Buddies that Matter.

Gender and Friendship

Eros in the Classroom: Mentor Figures, Friendship and Desire in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The History Boys

by Leonie Wanitzek, University of Chester, United Kingdom

1Mentors and teachers have been fascinating figures throughout history. In Western culture, the image of the inspiring teacher reaches back as far as Ancient Greece, where figures such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Pythagoras represented ideals of knowledge, wisdom and pedagogy that are still extremely relevant today (Steiner 8-10). In later centuries, Christian scholars like St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas exerted lasting influence on European thinking as well as on education philosophy (Steiner 3). Yet the fascination with mentor figures goes beyond the factual historical legacies of these ancient teachers. Real lives of teachers and their pupils have served as an inspiration for works of art and literature, such as in the case of the mediaeval French philosopher Pierre Abélard and his gifted student Héloïse, whose legendary love affair has clearly shown itself to possess an immense narrative and artistic attraction. And the popularity of fictional narratives concerning intriguing, stimulating, or even dangerous mentors and the relationships with their protégés – from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s educational novel Émile: or, On Education (1762) to Peter Weir’s successful film Dead Poets Society (1989) – demonstrates that the appeal of the teacher figure has remained ever constant in more recent European and American history.

2In this paper, I am going to focus especially on the idea of friendship between teachers and their students. However, as my title suggests, this is only one potential component of fictional teacher-student relationships. Once teacher figures become more than mere instructors to their pupils, there is always the possibility of a sexual connection between them that may result in a relationship characterised by erotic desire rather than platonic friendship. It is no accident that the two key words here, “erotic” and “platonic”, refer back to the Ancient Greeks and to Plato in particular. Eros and agape, sensual and spiritual love, were seen as frequent, even desirable, components of the relations between master and pupil in Ancient Greece, and they were often manifested in homoerotic relationships between an older and a younger man (Steiner 25-26). The term “platonic”, which is now used to denote a non-sexual love between two individuals, is also linked strongly to spiritual ideas in its original meaning as inspired by Plato’s Symposium, so that “platonic” and “erotic” can be regarded as two contrasting, competing potential qualities within an intense mentor-pupil relationship. They must both be examined at the same time in order to fully characterise two such individuals in a unique relation that may hover between inspirational friendship and sexual desire.

3With such a problematic issue as the eroticisation of teacher-student relationships, it is particularly important to distinguish between reality and fiction. The real-life legal situation in Britain is clear: sexual relationships between a teacher and a pupil under the age of 18 have been illegal in the United Kingdom since 2001. There have been a number of sensational cases in recent years, yet despite the attention they received, they constitute a very small minority. It is obvious that teachers tend to take their position of trust and authority very seriously, and that any abuse of the power over their charges – including both sexual offences and physical assault – is seen as inexcusable. At the same time, this does not mean that in works of fiction, authors cannot explore those areas of teacher-student relationships that are out of bounds in reality. Teachers are after all fascinating figures that are easily romanticised, and there has always been a public appetite for teacher-student love stories, in popular as well as in “high” culture. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British literature thus developed the figure of the “mentor-lover”, for which Patricia Menon offers an extensive analysis in the works of three nineteenth-century women writers, with literary examples such as Lucy Snowe’s relationship with Paul Emanuel in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette. The original audiences of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion were disappointed that the play did not provide them with a happy ending for Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle. And in more recent popular teenage culture, the genre of fanfiction can be a good indicator of the interest which students themselves take in fictional teacher-student relationships; for example, popular fan-written “pairings” in the Harry Potter universe include romances between the potions master Severus Snape and various Hogwarts pupils, like Hermione Granger or also Harry Potter himself (Fanfiction.net). The latter “pairing” simultaneously provides an example for the special ap-peal of non-heteronormative relationships to fanfiction writers and readers (Tosenberger 192-193, 198). All in all, the erotic components of teacher-student relationships in fiction clearly constitute an important aspect for literary analysis, although one should still bear in mind the different perspective in terms of real-life legal and moral issues.

4In my analysis of friendship and desire between teachers and students, I will focus on two particularly complex examples of inspiring yet ambiguous mentor figures in British fiction and their relationships: Miss Brodie, the progressive spinster teaching at a girls’ school in 1930s Edinburgh, from Muriel Spark’s 1961 novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie; and Hector, the homosexual General Studies teacher from Alan Bennett’s 2004 play The History Boys, who is responsible for the cultural refinement of a group of Oxbridge candidates during the 1980s. Though separated by different eras as well as by their gender, Miss Brodie’s and Hector’s multifaceted personalities possess a number of interesting similarities as well as contrasts and offer abundant material for a detailed analysis and comparison. There are also film versions of both texts: The History Boys (2006) is a very faithful adaptation, additionally legitimised by the involvement of Alan Bennett and the cast of the original theatre production. In contrast, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969), despite Maggie Smith’s Oscar-winning performance, presents a more limited, one-layered interpretation of its title character and will therefore not be considered further, while the film of The History Boys helps to complement the play with a valid performance version of the text.

