The Small Rain

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The Small Rain
cover of the 1984 edition of The Small Rain
Author Madeleine L'Engle
Cover artist Sam Salant
Country United States
Language English
Series Katherine Forrester
Genre Bildungsroman (coming of age novel)
Publisher Vanguard Press (1945)
Farrar, Straus & Giroux (1984)
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 371 pp
ISBN 0-374-26637-9
OCLC 10932055
813/.54 19
LC Class PS3523.E55 S5 1984
Preceded by 18 Washington Square, South: A Comedy in One Act (play)
Followed by Ilsa

The Small Rain is a semi-autobiographical novel by Madeleine L'Engle, about the many difficulties in the life of talented pianist Katherine Forrester between the ages of 10 and 19. Published in 1945 by the Vanguard Press, it was the first of L'Engle's long list of books, and was reprinted in 1984. L'Engle began work on it in college, and completed it while an actress in New York.[1]

Plot summary[edit]

Young Katherine has not seen her mother Julie in three years, since the latter was in an accident that ended her career as a pianist. Katherine has been studying piano herself, doing a little professional acting, and living with "Aunt Manya", a family friend known to the rest of the world as Madame Sergeivna, a famous actress on the Broadway stage. When she is ten, Katherine is reunited with Julie, and lives with her until Julie's premature death four years later.

Manya marries Katherine's father, a composer named Tom Forrester, with whom Katherine has a cordial but not especially close relationship, making Katherine doubly distant from the two of them. However, after a while, Manya's love for her begins to melt Katherine's iciness. However, just as Katherine starts truly loving Manya, Tom and Manya send her away to a boarding school in Switzerland. She is miserable there, unable to make connections with the other girls or the teachers, who are mostly cold and autocratic; in addition, her piano teacher doesn't mesh with her at all. This continues until Justin Vigneras, the piano teacher she was originally meant to study with but who was away at the beginning of the term, comes back. Katherine adores him, and is gratified that there is finally someone at school who understands and supports her passion for music and her need to practice. She also learns to get along better with her peers after the arrival of Sarah Courmont, a girl she previously met briefly on her seventh birthday in New York; the two begin to form an intense friendship. However, school officials misinterpret that friendship as another deep attraction, and Sarah becomes distant with Katherine after Miss Valentine interrogates the girls. Just as Katherine's relationship with Justin begins to develop into a closer relationship, he leaves the school.

After suffering through the rest of school without Justin or the Sarah she once knew and a brief romance with Charles Bejart, a young physician and Manya's adopted son, Katherine returns to New York. There she studies with her mother's old teacher, whose style is extremely intense and different from Justin's, shares an apartment with Sarah, who is now an actress, and becomes engaged to Pete, who used to help look after Katherine at Manya's theater. She also meets Felix Bodeway, Sarah's friend, who appears in A Severed Wasp, though she's not often comfortable with the shady, questionable world that he seems to represent. Ultimately Katherine is betrayed by both Pete and Sarah, as Pete and Sarah become romantically involved with each other. Katherine leaves them behind and, upon Manya's urging, returns to Justin, ostensibly to study with him in Paris.

Major characters[edit]

  • Katherine Forrester (Vigneras) — Pianist. Main character of The Small Rain and A Severed Wasp. In The Small Rain, Katherine Forrester is a gifted but socially isolated adolescent studying to be a concert pianist at a strict boarding school. Katherine reappears in A Severed Wasp as an old woman (now Katherine Vigneras, from her marriage to her piano teacher and mentor Justin) looking back on her life and career while facing new dangers as she renews her acquaintance with Felix Bodeway. Katherine Vigneras also appears very briefly in A Ring of Endless Light playing a recital that Vicky Austin and Zachary Gray attend. In A Severed Wasp, she has a portrait painted by Philippa Hunter, protagonist of And Both Were Young.
  • Manya Sergeievna — Actress. Called "Aunt Manya" by Katherine, "Madame Sergeievna" by everyone else, Manya is a highly respected, larger-than-life actress and close friend of Julie Forrester, Katherine's mother. After Julie's accident, Manya takes care of Katherine, but reunites the mother and child at the beginning of the novel. After Julie dies, Manya marries Katherine's father, composer Thomas Forrester.
  • Justin Vigneras — Pianist, teacher and composer. Katherine first meets Justin when he returns to her boarding school as a teacher, and mentors her as his favorite student. Katherine, in turn, falls in love with him. Keenly aware of the age difference between them, Justin soon leaves Katherine and the school behind, but their professional and romantic relationship is rekindled at the end of the novel as Katherine enters adulthood. In A Severed Wasp the reader learns that Justin was badly injured and abused in a Paris prison camp during World War II. Unable to play piano professionally or to father children because of his injuries, he became a composer, a father to two children Katherine conceived by other men at Justin's request, and the manager of Katherine's career. He is deceased at the time of A Severed Wasp.
  • Sarah Courtmont — Actress. Sarah first meets Katherine briefly in a park when both are young children. They meet again at the boarding school and form a close, intense friendship that is destroyed when the school's staff suspect the relationship may have a sexual component. They meet a third time in New York City and become roommates, until Sarah betrays Katherine by stealing her fiance, Pete Burns.
  • Pete Burns — Actor. Early on the novel, Pete acts as a protective "big brother" figure for the child Katherine, looking after her as she attends Manya's plays or appears on stage herself. After Katherine returns to New York, the relationship blossoms into a romantic one, and they become engaged. Ultimately Pete leaves Katherine for Sarah.
  • Felix Bodeway — Bishop. Felix first encounters Katherine in New York City when Katherine has finished school and has Sarah Courtmont for a roommate. Felix is Sarah's boyfriend of sorts, a Bohemian would-be violinist with aspirations to be a "window cleaner" — that is, to help people see beyond themselves. Considered by Katherine to be a "lightweight" at the time of The Small Rain, she finds him much changed fifty years later, a retired bishop who has suffered, and is gentle, compassionate and afraid. He eventually confesses to having experimented with homosexuality and dissolute behavior as a young man, and it is implied there is an unrequited sexual component to his love for the present bishop, Allie Undercroft.


