The Forbidden Sexual Obsession In The History Boys And Notes On A Scandal

Forbidden sexual relationships are a theme strongly explored within the works of Alan Bennett and Zoe Heller. ‘Notes on a Scandal’ and ‘The History Boys’ follows complex relationships between teachers and students while also exploring the hidden sexuality of characters. The History Boys is a dramatic play written in 2004 by Alan Bennett which follows the journey of a group of sixth form boys (aged 17-18) who are studying to enter Oxbridge. Meanwhile, ‘Notes on a Scandal’ is a modern novel published in 2003 and is set in and follows a woman caught having a “sexual affair” with a 15 year old schoolboy. Both of these texts are set in different eras but still manage to capture the same central theme of forbidden sexual desire found within young people and their teachers and the sexual obsession found within closeted individuals who are repressing their sexuality. The theme of forbidden love is pursued by many characters, for instance Hector in ‘The History Boys’ and Sheba in ‘Notes in a Scandal’. It can be argued that the relationships within the works of Heller and Bennett are all exploitive and obsessive which is what keeps the plots of both works “titillating”.

The History Boys is a drama play set in the eighties. The eighties were an era of social upheaval and had many drastic changes within the education system. For example, Margaret Thatcher (the first female Prime Minister) set about the task of tackling the education system. She introduced The National Curriculum - which prohibited teachers from teaching whatever they wished. Thatcher also introduced Teacher Training days and Ofsted reports which were a part of her initiative and transformed education in the UK. The education reform shows two different kinds of teachers Hector (the older teacher; far more erratic, spontaneous and less reliable) and Irwin (the newer teacher; more practical and pragmatic). However, it can be argued that both teachers engage in immoral and inappropriate sexual relations with young students. The primary relationship in the drama is Hector with his 'favourite' students and his “fiddling” towards the boys. Hector even reinforces trust with his students by reaffirming his position of power by stating 'I am your teacher. Whatever I do in this room is a token of my trust. I am in your hands. It is a pact.' However, this quote contains a double entendre and alludes to Hector's forbidden motorcycle rides with the boys where he fondles them which is clearly against the rules of the education system. Additionally, “hands-on boys genitals 50 miles an hour” personifies the motorcycle euphemism, “The motorcycle is an icon – a trophy – of the Rooseveltian archetype of manliness that helps men assert their masculinity” but Hector’s is directly linked with his sexuality and symbolizes his homosexuality as he gropes the boys on it. Hector feels that the motorcycle is the only place where he is free to be himself and ultimately, the motorcycle is the place where he meets his end. Although Hector engages with his pupil in an inappropriate manner, he is still not seen in a villainous way and is described as “an ambiguous hero” by Stinson. Similarly, in Notes on a Scandal, Sheba has a 'love affair' with her student Connolly. Notes on a Scandal, alternatively, is a first person account of Sheba, from the point of view of Barbara - who is said to be ‘a gloriously unreliable narrator’ by Richard Eyre. Barbara is infatuated with Sheba and describes herself as having a 'tender love' for Sheba. Barbara is an unreliable narrator who states 'This is not a story about me,' but then proceeds to contradict herself as readers soon find out that her old friend Judith cut her out because she was “too intense”. Sheba however pursued a young boy and even states to Barbara that 'doing that kind of thing is easy' which highlights the fact that it is easy to give into your forbidden sexual desires which she later one notes that the “labels we give our sexual feelings, they’re so silly”. Both texts show an adult figure's blatant disregard for their teaching role. Barbra even states ''Connolly was officially a minor, and Sheba's actions were, officially speaking, exploitative' yet Barbara notes that Connolly 'actually wielded more power in the relationship than Sheba' which is ironic considering the age gap between them and the power imbalance. Connolly kept himself as the one in control which is illustrated when he casually passes crude “vulgar” remarks about her being an “old lady” and her “vadge”. The colloquialism in there emphasises his immaturity which Sheba refuses to see. She doesn’t want to see him as the child he is which does lead to her downfall. The Feminist Spectator states that in Notes on a Scandal 'Sheba, in fact, is a spoiled, arrogant woman, who feels entitled to what her whims dictate. She teaches because she’s bored with keeping her home; she can’t articulate why she has the affair with the student, except to say that she wanted him. She unloads her superficial needs on Barbara' This leads the readers to believe that Sheba brought upon her own 'qualified ruin'.