5I will first explore issues of sexuality and desire that are central to Miss Brodie’s and Hector’s characters and their relations with colleagues and students. Here, the work of queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, especially her notion of ‘homosociality’, is crucial for an understanding of the same-sex tensions (explicit in The History Boys, implicit in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) and the erotic triangles and erotic substitutes which permeate both texts. I will apply Sedgwick’s theories to Spark’s novel in order to examine the complex relationship between Miss Brodie and her protégée and rival Sandy as well as the secondary relationships Miss Brodie has with her two male colleagues. Within the practically all-male world of The History Boys, Sedgwick’s idea of homosociality as a whole spectrum of male social bonds, from the platonic to the erotic, is especially useful for analysing the complex relationships between the main characters of Hector, Posner, Irwin and Dakin. The paper will also address issues of responsibility, before moving on to characterise Miss Brodie and Hector in regard to their pedagogical concepts and their interaction with their students in the classroom, thus offering an overview of the non-sexual sides of their relationships with their students. In conclusion, it will become possible to explain – at least partly – the fascination which Miss Brodie and Hector create in readers and audiences and to demonstrate the complexity of the relations of students and teachers in the worlds of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The History Boys.

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6Eros and teaching, as I stated earlier, have been connected since classical antiquity, and there is a spectrum of eroticised mentor-student relationships in literary texts of the past centuries. Similarly, in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The History Boys, sexuality and eroticism are intertwined with the portrayal of teachers and teaching, and teachers and students experience and arouse sexual desire. Hector even goes as far as stating that “The transmission of knowledge is itself an erotic act” (53) – which, although uttered in a futile attempt of self-justification to the headmaster after “handling the boys’ balls” (68), has an element of truth in it, as the erotically charged teacher-pupil relationships of both primary texts can testify.

7Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s concept of homosociality is crucial for this paper’s exploration of the single-sex community with its erotic triangles and erotic substitutes and doubles. While the aspect of homosexuality is obviously more central to The History Boys, there is also a (less overt) lesbian subtext present in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie; and even the non-sexual male-male relationships of The History Boys and the heterosexual relationships between Miss Brodie and her male colleagues provide ample opportunities for applying Sedgwick’s theories. In this context, the paper will also discuss a few other notable characters and their sexualities beside Miss Brodie and Hector in order to fully analyse the complex triangular relationships and instances of substitution in both texts, which are often difficult to define exactly.

8The most obvious instance of an eroticisation of the student-teacher relationship occurs in Hector’s fondling of the students’ genitals as he drives them home on the back of his motor-bike. Its implications, however, are complex. Although the headmaster is legally right to press ahead with Hector’s early retirement as an alternative to firing him (51, 53), Hector’s actions are not presented as a simple case of sexual harassment or abuse. The boys, while not enthusiastic for their next turn on the bike (17), regard it as a slight nuisance rather than a traumatic experience, and in one of their matter-of-fact discussions, Dakin only expresses concern for their safety in traffic:

Dakin: I’m terrified.

Scripps: Of the sex?

Dakin: No. Of the next roundabout. (21)

Even though he does not desire Hector, he would – in a safer situation – actually prefer if Hector “just [went] for it” (21). And the homosexual Posner even volunteers to be given a lift, and is only turned down by Hector because he doesn’t “fit the bill” (17): he is still too young-looking to attract Hector. This points towards the real reason why Hector’s fondling of his pupils can be treated with so little seriousness in the play, as the author himself explains:

I realise that Hector laying hands on the boys would be totally different if they were much younger, but these are all 17-, 18-year-olds. [...] I’m afraid I don’t take that very seriously if they’re 17 or 18, I think they are actually much wiser than Hector. Hector is the child, not them. (Bennett and Hytner, par. 48)

This means that even if Hector does exploit his position of trust and authority, the fact that his students are psychologically mature and – in part – already sexually active themselves, makes his offence pathetic rather than distressing.

9Throughout the play, Hector is characterised as a slightly miserable figure where his sexuality is concerned. He has arranged himself with his situation in a way that allows him to remain essentially passive: a marriage to keep up the façade, gropes on the motorbike to satisfy his most basic urges, a row of boys to desire from afar. He tells Irwin that after an initial unhappiness over a boy in the past, the pain has provided him with “immunity for however long it takes. With the occasional booster... another face, a reminder of the pain... it can last you half a lifetime” (94). Slight self-delusions help, too; whether he habitually casts his favourites as romantically “sad” boys (22) or euphemises his “laying-on of hands” (95). In the end, it is inevitable that Hector is doomed to one-sided desires. He himself remarks, “Who could love me? I talk too much” (94), and he is also physically undesirable, which is probably even more important in ruling out the plausibility of a mutual attraction.

10In contrast to Hector, Miss Brodie’s physical attractiveness and active love life form important components of her sexuality. From the beginning of the novel, we are aware of the emphasis she places on her desirability as a woman when we are told that her own love life “had been described to [the girls]” (5). Miss Brodie’s steadily developing romantic autobiographical narrative is a topic of continuous interest to the girls, whose own sexual awakening is strongly related to their changing perception of their teacher. After one of the Brodie set has observed the teacher kissing Mr Lloyd in an empty classroom, “the question of whether Miss Brodie was actually capable of being kissed and of kissing occupie[s] the Brodie set till Christmas” (53), marking a turning point in their conception of Miss Brodie, from an asexual (though romantic) being – “Miss Brodie’s above all that” (20) – to a sexual woman whose affairs feature in their increasingly daring fantasies (59, 73-74).

