When my early efforts at homeschooling faltered amidst bitter recriminations and shouts of 'You are literally the worst teacher in the world!' (from a six year-old), my husband stepped up. Rubbing his hands, he declared, 'This is going to be just like Dead Poets Society'.
Yet cries of 'O Captain! My Captain!' were not forthcoming. Within five minutes came the sound of doors slamming and roars of 'Will you SIT DOWN and SHUT UP!'
We aren’t meant to teach our own children and attempting anything alongside that other business of trying to earn a living is farcical. But however badly you’re faring, one look at this lot should reassure that you’re doing just fine.
Miss Trunchbull, Crunchem Hall Primary School in Matilda by Roald Dahl (1988)
Ah, it’s the same at the start of every week, isn’t it? All good intentions of being kindly and soft-spoken like Miss Honey — then the bastard link for Phonics won’t work because your Zoom (which worked fine yesterday) is now out of date and suddenly you’re Agatha Trunchbull.
‘One gigantic holy terror, a fierce tyrannical monster who frightened the life out of pupils and teachers alike.’ We can only hope that things don't get so bad at home that our efforts resemble those of a former Olympic hammer thrower who force-feeds cake to miscreants and throws them across the playground by their pigtails.
Captain Grimes of Llanabba Castle in Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh (1928)
Of all the misfits employed as schoolmasters at Llanabba Castle, the drunken deviant Captain Grimes is Primus enter pares. Dishonourably discharged from the army, he’s usually half-cut and perennially 'in the soup'. He later makes a bigamous marriage with the headmaster’s daughter. Grimes’s pederasty was removed from the 2017 BBC TV adaptation — what with boarding school abuse not being as amusing as it was in the 1920s.
Miss McCraw of Appleyard College for Young Ladies in Picnic At Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay (1967)
A miserablist mathematician who’d rather spend Valentine’s Day studying calculus than leading the annual school picnic to the local Victoria beauty spot. She manages to lose two girls, before going missing herself during the course of one mysterious, gothic afternoon. Neither Miss McCraw or the girls are ever found. As Ben, the buggy driver observes sagely, ‘Arithmetic don’t help much in the Bush’.
Jim Prideaux, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré (1974)
Betrayed by the mole in the Circus, Prideaux is shot, interrogated and tortured on his fated mission in Czechoslowakia. Once repatriated, he’s set up as a French master at a remote minor public school. But PTSD and botched surgery have taken their toll; Prideaux lives in a dilapidated caravan in the grounds where he’s observed handling a gun and tutoring the boys in espionage. Not to mention breaking the neck of an owl that flies into his classroom.
Mr Brocklehurst, Lowood School in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847)
The supervisor of Lowood, where the young Jane is sent, Brocklehurst is a pious hypocritical clergyman who keeps the girls in conditions of appalling privation. Ravaged by chilblains from the perishing cold and half-starved, the food is ‘scarcely sufficient to keep alive a delicate invalid’. Pupils have no resistance when typhus rips through the institution and Jane’s friend, Helen Burns, dies in her arms of consumption. A reminder that things could indeed be worse.
Wackford Squeers of Dotheboys Hall in Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens (1839)
Brocklehurst is an amateur in comparison to the sadistic headmaster in Dickens’ Nicholas NIckleby, whose name has become a byword for Victorian brutality and mistreatment of children. Flogging and starvation rations are the order of the day. The young Nicholas is greeted by 'Pale and haggard faces, lank and bony figures, children with the countenances of old men'. Squeers is eventually sentenced to transportation.
Miss Jean Brodie of Marcia Blaine’s School for Girls, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (1961)
'I am putting old heads on your young shoulders,' says Miss Brodie to her girls — the 'crème de la crème'. This leaves the Brodie set familiar with the Italian Renaissance painters and the love life of Charlotte Bronte, but not the date of the Battle of Flodden. In the end, it’s not the affair Miss Brodie engineers between one of her girls and the Art master that proves her undoing, but her admiration for Mussolini.
Hector, Cutler’s Grammar School in The History Boys by Alan Bennett (2004)
A schoolmaster in the tradition of Jean Brodie, preoccupied with Brief Encounter and the subjunctive. Opinion is divided as to whether he’s a 'true original' or a 'loose cannon'. Unfortunate Grimesian leanings (offering favourites a lift home on his motorbike in order to fondle them) are what finally does for him.
Mother Radcliffe, the Convent of the Five Wounds in Frost in May by Antonia White (1933)
Mother Radcliffe presides over the nuns of the Five Wounds and their snobbishness, petty cruelties and vindictiveness. 'I had to break your will before your whole nature was deformed,' she tells 14 year-old Nanda, in the novel’s devastating denouement.
Miss Slighcarp, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aitken (1962)
Set in an alternate 1832, with James III on the throne and Britain overrun by wolves, inside Willoughby Chase the sinister governess, Miss Slighcarp, schemes to defraud cousins Bonnie and Sylvia of their inheritance.
There. Feel better?