2017-11 No2 Educating Rita


If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2017)

Appreciating sex means appreciating the spark of life. Educating numbers of bright, interesting, lively young adults is a sexy occupation. The challenge for academics therefore is to keep the appreciation suitably abstract, so that it doesn’t overwhelm normal University business – and absolutely without permitting it to escalate into sexual harassment of students who are the relatively powerless ones in the educational/power relationship.

It’s long been known that putting admiring young people with admirable academics, as many are, can generate erotic undertones. Having a crush on one’s best teacher is a common youthful experience; and at least a few academics have had secret yearnings to receive a wide-eyed look of rapt attention from some comely youngster.1 There is a spectrum of behaviour at University classes and social events, from banter, stimulating repartee and mild flirtation (ok as long as not misunderstood), all the way across to heavy power-plays and cases of outright harassment (indefensible).
2017-11 No1 Hogarth_lecture_1736

Fig.1 Hogarth’s Scholars at a Lecture (1736) satirises both don and students, demonstrating that bad teaching can have a positively anti-aphrodisiac effect.

If academics don’t have the glamour, wealth and power of successful film producers, an eminent ‘don’ can still have a potent intellectual authority. I have known cases of charismatic senior authority figures imposing themselves sexually upon the gullible young, although I believe (perhaps mistakenly – am I being too optimistic here?) that such scenarios are less common today. That change has taken place partly because University expansion and grade escalation has created so many professors that they no longer have the same rarity value that once they did. It’s also worth noting that single academics don’t hold supreme power over individual student’s careers. Examination grades, prizes, appointments, and so forth are all dealt with by boards or panels, and vetted by committees.

Moreover, there’s been a social change in the composition of the professoriat itself. It’s no longer exclusively a domain of older heterosexual men (or gay men pretending publicly to be heterosexual, before the law was liberalised). No doubt, the new breed of academics have their own faults. But the transformation of the profession during the past forty years has diluted the old sense of hierarchy and changed the everyday atmosphere.

For example, when I began teaching in the early 1970s, it was not uncommon to hear some older male profs (not the junior lecturers) commenting regularly on the physical attributes of the female students, even in business meetings. It was faintly embarrassing, rather than predatory. Perhaps it was an old-fashioned style of senior male bonding. But it was completely inappropriate. Eventually the advent of numerous female and gay academics stopped the practice.

Once in an examination meeting, when I was particularly annoyed by hearing lascivious comments about the ample breasts of a specific female student, I tried a bit of direct action by reversing the process. In a meaningful tone, I offered a frank appreciation of the physique of a handsome young male student, with reference specifically to his taut buttocks. (This comment was made in the era of tight trousers, not as a result of any personal exploration). My words produced a deep, appalled silence. It suggested that the senior male profs had not really thought about what they were saying. They were horrified at hearing such words from a ‘lady’ – words which struck them not as ‘harmless’ good fun (as they viewed their own comments) but as unpleasantly crude.

Needless to say, I don’t claim that my intervention on its own changed the course of history. Nonetheless, today academic meetings are much more businesslike, even more perfunctory. Less time is spent discussing individual students, who are anyway much more numerous – with the result that the passing commentary on students’ physiques seems also to have stopped. (That’s a social gain on the gender frontier; but there have been losses as well, as today’s bureaucratised meetings are – probably unavoidably – rather tedious).

One important reason for the changed atmosphere is that more specific thought has been given these days to the ethical questions raised by physical encounters between staff and students. It’s true that some relationships turn out to be sincere and meaningful. It’s not hard to find cases of colleagues who have embarked upon long, happy marriages with former students. (I know a few). And there is one high-profile example on the international scene today: Brigitte Trogneux, the wife of France’s President Emmanuel Macron, first met her husband, 25 years her junior, when she was a drama teacher and he was her 15-year old student. They later married, despite initial opposition from his parents, and seem happy together.

But ethical issues have to take account of all possible scenarios; and can’t be sidelined by one or two happy outcomes. There’s an obvious risk academic/student sexual relationships (or solicitation for sexual relationships) can lead to harassment, abuse, exploitation and/or favouritism. Such outcomes are usually experienced very negatively by students, and can be positively traumatic. There’s also the possibility of anger and annoyance on the part of other students, who resent the existence of a ‘teacher’s pet’. In particular, if the senior lover is also marking examination papers written by the junior lover, there’s a risk that the impartial integrity of the academic process may be jeopardised and that student confidence in the system be undermined. (Secret lovers generally believe that their trysts remain unknown to those around them; but are often wrong in that belief).