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11Among the girls, it is Sandy who is most interested in Miss Brodie’s sexuality. From half-innocent contemplations of the shape of the teacher’s chest [1]This passage becomes a striking metaphor for Miss Brodie’s inconstancy and changing attitudes: “Some days it seemed to Sandy that Miss Brodie’s chest was flat, no bulges at all [...]. On other days her chest was breast-shaped and large [...]” (11). over the series of romantic fantasies she co-authors with Jenny (18-20, 73-74) to her involvement in Miss Brodie’s plans for an affair with Mr Lloyd by substitute, Sandy is closely associated with the sexual aspects of her teacher. At least two critics have also identified a lesbian subtext in Sandy’s and Miss Brodie’s relationship, although their exact theories differ. For Patricia Duncker, Miss Brodie’s affair with Mr Lloyd by sexual substitute “works both ways of course” (75): she “hand[s] [her girls] over to the art master” (75) not only because she cannot sleep with him, but also because she cannot sleep with them. Duncker quotes Sandy’s judgment of Miss Brodie, “the woman is an unconscious Lesbian” (120), and concludes that the narrator agrees. Finally, she points out Sandy’s own unrecognised lesbianism, having already mentioned Sandy’s “bisexual fantasies” (71). Christopher Whyte, on the other hand, agrees about Sandy’s unconscious lesbianism and cites numerous hints from the novel (170-173), but disagrees about Miss Brodie: in his opinion, Sandy betrays Miss Brodie “because she is heterosexual” (171) and the teacher’s lack of response to Sandy’s feelings brings about her downfall. Either way, Miss Brodie shows a strong lack of responsibility for her former pupils in trying to manoeuvre them into Mr Lloyd’s bed – the illegal and morally questionable nature of an affair between a student and a male, married teacher does not enter her head. Once again, this demonstrates the self-centredness of her character; in her personal fantasy world, other people’s fates are to be directed according to her likes, regardless of such details as legal and moral responsibility.


The lesbian subtext in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie touches on a crucial aspect of both texts: triangular patterns and sexual substitutes within single-sex communities. These can be linked to the work of gender and queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and her concept of homosociality, although in slightly adapted forms. Sedgwick originally coined the term “male homosocial desire”, which describes “the entire spectrum of male bonds and potentially includes everyone from overt heterosexuals to overt homosexuals” (Edwards 36). It is a complex linguistic construct that builds on earlier theories, most notably René Girard’s text Deceit, Desire and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure (1972), which suggests that in the literary genre of the novel, triangular relations, especially love triangles, between one woman and two men constitute a frequent, central motif; and that the relation between the two male characters is actually the primary one in many cases (Edwards 34). Sedgwick is also influenced by earlier feminists who already addressed the complex interrelation between gender and sexuality, like Gayle Rubin and Audre Lorde, and by the structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and his concept of male “traffic in women” as part of a patriarchal social network.


Sedgwick’s central idea is that the relations between men seldom resemble the straight line of a triangle’s side but are capable of change and fluidity and should thus be represented as a “continuum” of homosocial desire instead (Edwards 36; Sedgwick, Between Men 2), including social aspects and aspects of desire into a construction that mirrors the potential tension between the two. Sedgwick also introduces the concept of “male homosexual panic” to describe the omnipresent fear of a man’s own potential homosexuality in a society where patriarchal solidarity and male bonding cannot always be definitely distinguished from homosexual relations (Sedgwick, Between Men 88-89; Sedgwick, Epistemology 20-21). Sedgwick’s research and analysis centres far less on female interrelations, but she is still strongly influenced by concepts such as Adrienne Rich’s idea of the “lesbian continuum,” which includes both heterosexual women and lesbians because all are implicated in the “double life” which women must assume under institutionalised heterosexuality (Rich 659). For Sedgwick, too, the demarcation between the homosocial and homosexual is more fluid and less distinctive for women than for men (Sedgwick, Between Men 2-3), although she points out the nevertheless existent conflicts and divisions within female communities as well as the factor of lesbian panic.


Sedgwick’s concepts can be applied to both The History Boys and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. The above-mentioned lesbian subtext in the relationship between Sandy and Miss Brodie is characteristic of the female fluidity between homosocial and homosexual: when we are told that Sandy does not desert the Brodie set “because she loved Miss Brodie” (32), this ambiguous statement could mean, as Whyte has suggested, that Sandy is attracted to the teacher, but it could also merely be a little girl’s admiration for her teacher. More interesting is Sandy’s thought, “the woman is an unconscious Lesbian” (120). Instead of proving Duncker’s theory of Miss Brodie’s lesbianism, it rather suggests potential lesbian tendencies in Sandy’s sexuality that are expressed through lesbian panic coupled with a slight homophobia.

15For an analysis of Miss Brodie’s sexuality, one needs to examine her two triangular “affairs by substitute” with Mr Lloyd. The text subverts the “traditional” form of the male-male-female love triangle as described by Sedgwick by making Miss Brodie, the woman, the dominant actor in the Miss Brodie – Mr Lloyd – Mr Lowther triangle, while the relations between the two men are hardly present in the text at all (apart from Mr Lowther being a sexual substitute for Mr Lloyd). The original isolation and subordination of women (Edwards 39) is thus transformed into female dominance and elevation above the more exchangeable, passive men [2]Mr Lloyd and Mr Lowther even share a physical likeness (48)., whose potential homosocial bond is of no interest to the narrator. And although Miss Brodie is in love with Mr Lloyd (56), she does not stay chaste because of his unavailability as a lover, rejecting the traditional behaviour pattern of the “virtuous woman” in favour of sexual gratification and a sense of power over her substitute lover Mr Lowther. She is therefore presented as a dominant, sexually unconventional woman, suggesting that the traditional “virtuous woman” of Marcia Blaine, whose “price is above rubies” (6) is a thing of the past.

