How Bennett and Spark Present the Lasting Influence of Teachers and Their Ideals

January 23, 2019 by Essay Writer

“Give me the child for seven years and I will give you the man.”

In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark and The History Boys by Alan Bennett, the authors are seen to be “playing with time”[1] by using flash-forwards and flash-backs to show the lasting influence of their characters. By showing them during and after being influenced these texts foreground the theme of the positive and negative effects of influence and how this can shape young minds. For instance, Spark’s use of juxtaposition between scenes of early influence with later effects show that “there [always] was a certain Miss Jean Brodie”. Muriel Spark and Alan Bennett show the effects of long term influence of those who see teaching as a performance and how those who they influence are their audience.

Ideally Hector would never have chosen to influence anyone especially not on his most favoured subject: “words, said in that reverential way that’s almost welsh”. Yet, he does influence every boy that he teaches. Not that he would ever mean to but he can “pass…on” his knowledge and passion without giving a second thought. This is probably because of his passion about his loved subjects. “The classroom is a stage”[2] for Hector (Miss Brodie too), and the students are an audience who are idolising a great actor. After all, “Hector” is but a character played by the true man: “Douglas” who shares no qualities with the character he plays at all. It may well be that Hector hopes not to inspire because he knows that he should not inspire because while Hector can inspire, he knows that Douglas could never influence because he has “pissed [his] life away”. Spark’s character is much like Bennett’s in that they she is an actor on “a stage”[3]; “She is lost in her own romantic fantasies”[4], so much so, that she struggles to see the difference between reality and fantasy and if she cannot see the difference then neither can the girls. Maybe that is why she chooses to inspire because she cannot see what is stopping her. Brodie cannot see that she is not a star on the stage, to her, she is the closest thing to “Anna Pavlova” that the girls are going to get. And if she is Pavlova then her girls must follow in her footsteps. If they don’t then they are not “dedicated women”. However, unlike Hector, Spark shows a character that tries too hard to inspire greatness and her legacy is just a fantasy in the girls’ minds. While at school she was inspiring but as the girls left, so did the fantasy of Miss Brodie because it was a fantasy that needed perpetuating by her students; unlike Hector’s legacy which lived after hum because he himself did not perpetuate the fantasy of Hector- it was the boys that were inspired by him that perpetuated the fantasy of Hector.

Spark and Bennett both explore how their teachers inflict their personalities and how their personalities leave a lasting influence on their pupils. Brodie had a profound influence on her “set” and each girl was influenced distinctively and yet they “remained unmistakeably Brodie”. The two girls where this is most prevalent are Rose Stanley, who, like Miss Brodie “was famous for sex”, and “Sandy Stranger, the clever, imaginative one”[5], who was probably the most like Miss Brodie, although, nobody sees it, Sandy is the most observant; this ability to observe almost turns her into Miss Brodie. She is the girl with the qualities of Miss Brodie. Similarly, in The History Boys Posner is most influenced by Hector and ends up becoming just like him. Neither of the students had a choice in their personalities in later life as they had somebody else’s inflicted on them at an “impressionable age”. Posner is unaware that Hector is influencing him, however, Sandy is fully aware of Miss Brodie’s influence and tries to avoid it; yet, the more that Sandy tries to avoid becoming like Brodie, the more similarities occur because she is “impressionable and powerless”[6]. The girls who allowed her influenced only became a part of Miss Brodie whereas the one girl who least wanted to be influenced, Sandy, became almost completely like Miss Brodie. Sandy’s betrayal of Miss Brodie probably best shows how much like Brodie she is; she is “flattening” Brodie “beneath the chariot wheels”. Brodie’s statement of the girls being “mine for life” really shows with Sandy because even as an adult she is avoiding becoming like her former teacher by becoming a nun. However, despite Brodie not liking her career choice, Sandy is still “unmistakeably Brodie” because she became a “dedicated woman” which was always Brodie’s biggest desire for the girls. The “unmistakeably Brodie” statement used by Spark carries a distinct message, that these girls have a false sense of self. They all believe that they have their own personalities which Spark shows by the girls placing their hats in different ways. Their self-identity is an illusion.