It is hinted in the novel ‘Notes on a Scandal’ that Barbara is a closeted lesbian who is smitten with Sheba who she described as a “very good looking woman” with a “dancers bosom”. Barbra Covet’s name is synonymous with jealousy and envy which can be seen with the way she describes Connolly “as slightly sinister” Zoe Heller uses sibilance in her simile to emphasize her disdain with the boy. She is extremely negative toward the boy and ridicules his “squished” face. Barbara spends the whole book defending Sheba’s “indefensible behaviour”. She remarks that it is a “depressing task” to document Sheba’s pursuit with Connolly but it is ironic considering she then buys a pack of gold stars to mark the more interesting parts of the story. Margaret Stead states that “underlying her account of Sheba's affair is something akin to repressed sexual jealousy”. which is seen when Barbara finds out about Sheba and Connolly’s sexual affair she becomes “depressed” and her life becomes “incoherent” yet she doesn’t expose the relationship due to her infallible loyalty to Sheba which isn’t part of an ordinary relationship and is due to her sexual obsession towards her. This forbidden love is masked and results in her spilling the affair to Bangs; a man who “appalled” her and is “nuts about” Sheba which Barbara cannot stand because she is portrayed as possesive. Furthermore, ‘Notes on a Scandal’ explores how the media sensationalizes everything about women, there is a double standard within the way men and females are treated as a male would be slandered if he was caught “fornicating with a child”. They have many sexual headlines about Sheba, such as 'Sex Teacher Passes Her Orals With Flying Colours'. The “gutter press” cannot be trusted as they refer to Sheba as a “buxom bombshell” when she isn’t in reality, this can be seen as an extension of society during this time as they had Page 3 Girls which were nude models put into the third page of tabloid newspapers and were disbanded due to campaigning because many feminists such as Lucy Anne-Holmes found it “degrading” because “we all have to live in a society that says 'shut up and get your tits out'.'.

Irwin in ‘The History Boys’ character is an act. By the end of the play we find out that he did not attend Oxford and that he was hiding secret feelings for Dakin. Irwin’s whole character is carefully crafted to help him live a lie because he is “scared shitless” of reality. His sentence structure in the beginning of the play is fluent and long but the moment Dakin confronts him, he becomes nervous and his mask slips off to reveal him. His sentence structure transforms to small nervous ones like “This ... it’s ... such a cliché” he is stuttering and inarticulate which empowers Dakin to go into a long speech. Dakin sees through the facade and realizes the weakness of Irwin. Dakin is the most confident character within the play and speaks in military metaphors for his sexual desires which he uses on Irwin “Was Poland taken by surprise?” “To some extent. Though they knew something was up”. It could be argued that Dakin is Irwin’s forbidden sexual obsession as Dakin is the one that makes Irwins facade crack and reveals that Irwin isn’t “anything enough really” which is why he often loses fluency like when he “stumbles again” It becomes obvious that Irwin is reading a script which is symbolic of how his life is a full of pretence.