As far as I know, many Universities don’t have official policies on these matters, though I have long thought they should. Now that current events, especially the shaming of Harvey Weinstein, have reopened the public debates, it’s time to institute proper professional protocols. The broad principles should include an absolute ban of all forms of sexual abuse, harassment or pressurising behaviour; plus, equally importantly, fair and robust procedures for dealing with accusations about such abusive behaviour, bearing in mind the possibility of false claims.

There should also be a very strong presumption that academic staff should avoid having consensual affairs with students (both undergraduate and postgraduate) while the students are registered within the same academic institution and particularly within the specific Department, Faculty or teaching unit, where the academic teaches.

Given human frailty, it must be expected that the ban on consensual affairs will sometimes be breached. It’s not feasible to expect all such encounters to be reported within each Department or Faculty (too hard to enforce). But it should become an absolute policy that academics should excuse themselves from examining students with whom they are having affairs. Or undertaking any roles where a secret partisan preference could cause injustice (such as making nominations for prizes). No doubt, Departments/Faculties will have to devise discreet mechanisms to operate such a policy; but so be it.

Since all institutions make great efforts to ensure that their examination processes are fairly and impartially operated, it’s wrong to risk secret sex warping the system. Ok, we are all flawed humans. But over the millennia humanity has learned – and is still learning – how to cope with our flaws. In these post-Weinstein days, all Universities now need a set of clear professional protocols with reference to sex and the academics.
2017-11 No2 Educating Rita

Fig.2 Advertising still for Educating Rita (play 1980; film 1983), which explores how a male don and his female student learn, non-amorously, from one another.

1 Campus novels almost invariably include illicit affairs: two witty exemplars include Alison Lurie’s The War between the Tates (1974) and Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man (1975). Two plays which also explore educational/personal tensions between a male academic and female student are Willy Russell’s wry but gentle Educating Rita (1990) and David Mamet’s darker Oleanna (1992).

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If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2011)

People often imagine that class barriers were more rigid in the past, notwithstanding historical fluctuations in social attitudes. As a result, it is always assumed that cross-class marriages were especially rare. Yet matters were never so simple. Among the many individuals in the past, who had sexual relationships across class boundaries (a comparatively frequent occurrence), there were always some who were bold enough to marry across them.

One case, among several aristocratic examples from the eighteenth century, was the marriage of the 5th Earl of Berkeley to Mary Cole, the daughter of a Gloucester butcher. She made a dignified wife, living down the social sneers. The Berkeleys began to live together in 1785 and did not marry publicly until 1796, although the Earl claimed that there had been an earlier ceremony.
october001This confusion led to a succession dispute. Eventually, the sons born before the public wedding were disbarred from inheriting the title, which went to their legitimate younger brother. Here the difficulty was not the mother’s comparatively ‘lowly’ status but the status of the parental marriage. It affected the succession to a noble title, which entitled its holder to attend the House of Lords. But the disbarred older siblings did not become social outcasts. Two of the technically illegitimate sons, born before the public marriage, went on to become MPs in the House of Commons, while the legitimate 6th Earl modestly declined to take his seat as a legislator.

Another example, this time from the nineteenth century, was that of Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh. He was the wealthy owner of Uppark House (Sussex), who in 1825 married for the first time, aged 70. His bride was the 21-year-old Mary Ann Bullock, his dairymaid’s assistant. She inherited his estate, surviving him for many years. Everything at Uppark was kept as it was in Sir Harry’s day. The estate then went to her unmarried sister who, as ‘her leddyship’ in her very old age, appeared to epitomise the old landed society – so much did outcomes triumph over origins. The young H.G. Wells, whose mother was housekeeper at Uppark, mused accordingly:1

In that English countryside of my boyhood every human being had a ‘place’. It belonged to you from your birth like the colour of your eyes, it was inextricably your destiny. Above you were your betters, below you were your inferiors…

The social conventions, within such a hierarchy, did allow for some mobility. High-ranking men raised their wives to a matching status, giving aristocratic men some room for manoeuvre. Against that, noble families generally did their best to ensure that heirs to grand titles did not run away with someone entirely ‘unsuitable’.

A tabulation of the first-marriage choices of 826 English peers, made between 1600 and 1800, showed that, in sober reality, most (73 percent) chose a bride from an equally or nearly equally titled background.2 The homogeneity of the elite was generally preserved.

