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

By Wanitzek, Leonie | Gender Forum, July 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

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


Wanitzek, Leonie, Gender Forum


1 Mentors 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.

2 In 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.

3 With 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. …

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