Since happily shuddering through our Riot Read of The Secret History, I’ve been mulling over the evil possibilities of teachers in novels. It’s a role rich with manipulative potential—all those young students to feed on. Ranging from professors with alluring façades to hammer-throwing maniacs, here are my nominations for the anti–Mr. Chips.
1. Humbert Humbert, Lolita.
The predatory name entered the lexicon along with the sweet-strychnine “nymphet.” While Humbert’s not technically Lo’s teacher, his status as a sophisticated, Continental academic helps him seduce her.
2. Julian Morrow, The Secret History.
With his exclusive classes, spellbinding lectures, and apparent sympathy, Julian at first seems like a professorial dream fulfilled. There’s glamour, too, with his beautiful private offices, Montblanc pens, and dinner parties. But his seminars on the Greek classics hinge on madness and terror—and how much does he really know about his students’ deadly extracurriculars?
3. Miss Trunchbull, Matilda
“You’ve got to hammer it into them,” proclaims the nasty headmistress of Matilda’s school, after hurling a pigtail-wearing little girl across the school’s field. (She was an Olympian hammer-thrower, after all.) Roald Dahl’s villain is a clenched bully, smashing a china platter across one boy’s head and even holding her own niece’s head underwater. Luckily, Matilda has a kind, determined teacher, Miss Honey, on her side.
4. William Crimsworth, The Professor
The namesake professor in Charlotte Brontë’s first novel may not be as vicious as the instructors at Lowood, the school she later describes in Jane Eyre, but he maintains a merciless eye. While teaching at a girls’ school in Belgium, Crimsworth routinely humiliates his students to keep them in line. In one memorable passage, he dissects his students in phrenological detail, saying of one: “I wonder that any one, looking at the girl’s head and countenance, would have received her under their roof. She had precisely the same shape of skull as Pope Alexander the Sixth [the murderous, probably incestuous Borgia]… narrow as was her brow, it presented space enough for the legible graving of two words, Mutiny and Hate.” His domineering ways still act like catnip on one of his students, though.
5. Barbara Covett and Sheba Hart, What Was She Thinking? [Notes on a Scandal]
Back in sex-with-underage-student territory. Pottery teacher Sheba Hart meets a fifteen-year-old boy while supervising detention, then starts an affair with him. Her fellow teacher, Barbara Covett, might be even more unnerving, though. The older woman befriends the impulsive Sheba, hears her confessions, and spirals into an obsessive, exploitative relationship. (The movie version was perfectly cast, with Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett.)
To these, append the worst professor-offenders of the Harry Potter saga (Umbridge was a beaut). Any others you’d recommend?