, apart from starving, frustrated artists, perhaps!).

    But people have been having this arts vs sciences argument for a long time and to not much avail. The point is we need both for a balanced society. And I’m sorry to see you denigrating the arts so much.

    • litlove,
      I’m afraid we will have to agree to disagree. I don’t even agree that I denigrate the arts. I refer you to my reply to Rohan. I can assure you any spare time I have is spent visiting museums and galleries, not shops.
      I do have experience of five different very good universities and in all of them the work load for arts students is nothing like as heavy as that of the sciences. Of course science has been used for evil deeds over the years but that isn’t the fault of the scientists. As you say, it’s a never ending topic.
      I can’t agree that ‘the arts’ in the broadest sense of the terms has never harmed anyone. I can think of many books that have caused widespread misery in the world. I’m sure if you think about it you could too.
      Annoyingly, some people are so well rounded that they have success in both spheres. My husband is a scientist but he is also a published author of fiction. He says that he would accept your argument as an arts person more readily if you could spell “led” correctly. He adds that this pronunciation is only spelled “lead” when it refers to the metal, not as the past participle of the verb to lead.

    • “Wow, that is just so rude.”
      My husband says he’s sorry you feel that; he was merely highlighting the fact that Arts people can also make mistakes.

      “Here’s a link that argues the past participle of lead is ‘led’:”
      Yes. My husband says that was his point. You had it as “lead” though.

    • litlove,
      I hate arguments too. But I am entitled to my opinion and you decided to argue. It’s pointless. You know that modern phrase ‘a brain the size of a planet’ – you just never hear it said of anyone whose intellect is only arts based. My grouse was about the use of the word ‘brilliant’ being used to describe someone studying history. I still think it’s too strong but I can understand someone ‘talking up’ their own subject.

      Honestly, with best wishes.

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