Novelists as schoolmasters

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Novelists as schoolmasters

DH Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell. (image created in Shutterstock)

Aspiring writers have often tried their hand at teaching.  They have usually assumed that it would be an undemanding occupation for someone educated in the humanities, and would give them an income and even a place to live.  Between 1902 and 1932 four young English writers — D. H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell — became schoolmasters, with varying degrees of success.

In practice, all four were unsuited to the job. They found the prevailing culture of their schools intolerable and disliked the narrow-minded way they had to teach. They had recalcitrant and comatose students, witnessed bullying and homosexuality, and were still subject to the hazardous authority, rituals and whims of the headmaster.  They particularly hated to administer corporal punishment, then a commonly accepted form of discipline.

Lawrence and Orwell were lively and innovative teachers, Huxley and Waugh hopeless and hostile, but all four were bored with the traditional curriculum, and tired of struggling to maintain order in the classroom.  They loathed the schools that interfered with their writing and left as soon as possible to pursue their literary careers.  They later fictionalised and often satirised their teaching experiences: Lawrence in The Rainbow, Huxley in Antic Hay, Waugh in Decline and Fall and Orwell in A Clergyman’s Daughter.



Lawrence came from a working-class background and went to Nottingham High School.  The other three more privileged writers returned to the regimented world and miserable memories of their public (i.e. private) schools.  Lawrence first began his working life in a Nottingham factory making surgical appliances.  When he was too ill to return to the factory, he chose teaching to escape from manual labour.  Of the four, only Lawrence was thoroughly trained for the profession and taught in state schools.  From 1902 to 1906 he became a pupil teacher in Eastwood, his native village, and bitterly recalled his poor salary, lack of ambition and hatred of school teaching.

Colleagues noted Lawrence’s defects, but were more positive about his enthusiasm and knowledge: “Lawrence never seemed to be cut out for a teacher at all.  He was very quick-tempered and erratic, and when he was annoyed with his class his face used to colour up very quickly.  But as a teacher he was very good, seemed very well read and knew something about everything. . . He hadn’t much patience at all, and if the boys defied him, that did it.  He couldn’t stand that.” He would get angry when contradicted or opposed.  Though he disliked teaching, he was effective in the classroom and received an excellent reference from his headmaster, who wrote: “I have been in charge of these schools for 28 years, and during that period we have had many teachers, but none of greater promise than Lawrence.”

After training in Eastwood, Lawrence graduated from Nottingham University.  In 1908 he began teaching in an elementary school in Croydon, a poor district of south London, at an annual salary of £95 (the same earnings as his father, a miner). He stayed for the next three years.  His friend and fellow-teacher Helen Corke observed that he was poor at sports and school discipline, and did not get on well with his more narrow-minded colleagues. But they were later impressed by his forceful character: “When they had had some experience of his intellectual fearlessness and power of passionate argument, they paid him a grudging respect and stayed out of his way.  He puzzled and disturbed them by his ironic treatment of their accepted and unquestioned standards of work and living.”

Another colleague noted: “Lawrence was intolerant of authority.  While imposing his own rule rigorously upon his pupils, he rebelled against any such process being applied to himself.”  But it was essential for Lawrence to retain his own freedom while controlling his students.  His teaching methods—especially in botany, drawing, acting and singing—were innovative and designed to encourage rather than repress the spontaneity of his students.  But it was hard to introduce them to fifty unruly boys.  Lawrence complained of the long hours, fetid atmosphere, tedious administrative rules, lack of time and energy to write, difficult and rather stupid students, and the need to inflict corporal punishment.

In letters of 1908, Lawrence explained his wretched struggles to maintain discipline without resorting to the cane:

School is a conflict—mean and miserable—and I hate conflicts.  I was never born to command.  I do not want to command.  So the lads and I have a fight, and I have a fight with my nature, and I am always vanquished.  The kids are rough and insolent as the devil.  I had rather endure anything than this continual, petty, debasing struggle. I put up with them until I can stand them no longer, then I land the nearest, and as likely as not, he’s innocent.

