Monday musings on Australian literature: Teachers in Australian novels

What’s brought this on, you are probably wondering, but I can explain. Firstly, my Jane Austen group has, over the years, discussed Jane Austen from the point of view of roles and professions, so, for example, we’ve discussed professions like the clergy, and roles, like brothers, in Austen, and have enjoyed the research and the discussion. Secondly I’ve been in Melbourne this weekend visiting our family, and it just so happens that Son Gums is a teacher. Why not, then, I thought, look at how teachers are portrayed in Australian novels.

Hmmm, I can think of many films, though I admit that I’m talking internationally here, about inspirational teachers. They abound, in fact, but where are they in novels? Even where teachers are not negatively portrayed they seem more likely to be weak and/or ineffectual, than proactive and successful. It was hard to search the internet for my topic, however, because searches tended to retrieve hits about teaching fiction, or teachers’ resources for fiction, rather than hits about teachers as characters in fiction. I did, though, find a blog post from 2012 in which blogger and educator, Darcy Moore, asked “where is the inspirational teacher in Australian popular culture literature and film?  I wasn’t surprised to discover that he didn’t find much either. 

So what is there? Some novels featuring teachers fall, loosely, into the mystery-crime-thriller genre. There’s Kenneth Cook’s debut 1961 novel Wake in fright which chronicles the nightmarish school holiday of a rookie teacher in outback Australia, Joan Lindsay’s famous 1967 novel Picnic at Hanging Rock in which teachers lose some students during a picnic, and Gabrielle Lord’s 1980 novel Fortress that was inspired by a real abduction of a teacher and students in Victoria in 1972. At least in that story the teacher does manage to escape with her students. It’s probably not surprising, given the dramatic nature of these novels, that all three have been made into movies. I have read two of these books, but before blogging.

Dymphna Cusack, Jungfrau

Some books feature teachers, but aren’t significantly about their work. Dymphna Cusack’s 1936 novel Jungfrau  (my review) is one such. Cusack, who had herself been a teacher, writes here about three women, obstetrician Eve, teacher Thea, and social worker Marc. They are modern young professional women, but the book’s focus is more their personal and social lives, particularly as affected by Thea’s affair with a married professor, than their working lives. Indeed, early on, Thea, defending her adulterous relationship as her right “to get something out of life”, says “my work doesn’t mean anything to me”. Hmm …

Book coverThen there’s Tom Dorahy in Thea Astley’s 1974 novel A kindness cup, my first Astley, which I read long before blogging. He’s an idealist, a humane person, who returns to his home town for a reunion, but what he really wants to do is right the wrongs of a massacre of Aboriginal people that occurred during his time there, twenty years previously in the 1860s, and for which the perpetrators were never properly punished. It’s interesting that Astley, inspired by a real massacre, was writing about this in 1974! She really was a special and fearless writer. However, again, the book, as I recollect, isn’t so much about his teaching.

Book coverElizabeth Jolley’s 1983 novel, Miss Peabody’s inheritance, also features a teacher, but perhaps not quite in the way most parents would be looking for. This is a novel-within-a-novel, in which an Australian novelist sends instalments of her novel-in-progress to a fan in England. Her novel is about three middle-aged single women, including headmistress Arabella Thorne, who holiday annually together in Europe. This particular year, Thorne brings along a sixteen-year-old student to give her “a little finishing”. The finishing she gets, as she becomes caught up in Miss Thorne’s emotional entanglements with her women friends, is not exactly the usual!

Book coverHmmm, so, are there any teachers actually being good role models in Australian novels? I’m sure there are, but the only one I can remember right now is Phil Day who appears in Julian Davies’ 2018 Call me (my review). Phil Day is not, admittedly, the novel’s protagonist, but his student Pip is – and Phil Day plays an important role in Pip’s coming-of-age trajectory, by listening to him and discussing life with him, rather than by telling him what to do.

Good, wise and/or supportive teachers do appear, I know, in other coming-of-age stories, but I can’t think of any that stand out particularly.

So I’m going to end this post, by returning to Darcy Moore, who concluded his post with:

In an era where teachers are often criticised by politicians and our standing in the Australian community is often talked down, certainly in comparison to Asian and Scandinavian countries, it is important that we work to build an improved attitude towards learning. … It would be wonderful to build a vision into something tangible, something that that allows us to have a society where such positive imagery about teaching and teachers enters our popular, cinematic and literary culture and is not viewed as pretentious, elitist or cringeworthy. Wouldn’t it?

