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Revisionism and Re-evaluation of the Patriarchal Nature of Literature and History in The History Boys and the World’s Wife

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Both Duffy and Bennett present deliberately provocative attitudes towards the matriarchy and patriarchy through their respective uses of storytelling. In The World’s Wife Duffy uses a variety of poetic forms to displace and reinsert female mythological and literary figures into roles of dramatic cultural centrality, or contrastingly into singular roles in history and society in order to accentuate their oppression, whilst subverting it. Duffy therefore utilises the revisionist method of re-evaluating to critique the superficiality that inhibits modern society, allowing reinvention to lead further from an unacceptable truth towards a more appealing alternative. In a similar manner, Bennett’s The History Boys, exploits revisionist methods to encourage his audiences to re-evaluate the nature of history itself, and to question the function and value of literature in modern society. However, where Bennett uses revisionism as a technique of selling ‘false’ truths through the presentation of Irwin’s ‘spin’ approach to knowledge and teaching, Duffy’s uses revisionism to re-evaluate what it is to be female, as well as critiquing the superficiality and materialism of modern lifestyles.

Both Duffy and Bennett encourage their reader, or audience, to re-evaluate the patriarchal nature of literature and history, and the displacement of women. However, both authors re-evaluate women’s role in society for different purposes, and through using contesting techniques and methods of re-evaluation. Bennett seems to almost parody the existing patriarchal bias of history and literature through the gender imbalance amongst the characters in The History Boys which features only one speaking female character, reflective of the gender inequalities of both the 1950s and 1980s society he draws upon. Lacking a feminist agenda however, Bennett actively promotes an overtly male society, as well as emphasising the typical role of female subservience through his recreation of 1980s male dominated society. Contrastingly, Duffy, in a stridently feminist manner, deliberately highlights the historical oppression of the matriarchy through her use of cultural references and intertextuality. This enables her to persuade her readers to revaluate female figures, previously displaced through patriarchal versions of history or literature. This can be seen at the start of The World’s Wife, where Duffy subverts the fairy tale figure of Little Red Riding Hood within her opening poem, Little Red Cap. This poem is a bitter revisionist parody of the traditional fairy tale in which Duffy suggests that female liberation from male oppression lies in the need to reverse expected gender roles. Little Red Cap actively takes charge of her own ‘loss of innocence’ in eagerly following the wolf into the woods, then through her ultimate defiance of the patriarchy through killing the wolf: “I took an axe to the wolf”. Duffy shows the death and consuming of the patriarchy by the stronger force of the matriarchy, as the wolf symbolises masculinity as a whole. The active verb “took” emphasises the activity and strength of femininity over masculinity, showing that The World’s Wife “marks a critical departure from the earlier poetry in that men and masculinity are attacked constantly by more abrasive female narrators” Rowland, A. (2019). [online] Available at: [Accessed 9 Apr. 2019]. Therefore Duffy uproots the traditional expectations of the strength of the patriarchy within society, unsettling the reader through typical subversive techniques, irreverently paired with a postmodernist twist and encouraging the reader to re-evaluate the supposed ‘inability’ of femininity, positioning the matriarchy above the patriarchy.