Much like Spark, Bennett shows his protagonist students being distinctively influenced. Posner was influenced by his long-time teacher, Hector and Dakin was influenced by Irwin. Not only were the boys influenced by their teachers but they, like Sandy, became just like their teachers. While at school, Posner excelled, leaving top of the class with “a scholarship”; Dakin did also excel, just not quite as well as Posner, coming away with “an exhibition” (effectively second place to Posner). Although Headmaster believes that “he doesn’t produce results”, Hector is the one who influenced Posner to success and made him a more well-rounded individual. He achieved this despite everything that Hector taught being “useless to the school as a school”. If Posner was not as “vastly informed on a lot of subjects” then he would not have had as much academic success. Although as Headmaster says, the results are “unquantifiable” which is Bennett showing that if put against each other multiple times, Hector may not always defeat Irwin because Hector’s method is “unquantifiable” or, more simply, unreliable. While Dakin was at school he took success from Irwin’s “side door” method which worked for him because the method is just like him, it’s flashy and yet it works. It quickly gets him to the top and, like Irwin, that’s all Dakin needs. When Dakin says “I didn’t know I could think like that” he’s becoming more like Irwin, clearly, however, for Dakin, becoming like Irwin isn’t that much of a change. Therefore, Dakin is an outlier in the two stories, Posner was moulded to become like Hector, Sandy was moulded to become like Miss Jean Brodie but Dakin, while becoming like Irwin, ultimately became an, arguably, better version of himself. As James Middleton says “Posner, [is] perhaps the most fragile of the boys”[7] and consequently he is easily moulded by someone as charismatic as Hector: his fragility is his downfall. He ends up living as a recluse having “periodic breakdowns” and “keeps a scrapbook of … his one-time class”. Hector’s influence makes him academically successful but he could never make him socially successful because he taught “insulation” from the real world. Here, influence is a malicious force as it enhances the vulnerability in Posner’s character rather than challenging it.

Hector may stifle Posner but Brodie’s influence is fatal for Joyce Emily. She takes a vulnerable child who seeks belonging and sends her to a war zone where she dies. Miss Brodie’s self-glorifying representation of being a war-hero is, perhaps, the most difficult aspect of her to sympathise with. For many of the students “it was not always comfortable” to be influenced. Unlike any of Spark’s or Bennett’s other students Dakin chose to be influenced, knowing that Irwin’s “side door” method would get him to the top. Although Bennett paints Irwin to be the “villain of The History Boys”[8], David Greenberg is right in saying that Irwin is “the better teacher”[9] because he can teach success and he can inspire. He creates well-rounded people and minds, whereas Hector can only create well-rounded minds. Although Irwin’s influence on the surface appears second rate given that Posner got a “scholarship” and Dakin only an “exhibition” Dakin succeeds in life. Although as an audience people want to side with Hector (much like they do with Miss Brodie) it must be said that there was one teacher where no student left him hurt or damaged. Hector ruined Posner’s life leaving him “shrivelled and betrayed” and although Sandy got her own back on Miss Brodie she still was left with Brodie’s mark. So, despite even Bennett’s best efforts to make Irwin seem like the worst teacher, he, much to the dismay of many audiences, turns out on top. However, there is evidence within The History Boys to support that Hector may actually be the better teacher. Bennett himself claims that Hector is the “better teacher”[10] providing the boys with an education that gave Posner a “scholarship” and them all with a well-rounded knowledge in the class given “the euphemistic title… of general studies”. The boys’ extra-curricular knowledge is best shown when they are in Irwin’s class, or in their entrance examinations, where Hector’s true benefit on them can be seen in a wider context. He allows them to conquer the class prejudices of the 80s and it is thanks to him that these working-class boys break into “Oxbridge” Paradoxically he claims to insulate the boys from the outside world when he decides to “lock the door”, however, in reality, his influence takes its true effect when the door has been unlocked and the boys have been let away from Hector’s “pact”. Bennett and Spark both tackle whether or not a teacher should live vicariously through their students. In The History Boys Hector “used to think [he] could warm himself on the vitality of the boys”, meaning that he believed that his pupils’ “vitality” would bring him out of feeling like something made him “piss [his] life away”. However, he later discovers “that doesn’t work” and warns Irwin against living vicariously.

