The Lecturer-Students Trope and the
Era of the Strong Female Character
I sometimes wish that I’d been the kind of girl that was drawn to rebels, but I was often fascinated by authority figures instead. Whether it was the Shakespeare lecturer who reminded me of Niles Crane, or the editor I worked for who doled out praise grudgingly and never let me know where I stood, I often strived for the approval of remote, self-assured men.
Maybe it wasn’t their authority that drew me so much as their confidence – they knew their place in the world at a time when I did not. They had knowledge and experience that I craved. I imagined that if I ever got to know them on a personal level, they would show me how to live; provide me with some sort of shortcut to adulthood. I sometimes wonder what I would make of these men now, in my thirties. Would I still want their approval? Or would I resent them for having made me worship them?
In my debut novel, Holding Her Breath, my protagonist, Beth Crowe, finds herself in such an entanglement. When she starts university – a little later than most, in the wake of a crisis brought on by a sporting failure – she soon encounters her roommate’s lecturer, Justin Kelleher, at an on-campus book launch. Justin’s research speciality is the work of Benjamin Crowe, an Irish poet who died tragically in the 1980s, and who just happens to be Beth’s grandfather.
‘You have his mouth,’ Justin remarks on first meeting Beth. It’s not the first time that someone has shown interest in her due to her connection to the famous poet, but it is the first time the interest has carried an erotic charge. Beth is attracted to Justin, in part because he will speak freely to her about her unknowable grandfather – unlike her mother and grandmother, who are too traumatised from his death by suicide to impart much information. And Justin is drawn to Beth, too, though whether he would have noticed her without her famous relative is another question.
It’s a trope, lecturers and students – a well-worn one at this stage. I knew this going in, and yet I couldn’t resist writing it anyway. Some literary tropes are irresistible in the sense that you want to try to reinvigorate them, breathe new life into them. (There is also a wake scene in Holding Her Breath.) Tropes become tropes for a reason – because they reflect life, to an extent, and because they contain an interesting tension or dynamic.
In this case: who holds the power? Is it the older authority figure – who has the actual, real-world power – or is it the younger person, who is often the catalyst for the older figure acting against their own better judgement? Does the power shift over the course of the relationship, and in what ways?
So many novels tackle these questions brilliantly, including My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell. It tells the story of fifteen-year-old Vanessa Wye, who becomes caught up in an affair with Jacob Strane, an English teacher at her boarding school and thirty years her senior. Contact between the two begins with Strane touching Vanessa’s knee beneath his desk as they work side by side, and queasily escalates from there. From the outside, the dynamic is straightforwardly abusive, but Russell’s genius lies in showing how a young girl can be convinced into feeling that she not only consents, but is in control of the relationship. She feels awe at the largeness of Strane’s frame, his beard, his deep voice – his adultness, essentially – and delight and pleasure at being singled out as special. Years later, as a traumatised thirtysomething, her disgust and pity for Strane are clear – even if she can’t quite sever contact with him.
Susan Choi’s My Education takes a very different approach, with a student named Regina becoming entangled in the crumbling marriage of two brilliant academics, Nicholas and Martha. The dynamic is clear even from the title: for Regina, these relationships are an opportunity to expand and explore her sexuality, rather than anything predatory. Told from the vantage point of twenty years later, the novel is full of nostalgia for youth, while also remaining clear-eyed about the almost frightening intensity of first love: ‘One went from believing, when twenty, that it was the one kind of love that was real, to believing, once closer to forty, that it was not only fragile but false – the inferior, infantile, doomed love of twenty-year-olds.’ Over time, in matters of the heart, Regina trades ‘the murky infinite for the well-lit and limited.’ The novel raises the question of whether it is possible to wield power benignly in a relationship.
Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal inverts the conventional gender dynamic of the trope. Here, art teacher Sheba, who is married with kids, pursues a relationship with one of her students, fifteen-year-old Steven. The novel skilfully parses society’s hypocrisy in viewing a relationship between a female teacher and male student as less harmful than the reverse. Told through the exacting, manipulative eyes of Sheba’s colleague Barbara – the note-taker of the title – the book ultimately becomes a meditation on loneliness, co-dependence and the abrupt madness of attraction. ‘What is romance, but a mutual pact of delusion?’ Barbara writes. ‘When the pact ends, there’s nothing left.’ Barbara’s words are ostensibly about Sheba and her student, but could just as easily apply to her own obsessive friendship with Sheba.