He told a friend, “I’ll not go on.  The Education Committee has had blood and tears out of me for a hundred a year.  I’ll not endure it.  I’d rather work on a farm.”

In his essay “Education of the People”, Lawrence expressed anger about the difficult and sometimes impossible role of the “mongrel” schoolteacher, who must uphold false values: “The elementary school-teacher is in a vile and false position.  Set up as a representative of an ideal which is all toffee, invested in an authority which has absolutely no base except in the teacher’s own isolate will, he is sneered at by the idealists above and jeered at by the materialists below, and ends by being a mongrel, with every shred of natural pride ground out of him.”

At the end of 1911 pneumonia allowed him to escape from teaching in Croydon.  “The last fortnight I have felt really rotten,” he wrote, “it is the dry heat of the pipes in school, and the strain—and the cold.  I must leave school, really.”  Then, with a dire early warning, he explained, “the doctor says I mustn’t go to school again or I shall be consumptive.”  Sixteen years later he still expressed his nightmarish anxiety about teaching: “One of my troubled dreams, sleep-dreams, I mean, is that I am teaching and that I’ve clean forgotten to mark the register, and the class has gone home!  Why should I feel so worried about not having marked the register?  But I do.”

Lawrence returned to this emotionally exhausting time in his portrayal of Ursula Brangwen’s teaching at St. Philip’s School in chapter 13 of The Rainbow (1915).  She felt drained by forcing the savage children to learn and horrified by beating the blubbering boys.  When Ursula faced the class she seemed to lose her identity and “felt utterly non-existent.  She had no place nor being there.”  Her ugly Victorian school is hellish, and she is exhausted and overwhelmed by the claustrophobic atmosphere, by the effort to teach and to discipline, by

the horrid feeling of being shut in a rigid, inflexible air, away from all feeling of the ordinary day. . . . The school squatted low within its railed, asphalt yard, that shone bleak with rain.  The building was grimy, and horrible, dry plants were shadowily looking through the windows. . . . She could not bear it when the boy was beaten.  It made her sick.  She felt that she must go out of this school, this torture place. . . .

The teaching hours were too long, the tasks too heavy, and the disciplinary condition of the school too unnatural for her. . . . It was agony to the impulsive, bright girl of seventeen to become distant and official, having no personal relationship with the children. . . .

And the children were simply awful.  You’ve got to make them do everything.  Everything, everything has got to come out of you.  Whatever they learn, you’ve got to force it into them—and that’s how it is. . . . The teaching hours were too long, the tasks too heavy, the disciplinary condition of the school too unnatural for her.  She was worn very thin and quivering.

The most degrading and agonising incident occurs when she is forced to beat a vicious and violent boy.  He resists her and fights back as she becomes brutalised and humiliated:

She snatched the cane from the desk, and brought it down on him.  He was writhing and kicking.  She saw his face beneath her, white, with eyes like the eyes of a fish, stony, yet full of hate and horrible fear.  And she loathed him, the hideous writhing thing that was nearly too much for her.  In horror lest he should overcome her, and yet at the heart quite calm, she brought down the cane again and again, whilst he struggled making inarticulate noises, and lunging vicious kicks at her.

To add to the horror, the boy’s mother comes to the school and complains about Ursula’s cruel treatment of her son, who has a weak heart.  The beating leaves welts on his body, which she threatens to show to a doctor.  Ursula didn’t know about his weak heart and is now terribly vulnerable.  She wonders if the mother wants a bribe and fears she might even charge her with assault, but she merely complains to the headmaster, who hates Ursula.  She hates the school and wonders “why, why had she leagued herself to this evil system where she must brutalise herself to live?”  Finally, she gets a bad classroom report and, convinced she’s not meant to be a teacher, leaves the school.