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16The triangle between Miss Brodie, Sandy and Mr Lloyd can also be seen as an inversion (and therefore a subversion) of the patriarchal homosocial triangle as described by Sedgwick; with two women and one man instead of the other way round. The strongest and most complex relation is the female homosocial bond between Sandy and Miss Brodie, who depend upon one another and, in a sense, finally betray one another (Massie 49-50); it is not between either of the women and Mr Lloyd. However, if Miss Brodie indeed harbours unconscious lesbian feelings in addition to her heterosexual desire for Mr Lloyd, they may actually rather be for Rose, for whom she originally planned the affair with Mr Lloyd. It is Sandy who effectively changes the triangle to include herself, Miss Brodie and Mr Lloyd, with Rose acting as a mere informant (110), which shows that Sandy is drawn more to Miss Brodie than Miss Brodie is to her. Yet perhaps Sandy is also showing more “insight” than her teacher at this point, for by making herself and Miss Brodie the two women of the triangle, she reinforces the idea that she is Miss Brodie’s double in the novel (Hynes 76). Miss Brodie frequently acts through surrogates (Royle 158), but it is Sandy who is most like her teacher and most firmly bound to her for all her life, and their connection via Mr Lloyd in the triangle highlights her paradoxical status as disciple and rival, agent and traitor of her teacher.

17In The History Boys, Sedgwick’s triangles exist in yet another form: the all-male homosocial triangle. Here, open (yet mostly one-sided) homosexual attraction takes the place of heterosexual romance in the original male-male-female triangle; and male bonding, sympathy between fellow homosexuals and shared intellectual interests form the homosocial connection of the “traditional” triangle. Dakin, the most attractive, confident and most gifted among the history boys, is desired by his fellow student Posner, by the young substitute teacher Irwin, and by Hector himself, and therefore forms the tip of three different triangles, taking the “female” role in each case – which means he is the one who is openly desired by the other men, not that he is a feminine or homosexual boy or that he reciprocates their desire in every case. The relations between Hector and Irwin, Hector and Posner, and Irwin and Posner constitute the homosocial axes of the three triangles.

18The all-male triangle inverts traditional expectations because the homosocial bond is no longer needed as a covert possibility for potentially homoerotic feelings, but instead provides a non-sexual bonding between gay men who share an open homosexual attraction to another male (who replaces the courted woman of the original triangle). In the play, this constellation is only possible because it is set in an atmosphere where male homosexual panic and homophobia are almost completely absent. For example, Posner’s classmates are aware of, but not repulsed by, his homosexuality (21) and his attraction to Dakin. Dakin himself rather revels in the attention, and when he finds himself strangely attracted to Irwin, he accepts it matter-of-factly and even tries to seduce him, although he is otherwise presented as heterosexual. Likewise, the boys meet Hector’s sexual advances with leniency and gentle ridicule, not with disgust or fear. Outside of the world of the play, the audience, too, is encouraged to encounter homosexuality in a positive way, since the character of Irwin actually becomes more sympathetic once his attraction to Dakin and his resulting vulnerability emerge (Bennett and Hytner, par. 9-10).

19Posner and Irwin are brought together in their attraction to Dakin when Posner confides his sexuality in the young teacher and hopes, in vain, that Irwin will confess that he is “in the same boat” (42). As fellow student Scripps assesses, Posner “knew that Irwin looked at [Dakin] occasionally too and he wanted him to say so. Basically he just wanted company” (44).

20Hector and Posner share a bond because of the unrequited nature of their desire for Dakin, who chooses Irwin over them. This is illustrated when they have to hold Dakin and Posner’s additional afternoon lesson without the former:


Hector: Ah, Posner. No Dakin?

Posner: With Mr Irwin, sir.

Hector: Of course. (53)

Their understanding is almost wordless, but one can observe Hector’s quiet resignation in his “Of course.” He then stresses the solidarity of unrequited love between him and Posner by including his student into a “we”: “No matter. We must carry on the fight without [Dakin]” (54). On a larger scale, Posner and Hector are also able to relate to each other because they share a true love for literature and the transmission of knowledge. Furthermore, Posner is in a way Hector’s “heir”, the “only one who truly took everything to heart” (108) and who follows his mentor’s footsteps, becoming an unfulfilled homosexual teacher himself. Shared, but not mutual, desire thus becomes a catalyst for friendship in yet another unconventional teacher-student relationship in The History Boys.

