I have finally now seen Alan Bennetts The History Boys, at least the film version of it. It was, as expected, entertaining, touching and thought-provoking, but also, in several ways, more than a little odd. In particular, for a work ostensibly about history, it had a bizarrely non-specific, if not actually nonsensical sense of period. The action, is set, at least according to the film, in 1983, and yet much of the plot makes little sense for that period. Firstly, there were few grammar schools left by that period (and the implication is that this is genuinely a grammar, rather than a fee-paying school still using the grammar school label). Secondly, much of the plot is driven by the contrast of Oxbridge and provincial universities and the implication that this matters desperately. Speaking as somebody who got into Oxford in 1983, it didnt by then. I had contemporaries who didnt apply to Oxford even though they had the ability, because it didnt offer the sort of course they wanted. The humiliation of the headmaster in admitting he studied geography at Hull seems archaic. Equally, the actual events of the early 1980s are nowhere to be seen. Despite mass unemployment in cities such as Sheffield, the boys can apparently easily get work on the bins or as milkmen, whenever they want. And in the aftermath of the Falklands War, how likely it is that a boy could think that becoming a soldier would never involve fighting? Margaret Thatcher, meanwhile, is a barely mentioned irrelevance, not the central figure to young imaginations that she was.
Most of the plot actually makes far more sense if it is transposed back to about 1963, an era of grammar schools and acute snobbery about Oxbridge versus other universities. Similarly, Hectors taste for World War One songs fits better for a master born in 1903 and 60 in 1963, than one born in 1923 and 60 in 1983. For a man who normally has such a precise sense of time and place as Bennett, either he has been unusually sloppy or the film was badly adapted in this way.
There are, I suppose, possibilities as to why they story Bennett wants to tell may have been displaced by twenty years in this way. One is to get round the problem that all homosexual acts were still illegal in 1967, not just ones with 18 year olds. Another may have been to prevent the piece seeming too archaic, although any piece based around the seventh term Oxbridge entrance exam inevitably seems outdated now. I also wonder whether Irwin is somehow supposed to represent Thatcherite tendencies in education. The problem, of course, is that Irwin is no Thatcherite. For all his philistine tendencies, he is also not a charlatan, but a genuine enthusiast about an old-fashioned subject: the later Middle Ages. No thrusting young right-wing historian of the 1980s would really be interested at looking at monastic accounts: Victorian or 20th century history would have been the way to go, probably focusing on economic history or high politics.
This leads me to my second problem with the story: is Bennett really trying to suggest that Hector is a better teacher than Irwin? If so, he is unconvincing, though I wonder if he deliberately hasnt balanced the arguments rather better than that. The best pedagogy in the whole work, I would argue, is the debate about the Holocaust, and its really Irwin who drives that forward. Hector does set up the French brothel scenario, which is impressive, but otherwise, its only in his discussion of Thomas Hardys poem, that you really get a sense of him as a potentially inspirational teacher, someone who can convey something of the meaning of the great works he loves. Irwin, in contrast, with his demand for bold ideas, may be rather too glib, but he does at least get his students thinking. Ignoring entirely the issue of groping, Id find Irwin more intellectually stimulating as a teacher than Hector, and probably more inspiring. But again, Hector v Irwin seems a curiously old-fashioned kind of contrast, a world away from a school history syllabus with nothing much beyond Hitler and Stalin and an emphasis on transferable skills. If Bennett does a period piece, thats in itself fine, and can even be revealing: I just wish hed been a bit more realistic about which period.