The lure of the classroom romance

The lure of the classroom romance

Forbidden romances are rife at most schools (and feature in the plots of many novels, including my own, The Last Kings of Sark).

But when it comes to the scandal of teacher-pupil relationships, reactions are (understandably) extreme. Leaving aside any illegality, throw together hormonal adolescents and authority-figure teachers and lecturers and you have a potent mix.

I went to an all-girls school and I remember a PSHE lesson when a male teacher (one of those rare and exotic beasts) said the immortal phrase: “deep kiss”. Half the class’ faces fell in on themselves in disgust, the other half of the class melted.

I was in the meltable half, and my melting point was exceptionally low. Stockrooms, canteens, school camping trips – these all provided momentous fantasy scenarios.

At the time, it didn’t seem creepy. When you are that age, you don’t feel that age. You champion the idea that age gaps are arbitrary. When I was starting my AS-levels, my criteria for my ideal man included the very specific age of "around 32”. Around 32?! I was 16. Now, my male friends are in their thirties, and if any of them brought a schoolgirl to a dinner, it… well, it just wouldn’t happen. But somehow, it didn’t seem so outrageous when I was the schoolgirl.

(Respectable) teachers in literature are innumerable – Miss Jean Brodie, Miss Honey, Professor Bhaer, Jim Dixon, Dr Pangloss, Miss Prism, Miss Pinkerton, Julian from The Secret History – but here are my best literary examples of what was once my wannabe specialist subject: teachers who indulge in an illicit affair.

Mike the English teacher in David Belbin's Love Lessons

I’d not read the book for roughly 11 years, but I still remembered the ‘sizzling’ scene where new-to-the-school teacher Mike pulls his student Rachel onto his lap and kisses her for the first time. They’d been rehearsing lines for the school play of Romeo & Juliet. You can imagine. I never use the word ‘sizzling’ lightly.

What follows: endless secret lovemaking marathons and promises to be together forever, which feel unlikely even as they’re said. Love Lessons is what is known as Young Adult and while the language doesn’t sing, there’s a real urgency to it. The chapters move as fast as clicking one’s fingers. The end, the sad shock of the end – at the time, at least – I found masterful.


Anne Arden in Sylvia Brownrigg's Pages for You

Seventeen-year-old Flannery is ordering a slightly worrying ‘jelly omelette’ when her eyes first set sights on Anne Arden, a teaching assistant at Flannery’s new university. Their ensuing love story is told in a pointillist way – in micro chapters, lovers’ vignettes, the ‘pages’ of the title. The style is exuberant, highly romantic, heady to the point of being occasionally overbearing – which is fair, coming through the filter of a 17-year-old’s voice. “The wasted muscle fatigue of want” moves to a later, sadder reflection: “What hand had come down to block the light between them?”

Brownrigg’s writing is still fresh– she talks of “confettied leaves” and the “conversation between them [that] stuttered like a broken faucet”. Equally, the desire feels exceptionally real, as does the overarching shape of the story.


Bathsheba ‘Sheba’ Hart in Zoe Heller's Notes on a Scandal

The story of 41-year-old pottery teacher Sheba’s affair with a brutish, shy 17-year-old with mild special needs is told through the rampantly rude, tricksy filter of Barbara Covett, Sheba’s colleague and self-assigned ‘guardian’.

It is not an affair the reader roots for: there is little voyeuristic pleasure since Covett’s narration casts schoolboy Connolly as a “coarse-looking” comic primate throughout, and wherever there is thrill, it is skilfully punctuated by something he says (the immortal line “You’re worried your vadge has got loose” comes to mind). Every character is flawed – Sheba is feckless and middle-class to a fault – yet all are sympathetic. The writing is funny, flicker-quick and the observations both of the British school system (a year 8 burning a year 7 with a disposable lighter) and the British media feasting on such scandals are superb.


Mr Mann in R.A Nelson's Teach Me

The second YA book on this list, Teach Me, neatly follows the major trend of the teacher-pupil genre: the affair ignites over literature. In this case, Emily Dickinson. The student narrator, Carolina, who goes by the nickname Nine, is precocious, emo-effusive and 6ft tall. Her language is garrulous and everything must be new: a heart can never beat, it bangs. Mr Mann, Nine’s English teacher and paramour, is the kind of obnoxious, down-with-the-kids older man that only a minor could find appealing.

The affair is short, peaks early, then descends into ludicrous adolescent revenge, but that said, it’s still a classic of the canon – the very specific teacher-pupil canon.


Howard Belsey in Zadie Smith's On Beauty

When Howard Belsey has sex with Victoria Kipps, just about everything is wrong. Not only is she his student, she is the daughter of his professional arch-nemesis and they are at her mother’s funeral. 

Unlike some of the other encounters above, where at least one party is keen to stress the equality of the relationship, Smith makes Victoria Kipps reveal her own immaturity. She is half-vamp, half-child. The sexual act is desperately self-conscious: both Lolita and Mrs Robinson are referenced. The affair is by no means the crux of On Beauty, but its handling makes it probably the most realistic of encounters mentioned here.

There’s an abuse of power but both the instigation and the motivations are a muddled mess. It’s hugely complex and profoundly uncomfortable – as I imagine the real-life situation most often is. 

Other notable mentions of forbidden fictional love affairs include latest Booker-winner Eleanor Catton’s first novel The Rehearsal, which follows drama students in the wake of a local high-school sex scandal, and Alyssa Nutting’s Tampa, a NSFW take on the real-life case of disgraced teacher Debra Lafave.


The Last Kings of Sark by Rosa Rankin-Gee is out now, published by Virago.


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