Seven years after that post, things are still much the same I think in terms of how our teachers are perceived. Why is this? And would it help to have some positive depictions in literature – and the other arts? I’m not one to prescribe what writers should write about, but that doesn’t stop me wondering whether positive portrayals would help (if that makes sense.)

Meanwhile, do we have some great depictions in Australian literature that I’ve missed? I’m sure we do, so here is your chance to tell me.

67 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Teachers in Australian novels

        • I shouldn’t comment every time something pops into my head! Tennant’s story is of a one teacher school in rural NSW. I thought it was the quintessential teacher story in Oz.Lit. Scott’s is similar, though he has a wife with him, and reflects his experience at his first school in the Kimberley, coming to terms with his Aboriginal heritage. And. Has The Getting of Wisdom come up yet.

        • Ah yes, I remember now that subject matter of Tiburon, and thanks re Scott. As for The getting of wisdom, yes, they have. I nearly mentioned it myself, but really couldn’t remember enough about the role of teachers to make a sensible comment. I’d be happy for you to, Bill, if you cared to pop back again!

  1. This is a fascinating topic. I am thinking of all the world’s literature and I agree, there is a lack of inspirational teachers in literature.

    You have also reminded me that I want to read Picnic at Hanging Rock. I thought that the film was brilliant.

  2. No, none in literature … but in reality. Like Eddie Woo, you know ? But you couldn’t make a movie about him …
    Could you ?
    Or write a book about him ?
    Just saying.

    • Oh yes, I reckon you could do a film or movie about him. I think many – or at least some – of the inspirational movies about teachers, are based on real teachers, but I did want here to focus on fictional ones. Why are their more films than books on this? Does it say something about the two media do you think?

    • Great Carmel, I thought you might have some ideas. I haven’t read Maestro, but it’s one I have on my backlog radar.

      I don’t know that Porter short story, but I think teachers do pepper quite a few short stories don’t they.

      • If you have a copy of Red Hot Notes which I edited long ago, you will find ‘Miss Rodda’ there. The whole little anthology was inspired by the idea of the
        ‘music teacher story’ which is a common trope in memoir (or at least among the students who have been in my courses. (NB Priests are often teachers too – they’re quite a presence in fiction. )

        • I do have a copy, though I moved it recently from where it had been for years, and I’m darned if I can find it. Really mysterious. However, I WILL find it, and when I do, I’ll check out that story.

  3. Miss Peach in Peter Goldsworthy’s Everything I Knew.
    Also, teachers are included regularly in YA fiction as the protagonists are often still school-aged. Recently, I can think of the influence of teachers (both positive and negative) in Claire Christian’s Beautiful Mess (2017) and Erin Gough’s Amelia Westlake(2018).

    • Haha, Tessa, another Goldsworthy teacher. I haven’t read that one either.

      And thanks for mentioning YA, and giving a couple of examples. I decided not to go down that path, because it’s one I don’t know well, but from what I have read I realised that it does “do” teachers – of all types!

        • A friend reminded me that in ‘My Brilliant Career’ she teaches for a while. And isn’t ‘We of the Never Never’ about a governess? But more importantly I remembered Sylvia Ashton Warner’s ‘Teacher’ set in New Zealand – surely one of the early discussions about teaching in Indigenous language.

        • Thanks very much Margaret. Yes, she (I mean Sybylla) does! I do think governesses would make a good separate post, because they are a bit different aren’t they. The whole socioeconomics of their role and place, for a start, make them different.

          I’ve never read “Teacher”, but it keeps popping up. One day …

  4. WG: Such a fascinating topic for me (teacher – of English and History and other subjects beginning back in 1971…). What intrigues me is that other countries put up statues or other memorials – to teachers. Teaching/education – celebrated. Here – in some senses and by politicians especially – a kicking bag or at their most cynical – a “photo-op” backdrop to some policy announcement. During my many years in Japan I established a kind of movement to the educational hero of the region in which I lived – a figure known right across Japan – YOSHIDA Shōin (1830-1859). His students went on to lead Japan into the modern world – he already long gone – executed in the Ansei purges along with others – by a fearful Edo government. There were a couple of shrines dedicated to him and at least one high school bearing his name. Searching for significant Australian teachers recognised in some way – back in the early 1980s a dozen years after my start in teaching I came across a book published in 1930 “Old Eko’s Notebook” by the Victoria teacher, writer Nathan SPIELVOGEL (1874 – 1956) – full of short observations about the life of a teacher and his students – warm-hearted. Something A.S.Neill (Summerhill) about his warmth. I realise that these are not fictional teacher characters – but your essay brought them both to mind as exemplars. Maybe it’s just that for dramatic purposes – unless the teacher is a scoundrel – there is no real dramatic element. Or simply that most writers had good teachers, encouraging teachers -n and so went on with their “craft” to write other kinds of stories…???

