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.