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Unlike Duffy however, Bennett seemingly adheres to patriarchal domination without a feminist agenda, creating a gender imbalance to reflect the latent misogyny of 1980s society. He uses Mrs Lintott as a dramatic device, conforming to the characteristics of the ‘submissive’ contemporary stereotype of women who accepts their allocated role in society (“… my role a patient and not unamused sufferance of the predilections and preoccupations of men.’) Duffy too draws upon gender stereotypes, but shows Little Red Cap as able to manipulate these in her favour, by playing on her supposed innocence to seduce the wolf into seducing her. Duffy uses the patronising ‘label’ of a “little girl”, as well as the listing of patronising female identities: “sweet sixteen, never been, babe, waif…” in order to expose the stereotypical perspectives of females as both sexualised and innocent objects. Duffy directly addresses normalised views of female diminishment in history, subverting the degrading connotations of these identities, enabling them to instead empower femininity. Therefore, in her initial poem Duffy instantaneously constructs the newly-established notion of a matriarchal world, that progresses throughout The World’s Wife. Bennett similarly presents a partially supressed female figure through his characterisation of Mrs Lintott, giving her “the role as astute and perceptive commentator.” This commentary extends to Mrs Lintott herself acknowledging that she has little influence over the events in a patriarchal society other than as an observer and confidante: “I’m what men call a safe pair of hands”. Bennett constructs the image of a male dominated history through his use of the bitter metaphor and an active passive divide: “They kick their stone along the street and I watch”, whereby Mrs Lintott inhibits a passive, typically female role. The non-action verb “watch” further hyperbolises Mrs Lintott’s inactive and compliant role, offering a female critique of history. Bennett juxtaposes this subservient female figure with the rather egocentric nature of the masculine characters, through his use of the active verb and third person pronoun “they kicked”, allowing Mrs Lintott to be denoted an invaluable role. As a part of his postmodernist storytelling, Bennett draws attention to Mrs Lintott’s ‘function’ as a ‘self-reflexive’ character within The History Boys by allowing her to highlight her own very limited role within the play (“I have not hitherto been allotted an inner voice…”). In a similar way, Duffy re-evaluates the stereotypical identities of women and girls in society, but instead reinstating a newly heightened sense of femininity, and of Little Red Cap, by directly addressing suppressive stereotypes.

Both authors use social commentary and satire in order to encourage the reader to re-evaluate social values and preoccupations within society, such as the differing ways in which both Duffy and Bennett attack materialism. Duffy utilises social commentary, paired with a savage satire, as a device to encourage a reflection and re-evaluation of materialism within late 20th Century society. Whereas Bennett creates a divide between the importance of life education, knowledge and wisdom to present the commodification of the education system. Bennett uses revisionism as a technique of selling ‘false’ truths though the presentation of Irwin’s ‘spin’ approach to knowledge. Like Duffy, Bennett employs satire to encourage his audience to re-evaluate a key social construction in the form of the education system. Through his characterisation of Irwin as an Alastair Campbell-esque spin doctor, Bennett focuses on attacking supposedly innovative educational methodologies, in order to mock the New Labour Blairite years. This was a government that was framed for exploiting the political power of ‘spin’, and their obsession upon ‘education, education, education’. This links with Irwin’s repetitive teaching of journalistic methods of “selling” their examination essays to receive higher results and to win “the pools”, by getting into Oxbridge.

Duffy deliberately attacks late C20th middle class lifestyle aspirations within both Mrs Faust and Salome. Through creating a revisionist version of the Faustus myth (in which Faust sells his soul to the devil via Mephistopheles receiving unlimited power and wealth for 25 years in return) Duffy satirises the ‘soullessness’ of modern society due to its materialistic value system, an idea also dealt with in Mrs Midas. Multiple status symbols are referenced throughout Mrs Faust through a series of elliptical sentences: “Fast cars. A boat with sails. / A second home in Wales”, generating the sense of endless wealth that composes an inextricable lifestyle, supposedly creating contentment. The majority of the poem is in fact a list of acquisitions, continuing the attack upon the cumulative mind set and lack of ‘soul’ present within this relationship. Bennett also attacks social values, as evidenced by the view that “Irwin is very much a product of the 80s ”, which can be seen in his reducing all aspects of the boys’ knowledge down to how they can be exploited for personal gain in an examination. Irwin’s commodification of knowledge, links directly to the late C20th focus on materialism, whereby even knowledge itself is objectified in terms of its value. Furthermore Duffy also emphasises the lack of consequence of a selfish and materialistic lifestyle in ‘Salome’, where she re-visits the mythological and biblical account of the original story, presenting an ultimately unapologetic soulless female figure. The absence of compassion of the pre-corrupt cultural female figure chimes with the ‘soullessness’ of the dissatisfied character, Mrs Faust. Duffy’s use of repeated rhetorical questioning: “a head on the pillow beside me-whose? – /what did it matter?”, paired with the objectification and obsession with physicality of masculinity: “a beautiful crimson mouth that obviously knew how to flatter…” creates a sense of the protagonist leading a parody of the 1990s ladette lifestyle. Salome, is presented as showing no remorse or regret for her violent actions through her admission at the start of the poem: “I’d done it before/and doubtless I’ll do it again…”. This absence of compassion or regret is suggested through her immediate and casual confession of her intent, emphasised by Duffy’s use of the contracted form of the modal auxiliary “I will”. Salome’s lack of realisation and soullessness links to the greed of Mrs Faust: “I bought a kidney/with my credit card”, showing Duffy’s use of social satire to attack late 20th Century values in society. Therefore, Bennett’s presentation of the distortion of knowledge for personal gain by Irwin links closely with Duffy’s satire of the soullessness of the modern society, through the selfish and gluttonous attitudes of Salome and Mrs Faust.