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21Irwin and Hector are very strongly linked because they share the predicament of being teachers attracted to one of their students. Hector gives advice to the younger Irwin, cautioning him not to “touch” Dakin – “He’ll think you’re a fool” (95) – and to see the pain caused by the unfulfilled love as “an inoculation [...] Briefly painful, but providing immunity for however long it takes” (94). He also states it is actually best not to continue teaching in the first place: “I used to think I could warm myself on the vitality of the boys I taught, but that doesn’t work” (94). At the same time, an interesting clue is given in this scene when Hector replies to Irwin’s pensively uttered “Love” with the question, “Who could love me?” (94). By drawing attention to Hector’s own undesirability, the play hints at the possibility that Irwin may be acting as his younger, more attractive double whose attraction is actually answered by Dakin – the boy has been flirting with Irwin only two scenes earlier (87-91). This is further reinforced in the next scene between Irwin and Dakin, where Dakin makes his sexual offer to the teacher (99). After a thoughtful pause, he adds, “Actually, that would please Hector” (100), which sounds highly suggestive even after Dakin explains that he was actually refer-ring to the grammatical form of his proposal (100). Irwin, however, resists being doubled with Hector, precisely because he realises their similarities:

Irwin: You’ve already had to cope with one master who touches you up. I don’t...

Dakin: Is that what it is? Is it that you don’t want to be like Hector? [...] You can’t be. [...] Hector’s a joke.

Irwin: No he isn’t. He isn’t. (100-101)

Irwin must take Hector seriously because he himself is essentially in the same position, but he rejects this connection, fearing that it would taint his actions toward Dakin with parallels to Hector’s pathetic gropes on the motorbike; that he himself is as much of a joke to Dakin as Hector is, an anxiety which is not wholly unfounded[3]Although Dakin is definitely fascinated by Irwin and his teaching, he implies that Irwin’s physical desire is not matched by one of his own and that his offer is more a favour, a way “to say thank you” (102).. But at the same time, Dakin’s attraction is perhaps more deep-rooted than he realises because it shows the most direct relation between eros and the transmission of knowledge in either of the two texts: “Irwin’s teaching is sexualised by the pupil who actually takes it all on board” (Bennett and Hytner, par. 47).<fn>Alan Bennett found his notions of a connection between sexuality and teaching confirmed when reading George Steiner’s Lessons of the Masters, where Hector’s quote, ‘The transmission of knowledge is in itself an erotic act’, is also drawn from.</fn> Through his erotic double Irwin, Hector’s infelicitous quotation on the erotic nature of teaching has actually been fulfilled.

22Both Miss Brodie and Hector have various other central ideas concerning the true nature of education, and they define themselves and are defined in relation to social notions of what constitutes “good” teaching. Their individual teaching styles are important aspects of their characters as well as expressions of their respective attitudes towards the students, and the inclusion or exclusion of the students into the lesson can provide important clues to Hector’s and Miss Brodie’s positioning of themselves within the teacher-student relationship. I will furthermore analyse the triangular relationship between Miss Brodie’s and Hector’s own “official” teaching agendas and their self-perception, their outward position as teachers within a certain system, and the reality of their actual teaching performances; and finally I will provide a brief consideration of the elements of self-fictionalisation and self-romanticising in these two eccentric teachers’ self-images and teaching performances.

23In one of his first stage directions, Hector is described as “a man of studied eccentricity” (4). His language in the following scene immediately reinforces this. He employs intricate sentence constructions (4) and delights in complex and unusual words, e.g. “felicitations” (4) or “otiose” (5), as well as in almost Shakespearean-sounding insults, e.g. “Foul, festering grubby-minded little trollop” (5). He is very fond of peppering his regular speech with quotations (e.g. 6, 7, 30, 52) and he is proud to show off his fluency in French and his accent. The emphasis is the “studied” quality of his eccentricity – Hector very consciously employs these rhetorical devices to present himself as a unique and well-educated person. By wearing a bow tie and driving a motorcycle (4), he further accentuates his differences from the norm through these somewhat contrasting accessories. In Richard Griffiths’ performance of the role, the actor’s enormous girth presents yet another visual marker of Hector’s otherness, whether self-chosen or not.

24Hector also cultivates his role as the eccentric professor by repeatedly hitting the boys with exercise books (e.g. 5) or ordering others to do it for him (84). Like so many aspects of his lessons this is a game, a collaborative performance with the boys, who feign indignation at his half-serious wrath but in reality “lap [...] up” (7) the blows: far from being a disciplinary measure, these hits that “never hurt” (7) are “a joke” (7) and a demonstration of fondness: ‘He hits you if he likes you’ (7). It is worth noting how Hector turns a violent act asserting power and manliness into a subtly homoerotic gesture of affection and/or attraction. While his fondling of the boys’ genitals on the motorbike naturally draws the most attention in the text, it is perhaps this rough caress posing as punishment which best characterises Hector’s troubled, complex relationship with his own sexuality and his fumbled attempts to express his yearnings towards the boys. It also illustrates perfectly the dual nature of teacher-student relationships between friendship and desire. Rather ambiguous and subtle where its erotic component is concerned, Hector’s hitting of the boys symbolises a playful, mutual exploration of the boundaries of authority and physicality in the relations between the teacher and his students.

25As with Hector, a significant part of Miss Brodie’s self-stylisation happens through linguistic means. She likes using archaisms such as “forsooth” (46); like Hector, she inserts literary quotations into her everyday speech, e.g. “Season of mist and mellow fruitfulness” (12), or “Come autumn sae pensive, in yellow and grey [...]” (47); she also regularly recites poetry to her class in order to “raise their minds” (21).