It’s possible that Miss Brodie lives vicariously through her girls because nobody warned her that it “doesn’t work”. However, in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The History Boys, “vitality” means different things. In The History Boys, “vitality” is what Hector takes from the boys during “Pillion Duty” and because it “doesn’t work” he has to keep doing it to keep him going. “Vitality” for Hector is a drug. Whereas “vitality” in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is more of a shared experience, it works between the “set” and Miss Brodie. The girls receive excellence from being one of Brodie’s girls and therefore Brodie is given excellence. However, when the girls are gone there is no excellence but only for Brodie; the girls kept their “vitality” but without the girls, Brodie could never have “vitality” again. Instead she ends up “shrivelled and betrayed” Brodie “was determined to enter and share the new life…” of the girls and “warm [herself] on the vitality of the [girls]” when she gets the girls to teach her Greek. She gets them to teach her Greek in order to remain close to the girls. The problem with living vicariously through students is that it leads to the two teachers becoming “old people who cling to outworn bodies”[11]. This leads the authors to show that despite that they probably shouldn’t live vicariously, both Hector and Miss Brodie do live through their students. In Hector this is shown through “Pillion Duty” and that he sees “the transference of knowledge” as “an erotic act”. The fact that he’s “an unrepentant molester”[12] shows that despite knowing that he knows that it “doesn’t work” he continues to “grope” the boys and hope that he can “warm” himself via “the laying on of hands”. Mrs Lintott sums up Hector using “Pillion Duty” best, “that is the most colossal balls”; she knows as well as Hector that a teacher cannot live through their students in order to improve their life. While Brodie is with the “set” she is almost able to live vicariously through her girls, however, after she’s fired she becomes “shrivelled and betrayed” clearly no longer “in [her] prime”. When teaching “she seizes upon docile little girls” [13] and she takes on their “vitality” if her girls can be “the crème de la crème” then maybe she can be too. But as soon as the connection is lost with the girls, she can no longer look upon people and “flatten their scorn beneath her chariot wheels”. Both teachers are shown to be “charlatans who exploit”[14] those who they should be protecting. This vicarious living would make the children feel at one with their teachers without even knowing that they are being exploited.

Both Spark and Bennett show that influence is often in the minds of those being influenced- whether that be a pupil or a teacher. They also show the dangers of influenced. If the person influencing is damaged, then they can only go on to inspire more damaged individuals such as Posner. Influence, in the end, is dangerous, whether it lives or it dies and it’s something that nobody can choose.

[1] Playing with Time/ James Middleton/ December 2009 [2] Autocracy and Education in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie/ Melodie Monahan/ 2006 [3]Autocracy and Education in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie/ Melodie Monahan/ 2006 [4]Romantic Idealism as a Response to the Rise of Fascism in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie/ David Kelly/ 2006 [5] Splendid by Destructive Egotism/ Martin Price/ January 21, 1962 [6] Autocracy and Education in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie/ Melodie Monahan/ 2006 [7] Playing with Time/ James Middleton/ December 2009 [8] Class Warfare: Why the villain of The History Boys is the better teacher/ David Greenberg/ November 2006 [9] Class Warfare: Why the villain of The History Boys is the better teacher/ David Greenberg/ November 2006 [10] Interview with Alan Bennett/ Theatre Talk/ 2006 [11] Splendid by Destructive Egotism/ Martin Price/ January 21, 1962 [12] Class Warfare: Why the villain of The History Boys is the better teacher/ David Greenberg/ November 2006 [13] Splendid by Destructive Egotism/ Martin Price/ January 21, 1962 [14] Splendid by Destructive Egotism/ Martin Price/ January 21, 1962

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