Lawrence, even as a boy, always felt there was something mean in tormenting a teacher.  But the sophisticated older boys at the elite Eton College, the antithesis of Lawrence’s state schools, were just as difficult to handle and merciless to the half-blind Aldous Huxley.  In 1917 Huxley, a 23-year-old Old Etonian who had published two volumes of poetry, replaced a master serving in the war and vainly tried to teach English and French.  He could not clearly see the boys’ faces, so it was easy and amusing to trick him when he took the roll.  If a boy wanted to skip class, he could get a friend to call out his name.  Huxley lamented, “I have to go and stand up and face these sinister young men and try to keep them amused.”  Inexperienced and insecure, he hated every minute he had to spend in the classroom.

But he was not interested in teaching, could not make his subject interesting and confessed, “I find that I am not cut out for a teacher of boys; or rather I find that all my knowledge, such as it is, is quite of the wrong sort; remote and vague.”  He finally gave up classroom teaching, but still had the boring and arduous task of tutoring “fifty older boys coming in for half an hour each week to have their essays commented upon.”

His colleagues were remote and alien, he had no intellectual companions and felt lonely.

He thought “this teaching takes it out of one” and escaped to weekends in London whenever he could.

One of Huxley’s pupils, the future music critic and novelist Edward Sackville-West, recalled: “He must have been one of the most incompetent schoolmasters who ever faced a class.  His solution was to read aloud, with occasional comments on the poems of Verlaine.  This he did in his scholarly, highly modulated voice.  It was impossible to hear more than an occasional word of what he read or said for the general tumult was indescribable. . . . From time to time, Aldous would pause, look up, and say, in an imploring tone, ‘Oh!  Do be quiet!’  No one took the slightest notice.”

Steven Runciman, another pupil and later a distinguished historian of Byzantium and the Crusades, felt that Huxley didn’t know how to reach the boys and taught them very little.  But he appreciated the quality of Huxley’s mind and wrote: “That elongated, stooping, myopic figure seemed somehow ageless, and usually hidden by an infinite variety of spectacles, had eyes that were almost sightless and almost uncomfortably observant.  He stood there looking something of a martyr, but at the same time extraordinarily distinguished. . . . [Our misbehaviour] left him completely indifferent and unmoved.”  Blind and unaware, he was incapable of controlling the chaos.  “I cannot say that Aldous was a good teacher in the narrow sense of the word, I have to confess that I cannot now remember a single thing he taught us.  But he was an educator in the wider sense.  He showed a glimpse of the fascination to be found in an unhampered intellectual approach to things.”

His pupil George Orwell was also fascinated by his highly eccentric and rather miserable teacher, and particularly admired Huxley’s use of elegant and unfamiliar words and phrases.  He saw beyond Huxley’s physical disability and pathetic attempts to maintain order, and (like Lawrence) disliked the cruel jeers of his fellow students.  Always defending the underdog, he stood up for Huxley because he found him unusual and interesting.

Huxley put all his dislike of teaching at Eton into his novel Antic Hay (1923). Bored and sceptical during school prayers while teaching at Eton, Gumbril thinks of how to invent trousers with pneumatic seats.  He looks around the chapel and snobbishly observes the misfits: “There were two ugly, stupid-looking louts, who ought to have been apprenticed years ago to some useful trade.  Instead of which they were wasting their own and their teacher’s and their more intelligent comrades’ time in trying, quite vainly, to acquire an elegant literary education.”

In the evening “he stayed at home in his lodgings to correct the sixty-three Holiday Task Papers which had fallen to his share.  They lay, thick piles of them, on the floor beside his chair; sixty-three answers to ten questions about the Italian Risorgimento. With a sigh of disgusted weariness, Gumbril looked at his papers.  No, this was really impossible.”  Expressing Huxley’s deep despair, his hero reflects on his agonizing day in class and penitential evening with the dreadful papers, and thinks he can’t endure it: “If only one had work of one’s own, proper work, decent work.  Definitely, it couldn’t go on, it could not go on.  There were thirteen weeks in the summer term, there would be thirteen in the autumn and eleven or twelve in the spring; and then another summer of thirteen, and so it would go on forever.”  So he decides to leave the school and live as best he could on his modest allowance of £300 a year (which was, however, still more than three times the salary Lawrence had earned as a state school teacher).