Interestingly, however, just over one quarter (27 percent) of these English peers – a far from negligible proportion – were more socially venturesome. Their wives from ‘lower’ social backgrounds tended to be daughters of professional men or of merchants. In particular, a splendid commercial fortune was an ideal contribution in terms of bridal dowry; and, in such circumstances, aristocratic families found themselves willing to accept theoretically humbler connections with businessmen ‘in trade’.

Marriages like that of Sir Harry were ‘outliers’ in terms of the social distance between bride and groom. But his matrimonial decision to leap over conventions of social distance was not unique.

For women of high rank, meanwhile, things were more complicated. By marrying ‘down’, they lost social status; and their off-spring, however well connected on the mother’s side, took their ‘lower’ social rank from the father.

Nonetheless, it was far from unknown for high-born women to flout convention. In particular, wealthy widows might follow their own choice in a second marriage, having followed convention in the first. One notable example was Hester Lynch Salusbury, from a Welsh landowning family. She married, firstly, Henry Thrale, a wealthy brewer, with whom she had 12 children, and then in 1784 – three years after Thrale’s death – Gabriele Piozzi, an Italian music teacher and a Catholic to boot.3

Scandal ensued. Her children were affronted. And Dr Johnson, a frequent house-guest at the Thrale’s Streatham mansion, was decidedly not amused. Undaunted, Hester Lynch Piozzi and her husband retired to her estates in north Wales, where they lived in a specially built Palladian villa, Brynbella.
october002So little was damage done to the family’s long-term status that her (estranged) oldest daughter married a Viscount. Furthermore, the Piozzis’ adopted son, an Italian nephew of Gabriele Piozzi, inherited the Salusbury estates, taking the compound name Sir John Salusbury Piozzi Salusbury.

If, after the initial fuss, the partners in a cross-class union lived respectably enough, the wider society tended sooner or later to condone the ‘mésalliance’. Feelings were soothed by respect for marriage as an institution. And the wider social stability was ultimately served by absorbing such dynastic shocks rather than by highlighting them.

Little wonder that many a novel dilated on the excitements and tensions of matrimonial choice. Not only was there the challenge of finding a satisfactory partner among social peer-groups but there was always some lurking potential for an unconventional match instead of a conventional union.

Such possibilities – complete with hazards – applied at all levels of society. In the early twentieth century, the family of D.H. Lawrence epitomised a different set of cross-class tensions. His father was a scarcely literate miner from Eastwood, near Nottingham, while his mother was a former assistant teacher with strong literary interests, who disdained the local dialect, and prided herself on her ‘good old burgher family’. From the start, they were ill-assorted.
october003In his youth, D.H. Lawrence was his mother’s partisan and despised his father as feckless and ‘common’. Later, however, he switched his theoretical allegiance. Lawrence felt that his mother’s puritan gentility had warped him. Instead, he yearned for his father’s male sensuousness and frank hedonism, though the father and son never became close.4

Out of such tensions came Lawrence’s preoccupation with man/woman conflict and with unorthodox sex and love. His parent’s strife was also more than mirrored in his own turbulent relationship with Frieda von Richtofen, the daughter of a Silesian aristocrat, who was, when they met, married to a respected Nottingham University professor.

Initial social distance between a married couple could lend enchantment – or the reverse. Cross-class relationships have been frequent enough for there to have been many cases, both successful and the reverse. Later generations always underestimate their number. But we should not ignore the potential for cultural punch (positive or negative) when couples from different backgrounds marry, even in times when class barriers are less than rigid. Nor should we underestimate society’s long-term ability to absorb such shocks, which would have to happen in great numbers before a classless society might be achieved.

1 H.G. Wells, Tono-Bungay (1909; in 1994 edn), pp. 10-11. For more about the Fe(a)therstonhaugh marriage and the context of Sussex landowning society, see A. Warner, ‘Finding the Aristocracy, 1780-1880: A Case Study of Rural Sussex’ (unpub. typescript, 2011; copyright A. Warner, who can be contacted via PJC).

2 Figures calculated from data in J. Cannon, Aristocratic Century: The Peerage of Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge, 1984), p. 85: Table 20. Note that the social status of each bride is derived from the rank of her father, so possibly obscuring a more variegated background in terms of her maternal inheritance.

3 Details of their courtship and Hester Thrale’s meditations on their disparities in rank are available on the website:

4 R. Aldington, Portrait of a Genius but …: The Life of D.H. Lawrence (1950), pp. 3-5, 8-9, 13, 15, 334.

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