The key to writing a well-worn trope, I think, is to remember that the characters also know that it’s a trope, or even a cliché. If the novel is set in our world, as Holding Her Breath (mostly) is, then the characters have potentially encountered or even read the above novels; they might have seen Rushmore or Wonder Boys or The Piano Teacher or one of the myriad other movies that depict complicated teacher-student relationships. Certainly, since I began writing Holding Her Breath in 2013, the world has changed considerably in its awareness of sexual harassment and abuse of power in the workplace. Characters like Beth are perhaps not as naive as they once were, and characters like Justin can no longer claim ignorance of the power dynamic. The interesting question, then, lies in how they talk themselves in and out of these relationships, even when they know better.
Beth kisses Justin, impulsively, after he has helped her carry library books to her dorm room. Later, Justin invites her out for coffee and apologises: ‘I’m older and in a position of authority … and it was wrong of me. I should have stopped it. I shouldn’t even have been in your room, for God’s sake …’ He even has a certain level of self-awareness about his attraction to her: ‘I like talking to you, and I suppose I romanticize you because of Ben.’ The two continue to meet, however, and alcohol gives them both the excuse they need to take the relationship further. In the sober light of day, Justin conducts frequent ‘check-ins’ with Beth, as if his awareness of the impropriety of their relationship counts for something: ‘This is something I’d like to explore further. But I know I’m crossing several lines here, so if you don’t feel the same, that’s fine.’
Beth’s friends, too, are vigilant, and remind her of the problematic dynamics of the relationship. After Beth’s friend Jess catches Beth and Justin having dinner together, she warns Beth: ‘He’s a lecturer, Beth. It’s fucked-up behaviour – I don’t mean you now, just him. It’s a massive abuse of power.’ When Beth reasons that he’s not her lecturer and that, as a post-doc student, Justin doesn’t have a great deal of power, Jess is unmoved – but reassures Beth that she doesn’t judge her. In his mid-twenties, Justin is also not that much older than Beth, and in a different context, their relationship might be unremarkable. But context is everything.
There is another lecturer–student relationship in the book – that of Lydia and Benjamin, Beth’s grandparents. ‘Lydia has told Beth the story of meeting Ben a handful of times. Now that Beth thinks of it, it was a lot more scandalous than she realized as a kid – a twenty-something lecturer setting her eyes on a first-year student in the front row and deciding she had to have him.’ The two relationships are in conversation throughout the novel, sometimes literally. Ben and Lydia’s creative partnership is a favourite subject for Justin, and Beth is hungry for details about her mysterious grandparents. ‘I think we’re both a little bit in love with him,’ Justin says, meaning Ben, and Beth doesn’t disagree.
I wanted to interrogate not just what it means to be the younger woman in a relationship, but also the other woman. Justin has a long-term girlfriend, with whom Beth later contrives a meeting. Though Justin denies it, Beth suspects that it is not the first time he has cheated:
‘But then isn’t being in love short-lived by its very nature? If you wanted to keep that kind of love in your life all the time, it’s not so much about finding the right person, it’s more about constantly recreating the start of a relationship.’ As soon as she sounds it out, the truth of it settles on her. ‘You’ve done this before.’
‘The crazy thing is, I haven’t.’ It is, she thinks, the first lie he has told her.
Beth’s friends pass no judgement on Beth for becoming involved with someone else’s partner, showing a generational understanding of complex romantic arrangements and preferences, in which consent is the only meaningful sexual morality. In fact, for Beth, the fact that Justin has a long-term primary partnership gives her a safety valve of sorts. For her, as for Choi’s Regina, the relationship with Justin is a space to explore her emotional and romantic self, and to figure out her sexual likes and dislikes, rites of passage which she felt she missed out on growing up as an elite swimmer, devoted to her sport. She has no real desire to be Justin’s full-time partner.
Another important factor in their relationship is Beth’s relationship to her body. As a swimmer, she navigates the world differently from most young women, thinking of her body in terms of utility rather than beauty. It isn’t that she doesn’t have concerns about her body; it’s more that those concerns are to do with strength and speed rather than looks and weight.
It struck me that in an era of Strong Female Characters, we still don’t have many female characters who are literally, physically strong. Beth’s strength is one of the things that attracts Justin to her: ‘He once referred to her shoulders as “weapons”; she understood it to be a compliment.’ While they’re in bed, Beth muses that she could probably overcome Justin: ‘His arms are slightly doughy but still strong; still, she gauges that she’s probably a little stronger, if it ever came to that.’ Even in a consensual relationship, even knowing her own strength, Beth frequently checks in on her own safety – a constant vigilance that is familiar to women everywhere.
Eimear Ryan’s writing has appeared in Granta, Winter Papers, The Dublin Review andThe Stinging Fly. She is the 2021 Writer in Residence at University College Cork. She is a co-founder of the literary journal Banshee and its publishing imprint, Banshee Press. A native of Co. Tipperary, Eimear now lives in Cork city.
Holding Her Breath, by Eimear Ryan is published by Penguin (Sandycove) and available here.
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