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.
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 …
Then 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.
Elizabeth 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!
Hmmm, 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.