In her introduction to the 1984 edition of The Small Rain, Madeleine L'Engle mentions a number of similarities between Katherine's early life and her own. Both lived in New York and worked in the theater, but had aspirations in another field of artistic endeavor. L'Engle says that Katherine "approached her work with the same determination and single-mindedness with which I approached mine." Both had mothers who played the piano, and both lost a parent while in their teens, although with L'Engle it was her father. Both had a slight limp from one leg being slightly shorter than the other.[2] Both attended boarding school in Switzerland, where they were "lonely and unhappy."[1] Both wrote to their families at a classmate's suggestion, asking to come home, but to no avail.[3] Nevertheless, L'Engle states that "The deeper I got into the novel, the more Katherine became Katherine and the less Madeleine. But we are sisters, there's no doubt about that."[1]

Some of these same elements reappear in other early novels by L'Engle. Flip (Philippa Hunter) of And Both Were Young is another aspiring artist who attends a boarding school in Switzerland, initially fails to get on well with peers, and has trouble with an athletics instructor over one leg being shorter than the other. Virginia ("Vee") Bowen of A Winter's Love (the protagonist's daughter) attends a similar school and is a future writer. However, Vee's problems, such as they are, stem from difficulties at home rather than at school.

Subsequent editions and related works[edit]

Cover of the 1968 young adult novel Prelude

In 1968, The Vanguard Press issued the L'Engle novel Prelude (LC 68-56600). The indicia page notes the book's provenance: "This book has been especially adapted for young people by the author from the first part of her novel, The Small Rain." Dedicated to L'Engle's father, Charles Wadsworth Camp (as is The Small Rain), Prelude covers the events of Katherine's life until Justin leaves the boarding school. The ending of Prelude is slightly more upbeat than the corresponding text in The Small Rain, with mutual promises that they will see each other again. By contrast, the same scene in The Small Rain ends with the words, "She...sat there until she saw Justin leave the studio, carrying the music he hadn't already packed, walking happily, he head held high and proud, out of her life." Another major difference is that Prelude omits Justin's drunken advances toward the still-underage Katherine in Paris, shortly before she returns to school without him. The scene in which Miss Valentine interrogates Katherine and Sarah about their friendship (which does not directly mention homosexuality) is left intact.

In 1984, The Small Rain was reissued by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, the publishers of nearly all of Madeleine L'Engle's other novels since A Wrinkle in Time (1962). This current edition, ISBN 0-374-26637-9, features a dust jacket by Sam Salant and a new introduction by L'Engle, in which she mentions the continuation of Katherine's story in her 1982 novel A Severed Wasp. This sequel returns to Katherine as an elderly widow, looking back on her life while trying to survive and unravel a frightening mystery at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, New York.


  1. ^ a b c L'Engle, Madeleine (1984). The Small Rain (introduction). New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. vii–xii. ISBN 0-374-26637-9. 
  2. ^ L'Engle, Madeleine (1972). A Circle of Quiet. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. p. 142. ISBN 0-374-12374-8. 
  3. ^ L'Engle, Madeleine (1974). The Summer of the Great-Grandmother. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. p. 100. ISBN 0-374-27174-7. 

External links[edit]