The structure of these texts are different as ‘Notes on a Scandal’ is written as a diary by Barbara Covett and it is dated in a chronological order making it Linear, minus the foreword . However, Bennett wrote The History Boys by starting each act in the future with Irwin. Meanwhile, Heller has portrayed Covett as an unreliable narrator who consistently spews something only to backtrack (often within the same sentence) it is highlighted when Barbara suggests snide comments such as 'I couldn't possibly speak for Mrs Hart, but instinct tells me you might not be her type'. Zoe Heller uses lots of symbolism in her work like Sheba's allegorical view on her relationship. Sheba does not see her affair with Connolly in the same light as everyone else does; to her, it is an allegory of 'Romeo and Juliet', as she assumes she and Connolly were heavily in love and are tragic figures unable to continue their sexual relationship due to family pressures and conflicting situations in their lives. On the other hand, The History Boys does not have an established narrator as it is written as a dramatic play and contains many typical tropes that are found within plays such as monologues by characters such as Irwin who starts off the play 'in a wheelchair, in his forties'. The History Boys also often contains the breaking of the fourth wall where characters like Scripps and Mrs Lintott appear to narrate the situation to the audience. Timms even declares that Hector's hitting of the students 'never hurt' and that 'none of us cared' Bennett uses a switch to past tense which separates Timms from the action and appears to the audience that he is, in fact, reminiscing on the situation and that he is no longer in school.

Both texts are set in different time periods; however they both tackle and explore many of the same key themes. They share three main themes; failures of the modern education system, relationships between teachers and students and hidden sexuality. In the History Boys Hidden sexuality is consistently being shown where Posner even exclaims how “fucked” he is by being a “homosexual” in “Sheffield”. The play explores attitudes towards sexuality in the eighties. It can be seen as a satirical attack towards the era as it was not illegal to be gay but the culture surrounding the LGBTQ community forced LGBT people to continue living in the closet which is seen by Hector and his sham marriage, or it dooms them to a sad and lonely life like Posner. It could be argued that it was a socially inhospitable time as there was intense stigma associated with being a gay man due to many things. There was an AIDS/HIV epidemic that fuelled intolerance, the Government even implemented Section 28 which was a law that local authorities 'shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality' or 'promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship'. However, during the eighties younger generations were more tolerant to the LGBTQ community and were more accepting to them. Bennett and Heller both explore how older people such as Barbara, Hector and Irwin are conditioned by society to repress their sexuality and natural instinct. Hector grew up in a time of sexual intolerance and eventually married a woman which is possibly why he resorts to fondling the boys. The behaviour “isn’t normal” according to the headmaster not only because of Hectors position of power but because of society’s heterosexual views of sexuality. Jared A Bendel, a queer critic, states that this repression causes a “conflicted identity” where Hectors only safe place his motorcycle which is emphasised because they boys first remove his motorcyle clothing off of him when we first meet him. Concurrently, in Notes on a Scandal, Barbara Covett is portrayed as a repressed bitter lesbian but she doesn’t project her sexuality on young vulnerable students. Sheba Hart chases after 15 year old Connolly. The theme of student and teachers’ relationships is rather complicated as it's undetermined if this relationship is morally incorrect because of their age gaps or the position of power where even Sheba’s daughter states “Your boyfriend is younger than mine!” Ironically enough, Sheba and Connolly’s relationship isn't the only immoral relationship in the novel as it is revealed that Richard Hart (Sheba’s husband) a professor pursued his young student Sheba many years back and when his marriage is destroyed he pursues another student of his. This shows that Sheba was a part of a power imbalance and that she could have been subconsciously attempting to reclaim power by pursuing Connolly. This alludes to the idea that she feels violated by her loveless relationship.

In my opinion, I believe that Bennett and Heller do manage to successfully explore the relationships with characters and the forbidden love that the characters within their works harbour. To a larger extent, they showcase the complexities of the human heart from Barbara’s jealousy and her subconscious pining for Sheba and Sheba’s misplaced “exploitive” affections towards a minor. And Hector’s inappropriate “fiddling” of his students and the promising relationship between Dakin and Irwin. I do believe when the characters pursue their forbidden sexual desires it becomes a hamartia of sorts as Hector’s safe place leads to his death, Sheba’s relationship with Connolly brought her to her “qualified ruin”, Barbara’s repressed sexuality causes her to have an “incoherent” life because she is “too intense”.

16 August 2021
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