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26However, Miss Brodie’s high style and stage-like lectures to her class are undercut by Muriel Spark’s ironic technique of inserting abrupt changes of topic into Miss Brodie’s speech, letting her mind turn from the solemn to the mundane in one split second:

“I was engaged to a young man at the beginning of the War but he fell on Flanders’ Field,” said Miss Brodie. “Are you thinking, Sandy, of doing a day’s washing?” (12)

Spark also exposes Miss Brodie’s slightly ridiculous airs is by making other characters echo her speech. In one case, this device mocks the hypocrisy of Miss Brodie’s insistence on grammatical correctness (Bold 69): she scoffs at Mary McGregor for saying “comic” instead of “comic paper” (11) and asks Eunice, who speaks of attending “a social,” “Social what?” (62) – but then the famous “prime” which she continuously mentions is questioned in a similar way by adult Eunice’s husband:

“Who was Miss Brodie?”

“A teacher of mine, she was full of culture. [...] She used to give us teas at her flat and tell us about her prime.”

“Prime what?” (27)

On an even larger scale, Sandy and Jenny’s imagined correspondence between Miss Brodie and Mr Lowther unconsciously satirises their teacher’s lofty rhetoric by intersecting a naive recreation of Miss Brodie’s characteristic utterances with dry newspaper and courtroom language, resulting in lines like: “I may permit misconduct to occur again from time to time as an outlet because I am in my Prime” (73). But it also illustrates how easily the young girls are shaped and influenced by Miss Brodie, elevating her style of speech, as well as the “stories” she tells them, to definitive guidelines and examples even when they are ridiculous. This suggests a strong initial imbalance in the mentor-student relations between Miss Brodie and her charges, which in turn explains why her close personal relationships with her “girls” are more problematic than those between Hector and his more mature boys: Miss Brodie’s irresponsible behaviour is directed at students who are initially much younger and more vulnerable, and who are in danger of falling completely under her spell.

27All in all, Miss Brodie’s behaviour shows a curious mixture of the highly dramatic and the unwittingly comical; of course this also demonstrates how close the two usually lie together. Her lack of self-consciousness when she gives her little shows of poetry, personal tragedy and tit-bit history stems from her firm belief in her own deep profundity and grandeur: this is a woman who says of herself, “[I] looked magnificent” (44); who constantly states to be in her prime; who plays a gladiator (46) or recites “The Lady of Shalott” as if in the throes of passion (21). Passion is indeed a key element in Miss Brodie’s character. No matter how absurd the focus and the expression of that passion, it nevertheless lends her a degree of sincerity and prevents her from becoming a mere caricature. Passion is also what distinguishes her most markedly from Hector’s character. In his eccentric behaviour there is always an element of playfulness, of self-conscious, self-ironic over-stylisation. This does not mean there is no seriousness or conviction behind his teaching; on the contrary, he is in a way as passionate as Miss Brodie.<fn>Even the headmaster realises so: “There is passion there. Or, as I prefer to call it, commitment” (12).</fn> But he never allows himself to express this passion openly as she does and to forget himself in it. This is because he is much more conscious of his student audience than Miss Brodie is – and of course this makes sense, as he does not perform in front of impressionable little girls but unruly, questioning adolescent boys, who are far more involved in the lesson than Miss Brodie’s charges.

28According to Judy Sproxton, “there is no element of dialogue in Miss Brodie’s teaching; in fact, it is quite authoritarian” (64). Despite Miss Brodie’s emphatic notion of education as “a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul” (36), she is actually guilty of the op-posite practice, “thrusting a lot of information into the pupil’s head” (36). This is especially problematic because this information is by no means objective or factual. Completely con-vinced of her own ideals and beliefs, Miss Brodie instils a curious mixture of scattered cul-tural knowledge, personal prejudices and arbitrary guidelines into the girls’ minds, as in this exchange:

“Who is the greatest Italian painter?”

“Leonardo da Vinci, Miss Brodie.”

“That is incorrect. The answer is Giotto, he is my favourite.” (11)

Here, Miss Brodie does not even try to disguise the subjective nature of the opinions she passes on; this is because she is unaware of her faulty thinking. In her own mind, she is prac-tising “education as a leading out” (36) and therefore does not notice the discrepancy between her self-proclaimed agenda and her actual teaching. While Miss Brodie does not possess any “conscious ideological intention” (Sproxton 66), it is at least as dangerous that through her sheer egocentricity she fails to realise that merely passing on her own prejudices is questionable.

29Miss Brodie’s only instance of dialogue with her pupils consists of questions to ensure they have absorbed her monologue:

“These are the fascisti,” said Miss Brodie and spelt it out. “What are these men, Rose?”

“The fascisti, Miss Brodie.” (31)

Most of her lessons, however, simply consist of curiously disjointed lectures which incorporate at least as much of her personal life as of other subject matter, such as art. But slipped in between are also her questionable political opinions, which make them more disconcerting than any mere self-absorbed talk:

In London my friends who are well-to-do [...] took me to visit A. A. Milne. In the hall was hung a reproduction of Botticelli’s Primavera which means the Birth of Spring. I wore my silk dress with the large red poppies which is just right for my colouring. Mussolini is one of the greatest men in the world, far more so than Ramsay Mac-Donald, and his fascisti – (44)

30Dorothea Walker comments on this “dual nature of Miss Brodie” (41) that is manifest in her teaching methods: Miss Brodie genuinely wishes to broaden the minds of her young protégées, yet the biased opinions which she feeds them do more harm than good, especially when they range into the political. Her pupils also learn very little that is actually relevant to the curriculum, although Miss Brodie is careful to disguise her digressions from the specified syllabus of instruction by having the girls prop up the appropriate books in front of them or by keeping the blackboard covered with arithmetic (10, 12, 45). When the headmistress enters unexpectedly in one scene, Miss Brodie invents a history lesson as “neatly” as she catches a falling leaf (13) in order to explain why her pupils are crying (in reality, she has been telling them about the death of her lover in the First World War).

