As you might expect, I received several books for Christmas, but one was a particular surprise: The English Girls, by S M Dooks. A present from a friend from school, this was particularly interesting to me as Mrs Dooks (as I feel compelled to call her) was our English teacher, and for me, at least, the teacher who really inspired me when it came to literature, and who helped me to realise what I’m good at and interested in. This is her first novel, about events in a girls’ school and was inspired, as the book says and the title indicates, by Alan Bennett’s The History Boys.
Reading novels written by people one knows is always difficult; of course one doesn’t want to read the author too much into their work, so I have resisted this, though in my mind as I read the book is set in the school I went to, and there are some lines which I can hear Mrs Dooks saying to us when we were in the Sixth Form. The plot is focused on a divided English department and a relationship between a teacher and a pupil, but both strands of the plot are very much tied up with the importance of literature as a subject (and indeed as a passion beyond educational boundaries). The English department is torn between those who see literature as something to inspire, who want lessons to be wide-ranging, intellectually stimulating and challenging to students, and those who are more interested in teaching to the exam and focusing solely on assessment objectives. The main character, Maggie Pool, is one of the former camp, a head of department who is unconventional in her teaching and determined to inspire her English girls with a deep passion for literature, and some of the things she says really remind me of my A-level English classes.
The other aspect of the novel is an affair between a student and a young male teacher, which is closely linked to the novels of the Bronte sisters. While Maggie is shocked at the affair, she also suggests that the emotions students are asked to explore and consider when studying literature often have no outlet, and therefore the resulting relationship, however inappropriate, is not necessarily surprising or even to be condemned out of hand. This relationship is closely paralleled with the doomed friendship of Charlotte Bronte and Constantin Heger, which Bronte explores in Villette (a novel I have enjoyed teaching recently), and demonstrates how a deep engagement with literature may change people’s lives.
The literary echoes and parallels in The English Girls make it (for me) an enjoyable and thought-provoking read: I do enjoy a bit of intertextuality, and this is a very literary novel. I also was challenged and inspired by the discussions in the book about what teaching is, what it should be, and how to do it: I admire teachers of secondary education as I think it must be an enormous challenge, but the essence of loving one’s subject in order to teach it with passion is equally necessary in higher education, too. Reading this book has also reminded me of the excellent teaching I was fortunate to have at school.