Waugh didn’t finish his degree at Oxford; Orwell had joined the Burmese police and didn’t go to university.  But the scholastic agency Gabbitas & Thring always had vacancies for unqualified young men eager for a job.  In his “Letter to Lord Byron” (1937), Auden told the poet Louis MacNeice how the desperate were recruited:

The only thing you never turned your hand to

Was teaching at a boarding school.

Today it seems a profession that seems grand to

Those whose alternative’s an office stool;

To many an unknown genius postmen bring

Typed notices from Rabbitarse and String.

In 1925 Waugh taught History, Latin and Greek for £160 a year at Arnold House, a boarding school situated in the tiny windswept town of Llanddulas on the north coast of Wales.  There was nothing to do but drink in that remote village.  He hoped, Martin Stannard writes, that “the job would provide a subsistence wage for minimal effort,” and time to draw and write: “Fictionalising his purgatory was his only relief.”

Isolated from the glittering social world of London and Oxford, Waugh felt alienated and neglected “like a criminal transported to an outpost of civilisation”.  From the outset the shy, rather sullen new teacher despised the place and called the bad school a “sorry waste of time and energy.  I do not think that I am good at teaching—at any rate I have not succeeded so far in getting any idea into anyone’s head.”  He made no great effort to teach, but if a boy showed any interest he tried to satisfy it.  His laissez-faire attitude went over well.  He ignored the lazy pupils and let the older boys read French novels instead of swotting up their history lessons.  But he was tired and bored, neglected his work, shouted at the boys and even caned one of them for blasphemy.

The headmaster would wander into the common room and vaguely say, “There are some boys in that classroom.  I think they are the First or perhaps the Fourth.  Will someone go & teach them Maths or Latin or something.”  No one volunteered till the least lazy was forced out of his comfortable chair.  The staff was comprised of lunatics, criminals and bores, and he found no sympathetic colleagues.  Finally, Waugh was almost glad to be sacked for his half-hearted attempt to seduce the young matron as she emerged from the bathroom in her dressing-gown.  He found himself “in a state of joy which increased to ecstasy as the long journey to London came to its end.”

Decline and Fall (1928), his first novel, satirises his scholastic experience.  The hero Paul Pennyfeather must teach fifty or sixty boys ranging from ten to eighteen Classics, English, Maths, German and French, as well as competitive athletics, carpentry, fire-drill and music, all for £120 per year.  He was never meant to be a schoolmaster, and is told on arrival that there’s no discipline and that he’ll hate the school.  He found “positive relish  in making their lessons as tedious as the subject (very easily) allowed”, never succeeded in keeping the disorderly students quiet and felt deep self-pity.  But “it was tacitly agreed that when Paul wished to read or to write letters he was allowed to do so undisturbed while he left the boys to employ the time as they thought best.”  Asked about the pupils in his care, he replied that they’ll “be all right.  The little beasts can’t make any more noise than they usually do.”  He then gleefully adds “I have never known them better.  I have just caned twenty-three boys.”

All the masters are unqualified and dismissed for the usual reasons: incompetence, homosexuality, or both.  In A Little Learning (1964) Waugh writes that the only qualification needed for a job in a public school was belonging to the same social class: “However incomplete one’s education, however dissolute one’s habits, however few the respectable guarantors whom one could quote, the private schools lay open to anyone who spoke without a [regional] accent and had been through the conventional routine of public school and university.”  Waugh notes of the public schools: “One goes through four or five years of perfect hell at an age when life is bound to be hell anyway, and after that the social system never lets one down.”

The model for Captain Grimes in his novel had been “expelled from Wellington, sent down from Oxford and forced to resign his commission in the army.”  Since headmasters would never admit they had hired such a bounder, they wrote glowing recommendations to get rid of him, and he kept getting better and better jobs.  But when Dr. Fagan, the headmaster, reaches the limit of his tolerance, he says of Captain Grimes, his future son-in-law: “I could have forgiven him his wooden leg, his slavish poverty, his moral turpitude and his abominable features . . . if only he had been a gentleman.”