    • Thanks Jim … you’re allowed to mention non-fiction ones! You make some valid suppositions I think about why there aren’t many good teachers in fiction – although fiction usually has its good characters to offset the bad ones and there aren’t enough of them.

      I perhaps should have mentioned Sofie Laguna’s The choke as not good examples too.

  5. i am sorry this is not about a teacher in Australian fiction, but I couldn’t help mentioning one of the most famous Japanese novels, I am a Cat, by Natsume Soseki. It is a cat’s unflattering view of his master, a teacher. It is a serialized novel, which has been made into at least one movie I think.

    • That’s ok, Carolyn. Even though I did ASK specifically this time for Australian fiction, it is always understood that commenters can go beyond Australia when commenting on Monday Musings. So, thanks for this. I had heard of it, but have never read it.

    • Okay – if Japan – then one of my favourite all time books – Natsume Sōseki’s classic about a young teacher in a remote province (i.e. far from Tōkyō) Botchan (Little Master if translated though always even in English translation Botchan).

  6. The advancement of Spencer Button? Can’t remember the author’s name. Also a play by Dorothy Hewitt – Morning Sacrifice? The getting of wisdom? Even, briefly, My brilliant career..r

    • Thanks Beverley. I had never heard of the Spencer Button one. The author is Brian James I’ve discovered, and it was published in 1950. GoodReads describes it as an Australian classic. The things you learn – which is one of the reasons I love blogging.

      Thanks for the other ideas too. I wasn’t doing plays, but I’m happy to have the Hewett recommendation too.

      • WG: Brian James was the pseudonym of teacher John Tierney born in Eurunderee (where Henry Lawson grew up – on the edge of Mudgee 1892-1972. He wrote a report comment on one of my father’s report cards early 1940’s – an annex of Fort Street Boys. This is a classic novel – how could I have forgotten it? So thanks to Beverley Kingston and you, too.

  7. Great topic. It’s a bit sad when we struggle to come up with many Australian examples. No wonder we struggle to recruit bright students to a career in education and why so many teachers feel undervalued and demoralised. Perhaps inspiring teachers don’t feature so much in fiction because despite the probably many good and inspiring teachers we had, it is the cruel and bitter ones who scarred our young hearts that stick in our memories the most.

    • Thanks Karen. It is sad, I completely agree, as, obviously, did Darcy Moore. I think there’s a point re the the difficult teachers providing the most dramatic stories, but in most stories there are also good characters, supportive or wise characters. Why can’t more of those be teachers too? After all, most of us can point to a couple at least in our lives, can’t we?

      • I feel that there must be thousands of teachers in fiction but, as you say they can be difficult to conjure up. Muriel Spark’s Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie gives us perhaps the most memorable fictional portrayal of the profession. James Hilton’s Goodbye Mister Chips is another.

  8. Teachers keep popping up everywhere….
    Kenneth Cook’s ‘ Wake in Fright’ the first sentence describes the main character Mr. Mason:
    “He sat at his desk, wearily watching the children file out of the room, reflecting that, this term at least, it was reasonable to assume that none of the girls was pregnant.” 🙂

  9. Great topic! One of the main characters in His Other House by Sarah Armstrong is a home ec/cooking teacher. Inga Simpson’s novel Nest has an art teacher – or an artist teaching art after school. Was also thinking of governesses (someone else has already mentioned that) and thought of Clara Morison by Catherine Helen Spence but think Clara was working as a servant, despite her education. There must be more governess featured in books, or school of the air in contemporary rural lit?? I recently stumbled across the BBC series adaption of Winifred Holtby’s South Riding about a ‘firecracker’ of a new young teacher in 1930s northern England – surprising there’s not an Aust equivalent.

    • Oh thanks very much for these, Emma. I haven’t read those books by Armstrong and Simpson so had no idea.

      Talking of firecracker teachers, the closest I can think of in Australia is a real one, not a fictional one, and that’s Dymphna Cusack. Her memoir, A window in the dark, chronicles her teaching years her teaching years, 1922 to 1943, and her commitment and struggle to bring education to the disadvantaged.

      I think governesses deserve their own post – but they would need some research to suss out. I am sure they are there!

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