Educators Give Fiction Lots of Class

Ms. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus

My wife’s latest semester as a French professor has begun, and my younger daughter started high school this past Thursday — meaning I have education on my mind. So I thought I’d offer an updated, edited amalgam of my 2015 post about teachers in literature and my 2012 post about professors in literature.

Many educators in fiction are smart, hardworking, and compassionate — like most real-life educators we and our children have had.

One of my favorite classroom characters is Anne Shirley in Anne of Avonlea, the first sequel to L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. Anne becomes a teacher while still a pre-college teen — and predictably things don’t always go smoothly. But she is kind and imaginative, and earns the love and respect of her Canadian students.

Another beloved teacher is Charles Chipping — of James Hilton’s novel Goodbye, Mr. Chips — who’s a rather rigid, conventional educator until he warms up over the course of a many-decade career at an English public boarding school.

Also in England, innovative teacher Ricky Braithwaite wins over his at-first-unmotivated students in E.R. Braithwaite’s autobiographical novel To Sir, With Love — later made into the famous movie starring Sidney Poitier.

Jane Eyre was briefly a teacher, and a good one, after fleeing Thornfield Hall in Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel. (Previously, she instructed one kid — Edward Rochester’s ward Adele — while governess at Thornfield.) Jane’s teaching approach was undoubtedly inspired by the wonderful Maria Temple at the initially miserable Lowood institution Jane was forced to attend as a girl.

In American fiction, among the many excellent educators is drama teacher Dan Needham of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.

Great teachers abound in children’s books, too, with one of the most memorable the ingenious, enthusiastic Ms. Frizzle of The Magic School Bus series written by Joanna Cole and illustrated by Bruce Degen. Also a popular animated TV series.

Of course, not all teachers are terrific. In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, for instance, educators range from admirable (think Minerva McGonagall) to incompetent (think Gilderoy Lockhart).

Then there are teachers somewhere in the middle of the competence spectrum. Ida Ramundo means well in Elsa Morante’s novel History, but her classroom performance deteriorates as she becomes overwhelmed by various disasters while trying to survive in Nazi-occupied Rome.

The teacher title character in Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is charismatic but unfortunately has fascist sympathies.

On the irresponsible side is young teacher Aimee Lanthenay, who has an affair with the student star of Claudine at School. But almost everything is played for laughs in Colette’s first novel, so the major ethical breach seems somewhat muted.

Moving to higher education, we have professor protagonists — a number of them quirky. There can be drama in their interactions with students, in their competitive relationships with fellow profs, in their sometimes-fraught encounters with university administrators, in their quests for tenure, and in the whole publish-or-perish thing. All that makes up for the fact they are (usually) not the heroic, adventurous sorts who make readers turn pages faster than tuition payments drain a bank account.

Alison Lurie’s Foreign Affairs tells the alternating stories of a professor (Virginia Miner) and junior faculty member (Fred Turner) from the same Ivy League university. Both Americans are (separately) in London, where they do research and soon find themselves in opposites-attract liaisons — i.e., “foreign affairs.” But the highlight of this Pulitzer-winning novel is “Vinnie” Miner herself — a 54-year-old specialist in children’s lit who Lurie describes as “small, plain, and unmarried.” She’s polite, reserved, resentful, self-deprecating, and REALLY smart.

There’s also Tony Fremont in Margaret Atwood’s novel The Robber Bride, which focuses on three middle-aged friends dealing with the reappearance of a scheming, supposedly dead woman who had wreaked havoc on their lives. One thing that makes Tony such an original character is that she’s a somewhat timid woman whose academic specialty is…the macho history of warfare!

Marine biology is Professor Humphrey Clark’s specialty in Margaret Drabble’s novel The Sea Lady, which co-stars Clark’s ex-wife Ailsa Kelman. One interesting thing about this novel is the contrast between the low-key, scholarly Humphrey and the flamboyant Ailsa, who’s a TV personality (among other things).

Then there’s Michael Chabon’s seriocomic Wonder Boys, about a Pittsburgh prof with a rather chaotic life. Grady Tripp’s wife walks out on him, his lover (the college chancellor!) is pregnant, one of his students commits a weird crime, and he’s writing a way-too-long mess of a book after enjoying success with a novel. That last situation is sort of a goof on how some academics don’t write with the average reader in mind.

Seventy years earlier, Willa Cather penned one of her lesser-known novels, The Professor’s House — which focuses on history prof Godfrey St. Peter’s midlife crisis as he moves into a new home, becomes an empty-nester, and worries about where society is heading.

Also, there are the unlikable academic rivals Howard Belsey and Monty Kipps in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, and the unsympathetic prof Gauri in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland.

In May of this year, you might remember me raving about John Williams’ bleak novel Stoner starring a Missouri farm boy-turned-professor who endures a mostly heartbreaking life but finds some solace in a love of learning and literature.

Who are the fictional educators you remember most?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about Hurricane Ida’s remnants slamming my town — is here.

Less-Famous Works By Famous Writers

Top-tier authors are often known mostly for certain novels, and some people read only those books without delving into the writers’ lesser-known work…unless they do.

If they do, they might find gems or disappointment or a combination thereof. But, not surprisingly, it’s frequently worth the effort.

My latest foray into this realm was with James Fenimore Cooper. Before last week, I had only read the novels with which he is most associated — the five “Leatherstocking” books featuring Natty Bumppo’s wilderness and frontier life, and his memorable interactions with Native Americans (most notably Chingachgook) and other characters. All five novels are excellent, with The Last of the Mohicans the most known and The Deerslayer my favorite.

But Cooper penned about 25 other novels, so I decided to try one of them: The Spy, set during the Revolutionary War. It’s…okay, not much more. Perhaps partly because it’s James F.’s second novel, and not all fiction writers find their footing that early in their careers. Still, The Spy has some anniversary cred — it was published in 1821, exactly 200 years ago.

I’ve usually had more positive experiences trying the lesser-known novels of notable authors. One example is L.M. Montgomery, who’s of course most remembered for Anne of Green Gables. But some of the Anne sequels are also quite good (especially Anne’s House of Dreams and Rilla of Ingleside), Montgomery’s semi-autobiographical Emily trilogy is excellent, and her standalone novel The Blue Castle is fabulous. All set in Canada, of course.

Speaking of that country, Willa Cather’s Quebec City-set Shadows on the Rock is an under-appreciated gem by an author who’s remembered primarily for Death Comes for the Archbishop and secondarily for My Antonia. Her The Song of the Lark is pretty compelling, too.

The six words most associated with Erich Maria Remarque are those in the title of All Quiet on the Western Front — his antiwar masterpiece. The riveting Arch of Triumph is probably his second-highest-profile novel. (As with All Quiet, it didn’t hurt that the book inspired a major movie.) But equally good or perhaps even better books in Remarque’s canon are his less-famous The Night in Lisbon and A Time to Love and a Time to Die.

Indeed, an author’s best-known novel is not always his or her best novel. Consider Colette, whose supposedly signature work is her late-career Gigi even as quite a few of her earlier books are better than that rather slight concoction. The Vagabond, for example, and even her debut novel Claudine at School — one a semi-autobiographical look at a music-hall performer who values her independence and the second…well…just plain hilarious.

Edith Wharton is most remembered for her novels The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth, and Ethan Frome — all stellar — but her ghost stories are also as good as that genre gets.

I’ve obviously only scratched the surface here. What are some of your favorite novels that are not as known as other novels in the canons of famous authors?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about a leaf-blower ruling and some COVID-related matters — is here.