Waugh hated the people as well as the place.  He attacks the local Celts (as Kingsley Amis would later do in Lucky Jim) and declares, “The Welsh are the only nation in the world that has produced no graphic or plastic art, no architecture, no drama.  They just sing. . . . They are depraved because they cannot discern the consequences of their indulgence.”

His half-hearted suicide attempt, accompanied by a pedantic farewell note in Greek but foiled by a swarm of stinging jellyfish, was probably a bit of comic play-acting.  Like Lawrence, Waugh later recalled, “For some years I was haunted by the dream that I was back at that school.”  Stannard concludes, “Paul Pennyfeather represented what Waugh had most feared he might become—a failure at Oxford, a contented schoolmaster, a dupe to romantic passion and confidence tricksters, a drifter rather than an incisive force in the world.”



From April 1932 to July 1933, Orwell taught and lived in The Hawthornes School for Boys in Hayes, west London, near what is now Heathrow Airport.  Housed in a former vicarage, the school had only two masters and about fifteen boys (seven in each class) from age ten to sixteen.  They were mostly the sons of shopkeepers, office employees, small businessmen and professionals.  Geoffrey Stevens, whose father owned a joinery firm, was a thirteen-year-old pupil.  He remembers how Orwell, never smartly dressed, disguised his six-foot, two-inch height by slouching.  He fascinated the boys by showing the scar on his wrist from a hornet’s bite in Burma.  Stevens thought he was an introvert and that his mind was elsewhere: “He would sit at his desk and start smiling and no one knew what he was laughing at.  He was aware that this was strange, so if it happened at mealtimes, he would turn around and feed the proprietor’s parrot to hide his face.”

Orwell taught every subject: English, French, History, Geography and Maths (there was no science).  He seemed to enjoy teaching and was the best teacher in the school—not a great honour since there were only two.  There were no textbooks and he had to make up his own lessons.  He didn’t read to the class, nor recommend his favourite authors, but was keen on essay writing, and had the boys memorise forty lines of Shakespeare from The Merchant of Venice and The Tempest.

He never raised his voice but was a strict disciplinarian.  He kept a thick cane near his desk, used it frequently (as he had with his servants in Burma) and “would cane you unmercifully at the slightest provocation”. When the boys brought their work up to his desk, he would prod them in the stomach with a ruler.  Stevens once returned to his seat and playfully imitated his teacher by prodding the boy next to him.  Orwell caught him in the act and gave him six of the best.  Though Stevens thought the punishment excessive and unjust, he felt no resentment and didn’t tell his parents about it.

Though severe in class, Orwell could be quite genial outside the schoolroom with boys who shared his interests.  He gave Stevens sixpence, which seemed a lot of money at the time, for spotting a spelling mistake on a sign.  On natural history outings to the marshes, he taught the boys to stir up methane with a stick and hold a bottle upside down to catch the gas.  They lit it and it burned like a candle.

Several boys had dramatic talent and inspired Orwell’s short play, “King Charles II”, which divided the class into Cavaliers and Roundheads.  The 1932 Christmas play lasted half an hour and had only two performances.  Most teachers in Orwell’s poorly paid and overworked position would have used a published play instead of writing a new one.  But he took enormous trouble during the fall term with the costumes, props and sets, and seemed to enjoy the elaborate preparations.

Writing to his girlfriend in 1932, Orwell (despite five years in Burma) called Hayes “one of the most godforsaken places I have ever struck.”  He also complained that the work was extremely demanding: “I am living in a sort of nightmare—schoolwork, rehearsing boys for their parts in the play, making costumes & playing football.  I don’t find the work uninteresting, but it is very exhausting.”