Eros in the Classroom: Mentor figures, friendship and desire in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The History Boys — page 7

31Hector’s lessons are rather different from Miss Brodie’s where the element of dialogue is concerned. Like Miss Brodie, he exposes his students to his particular tastes in music, theatre and literature during his “General Studies” lessons. However, he often permits them to play-act scenes (31-32, 66), perform songs (29) and engage in playful discussion with him (5-6, 29-30), thus allowing a much higher degree of student participation in his classes than Miss Brodie does, although he still determines the overall lesson structure.

32For instance, his French lessons follow the fixed form of a foreign-language role play, but the topic is chosen by the boys (12). The result, acting out a brothel scene, needs to be concealed from the suddenly appearing headmaster just like Miss Brodie’s love story had to be disguised: Hector rapidly recasts it as a hospital scene in wartime Belgium and the pupils follow his lead. However, there are two main differences here to Miss Brodie’s class. First, there is a greater sense of shared complicity between teacher and pupils, since they are both responsible for the risqué scene. This is probably why the students actively support Hector’s cover-up, while in The Prime of Miss Brodie the girls merely acquiesce in silence to Miss Brodie’s alibi. Secondly, Miss Brodie’s lecture on her late lover has little or no educational merit for the girls, whereas Hector’s brothel is “un maison de passe où tous les clients utilisent le subjonctif ou le conditionnel” (12), making it an unconventional but efficient exercise for practising grammatical structures. The two scenes illustrate the respective relationships of Miss Brodie and Hector to their students very well, contrasting the greater degree of pedagogical friendship and camaraderie between Hector and his boys, in particular against the “common enemy” of the headmaster, with Miss Brodie’s mere utilisation of her pupils as audience and silent accessories, which again shows a much larger imbalance of power and authority in their relationship.

33An analysis of Hector’s statements on his educational policy illustrates further that despite his eccentric choices of subject matter, he has a much further developed and realised pedagogy than Miss Brodie in her narcissistic lectures. While he admits freely to the boys that his “General Studies” lessons serve no practical purpose, he also points out that “All knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use” (quoting A.E. Housman, 5). When he makes the boys learn poetry by heart, he explains he is equipping them with an “antidote” to “grief” and “happiness” (30). In contrast, drama and song interludes are included, he states, because he does not

want to turn out boys who in later life had a deep love of literature or who would talk in middle age of the lure of language and their love of words. Words said in that rever-ential way that is somehow Welsh. That’s what the tosh is for. Brief Encounter, Gracie Fields, it’s an antidote. Sheer calculated silliness. (94)

His repeated use of “antidote” in these two quotations is central in illustrating the basis of his pedagogical approach: equipping his students with “high” culture as something to fall back on when one is overwhelmed by things “happening” (30); and with popular culture to prevent that high culture turning into a pose. Hector’s teaching is about reaction to the system, about defence through literature. When talking to Mrs Lintott, the more conventional history teacher, he says poignantly, “You give them an education. I give them the wherewithal to resist it” (23). He sees himself as a counterforce to the exam-oriented, fact-based school education, hoping that his students will remember him and his teaching in later life, and that they will “pass it on” (109) to future generations.

34However, despite these noble ideas of himself as a wise and benevolent mentor-friend, one should not make the mistake of glorifying Hector’s teaching as absolutely altruistic. As Mrs Lintott observes, Hector “is trying to be the kind of teacher pupils will remember” (50), so his teaching is at least as much about creating his own memorable personality as it is about giving his students an enduring cultural education and the benefits of a social elder’s guidance and friendship. One also must not forget that he does not reliably produce results – the boys do not always take his teaching seriously, and out of all his students, only Posner really “pass[es] the parcel” (109) in the end. Indeed, for both Miss Brodie and Hector the lasting influence of their teaching is doubtful. In the later years of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, only Sandy remains under Miss Brodie’s spell throughout her life, whereas the other girls all move on rather quickly, unharmed but also unenriched by the years spent under Miss Brodie. Similarly, all the “history boys” except Posner have fairly ordinary adult lives in which Hector’s education seemingly plays no great role (106-108).

35It is also notable that both Miss Brodie and Hector are not responsible (or refuse to be so) for exam preparation, and only this unusual situation can make room for their eccentric, eclectic teaching styles. In The History Boys, Hector merely provides “the cherry on top,” while Irwin and Mrs Lintott do the actual work of drilling the boys for their entrance examinations. Hector’s boys even maintain the notion that “[his] stuff’s not meant for the exam [...]. It’s to make [them] more rounded human beings” (38), and that to answer questions on poetry in the entrance examination would be “a betrayal of trust” (39). Such a disdain for exams fits well with Hector’s motto, “All knowledge is precious” (5). It also hints once again at the sense of camaraderie between Hector and the boys and their alliance against the “system” symbolised by the headmaster and Irwin.