Though he desperately wanted time to work on his novel, Burmese Days, he was extremely conscientious and, in a terrible school run entirely for profit, tried hard to give the boys a decent education.  Reviewing a prep school novel in May 1940, he wrote that “these schools, with their money-grubbing proprietors and their staffs of underpaid hacks, are responsible for a lot of harm that it is usual to blame on the public schools.”

From August to December 1933, without taking a summer holiday, Orwell taught and lived at a much better school.  The coeducational Frays College was located in Uxbridge, a few miles northwest of Hayes.  It had about 200 students, thirty of them boarders, between the ages of five and fifteen.  The staff of sixteen prepared them for the professions, universities and Civil Service.  He taught French and English, and supervised hockey and cricket after school.  In his little spare time he went fishing, rode his new motorbike (as he had done in Mandalay) and worked late into the night on his novel.  Colleagues remembered that he had an austere temperament, was distant and cool but always friendly and courteous.

Despite his delicate health he was quite reckless.  In December 1933, while riding his motorbike without an overcoat, he got completely soaked in a freezing rainstorm.  He caught a severe chill that turned into pneumonia and spent two weeks in an Uxbridge hospital.  Too weak to continue teaching he was, like Lawrence, permanently released from that dead-end job by illness.

Geoffrey Stevens thought the school (and school play) in Orwell’s A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) was exactly like The Hawthorns.  In that novel the repellent suburb is filled with “labyrinths of meanly decent streets, all so indistinguishably alike”, and the school (like Lawrence’s) is in “a dark-looking, semi-detached house of yellow brick, three storeys high.”  Mrs. Creevy, Dorothy Hare’s employer in the wretched Ringwood (echoing the disease ringworm) Academy for Girls, aged fifteen to eighteen, is a grotesque version of the tight-fisted, unscrupulous proprietor of The Hawthornes.  Mrs. Creevy tells Dorothy that she treats the girls according to their parents’ ability to pay.  The good payers were not to be smacked on any account.  The medium payers can get smacked or have their ears twisted if they get saucy.  She doesn’t care what Dorothy does to the bad payers—short of a police case.

Dorothy has to teach an impossible range of subjects: Latin, French, History, Geography, Maths and Literature, as well as composition, spelling, grammar, handwriting and drawing.  She inevitably feels like an impostor, and goes to work with secret shrinking and dread.  She has no privacy and very little time that she can call her own, but she’s determined to work hard for the school and “be proud of it, and make every effort to turn it from a place of bondage into a place human and decent”.

At first she tries hard to make the students think for themselves.  But the parents complain about her innovative methods, also severely discouraged by Mrs. Creevy, and the children are forced to return to their hated lessons.  The worst of it, as with Lawrence, are the beatings, when she loses control of herself and begins to hit the mutinous ones: “It seemed to her an unforgivable thing to do, to hit a child; but nearly all teachers come to it in the end.”  Though it is boring and exhausting to teach “the victims of a dreary swindle”, she is horrified and ashamed to be suddenly dismissed, but also (like Ursula in The Rainbow) relieved to escape.

All four writers followed the same pattern of disappointed expectations.  They were inexperienced, mostly unqualified and had no other job possibilities, and had no idea how hard teaching would be.  They were required to cover a wide range of subjects for long hours and low pay, and regress to the harsh regimes of their childhood.  They loathed the snobbish, intellectually stifling atmosphere and the swindles of the greedy proprietors.  Lacking vocation and the right temperament, they became poor teachers who couldn’t control their classes. They got no support from oppressive headmasters and uncongenial colleagues, found it impossible both to discipline and encourage the boys, and hated themselves for beating the children.  Alienated, lonely and with no time to write, they were delighted to escape through incompetence, immorality or illness.  For many years afterward they had nightmares about being trapped in a school.  But they gained valuable experience from their degrading work and used it in their satirical fiction.


Jeffrey Meyers published James Salter: Pilot, Screenwriter, Novelist in February 2024.  His Parallel Lives: From Freud and Mann to Arbus and Plath will appear on July 3, 2024.  His book, 45 Ways to Look at Hemingway, will be out in July 2025, all with Louisiana State University Press. 


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