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36In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Miss Brodie simply refuses to stick to the curriculum at the expense of her travel accounts and other personal lectures: “Qualifying examination or no qualifying examination, you will have the benefit of my experiences in Italy” (45). The girls eventually pass their exams, studying on their own in order to “scrape through” (38) as Miss Brodie commands them, but they have certainly not received a very solid education: “All of the Brodie set, save one, counted on its fingers, as had Miss Brodie, with accurate results more or less” (6). In Miss Brodie’s world, accuracy and predictability must stand back in favour of other virtues: “Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth and Beauty come first. Follow me” (10).

37Apart from their attempts to influence their students, both teachers – but especially Miss Brodie – also try to present their own person and actions in the desired light by romanticising and even fictionalising themselves and their lives. For Hector, this mostly happens through his conscious performance as the eccentric teacher. In addition, he tries (unsuccessfully) to gloss over his sexual advances on the boys by euphemising them as gestures of “benediction [rather] than gratification or anything else” (95), and he has a habit of discovering an imagined sadness in his favourite boys to justify his affection and attention and to romanticise them in his mind (22). In both instances, Mrs Lintott provides a reality check: “Hector, darling, love you as I do, that is the most colossal balls. [...] A grope is a grope. It is not the Annunciation” (95); and: “You always think they’re sad, Hector, every, every time” (22).

38Miss Brodie is a much bigger fantasist. As she herself is developing under the girls’ eyes (43-44), so the story of her love life changes with each retelling: Her dead lover Hugh who died on Flanders field slowly acquires the characteristics and talents of Miss Brodie’s two new love interests, Mr Lloyd and Mr Lowther, in order to maintain a satisfying neatness in the relation between old and new love (Pullin 89-90). Sandy, who realises this, is “fascinated by this method of making patterns with facts” (72), but also takes it as further proof that Miss Brodie is “guilty of misconduct” (72). Indeed, while Miss Brodie is “casting herself as author and heroine of her own myth” (Pullin 90-91), she neglects the consequences that her treatment of real life in the manner of a novelist has on other people’s fates; as so often, Miss Brodie’s self-deceptions lead her too far.

39Finally, Miss Brodie’s trend to romanticise her own position and to interpret her surroundings in an appropriate light in order to fit her own beliefs can be linked back to the differences between her teaching agenda and teaching reality. Miss Brodie stylises herself as an educational heroine:

It has been suggested again that I should apply for a post at one of the progressive schools [...]. But I shall not apply for a post at a crank school. I shall remain at this education factory. There needs must be a leaven in the lump. (9)

She feels she has a duty to save the girls in her charge from their conservative surroundings and sees herself as dedicating her “prime” to her girls, even at the sacrifice of Mr Lloyd’s love (120). The whole idea of her own educational martyrdom and heroism helps her to resist the antagonism of the school authorities, as it divides the world neatly into herself on the good side and the headmistress and other teachers on the bad side. It also sums up the discrepancy of her own views of the relationship to her “girls” – a selfless pedagogical friendship on her side – and reality, which sees her exploiting the admiring devotion of her charges for her own ends. In conclusion, one can say that the partial self-invention of Miss Brodie – and, to some extent, of Hector – mirror the differences between their self-proclaimed educational principles and the reality of their teaching and their relationships with their students.

40Miss Brodie and Hector possess multifaceted and eccentric personalities, highly individual personal styles and teaching methods, and intriguing relationships with their colleagues and students, all of which provide valuable reasons for the fascination which those two characters can exude on readers and audiences. But in addition, there is a less tangible element about them that makes them appear slightly larger than life; figures that lead a critic to assert, for instance, that ‘the character Jean Brodie has escaped the confines and the discipline of the novel’ (Massie 45). Hector is perhaps too new a creation to have acquired such a position just yet, but he, too, has the capacity to intrigue and attract, especially since he is actually the bet-ter teacher of the two, genuinely practising education as ‘a process of drawing out rather than putting in’ (Billington par. 5) and providing eclectic but highly stimulating lessons which manage to transmit his enthusiasm for his subjects. He does not need to be perfect – indeed, the fact that he has a more questionable side to his character constitutes the strong appeal of The History Boys, where good and bad teachers are not as neatly divided as in films like Dead Poets Society, and where the homoerotic potential of close teacher-student relationships is not ignored.

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41The complexity of the numerous unconventional, sometimes erotically charged teacher-student relationships in both texts is indeed the second important reason why Hector and Miss Brodie are so capable of fascination. The divisions between erotic and platonic, homosexual and heterosexual, dangerous and pathetic, are never simple and often blurred, conforming perfectly of Sedgwick’s notion of homosocial relations as a continuum rather than a mere line. Ongoing debates concerning particular points, such as the nature of Miss Brodie’s and Sandy’s feelings for each other, demonstrate the richness of interpretations offered in the texts, and the need to adapt Sedgwick’s original concept of the homosocial triangle to approach The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The History Boys shows how unconventional and groundbreaking the depictions of teacher-student relationships in the two narratives really are. Finally, the absence of a definite and easy moral judgement in either of the texts only intensifies their appeal and their ambiguity, since every audience and every reader will form their own image of the intriguing figures of Hector and Miss Brodie.

Eros in the Classroom: Mentor figures, friendship and desire in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The History Boys

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