Where Duffy uses revisionism to re-evaluate alternative representations of femininity in history throughout The World’s Wife, Bennett encourages the reader to re-evaluate the nature of history through Irwin’s revisionist versions of it, so introducing the idea of historiography, whereby historical accounts are dependent upon personal experiences or cultural context. Duffy deliberately distances her characters from sentimentalised idealism regarding the role of the female protagonist, creating ‘real’ voices of suppressed female voices through her use of the dramatic monologue form. However Bennett presents subjunctive historiography through the characterisation of Dakin, leaving the reader to question how minor changes in historical events may significantly impact the route of history. Dakin seems to follow Hector’s focus on the constant questioning of the alternate outcomes of history, musing on both alternate and subjunctive history (“It’s subjunctive history. You know, the subjunctive? The mood used when something may or may not have happened. When it is imagined”). Dakin finds enjoyment in “summarising the sometimes accidental nature of history” through merging both Irwin and Hector’s arguably conflicting perspectives to history. Duffy also uses subjunctive history to convey a provocatively sympathetic portrayal of the English serial killer, Myra Hindley, within the poem The Devil’s Wife. Here, Duffy utilises revisionism and subjunctive history to provide possibilities of what may have occurred in the ambiguous events of The Moors Murders (1963-1965). Duffy is subversive through her depiction of Myra Hindley as a victim, rather than a violent criminal, through her objectification and public judgement of her appearance and voice (a subject of great focus amongst media and the public eye of the 1960s): “Nobody liked my hair. Nobody liked how I spoke”. Duffy’s use of repetition of “Nobody”, combined with emphatic nature of the sentences, instil sense of victimisation. The objectification of Myra Hindley encourages the reader to question and revise what it is to be a woman in an intensely judgemental modern society. Duffy subtly uses revisionism to criticise society and the media for their frivolous judgement of Myra Hindley, re-writing history by illustrating Hindley as a victim.

Contrastingly Dakin presents a striking example of subjunctive historiography within The History Boys. This is reflected through his re-interpretation of the day of Winston Churchill’s election to be Britain’s Prime Minister, as a result of Halifax not being present (the more likely candidate to be elected: “Halifax more generally acceptable”- Dakin) as he was at the dentist. This is a prime instance where events in history would have unfolded in to creating alternative results, showing how Bennett is emphasising the concept of the incidental nature of history. Dakin’s obsession with subjunctive history and the possibilities of different events is illustrated through his enjoyment in considering the minor details of the past: “If Halifax had had better teeth we might have lost the war”. Bennett’s use of the conditional “if” highlights the interchangeability and probability associated with subjunctive history. Bennett’s comedic writing highlights deeper concepts regarding alternate history and the consequences, chance and scenarios that determine history.

Similarly, Duffy uses subjunctive history by presenting various interpretations of Hindley. She is partially portrayed as not fulfilling the ‘ideal’ appearance constituted by the public eye. Hindley is singled out as a misfit of society and normality, supported by title of the third poem that makes up The Devil’s Wife: Medusa that evokes a sense of otherness and unnatural femininity. Since Ancient Greece, Medusa has existed as a snake-haired, sexualised symbol of women’s fury. This Greek Gorgon is an image of violent, seductive desire, partially viewed as a victim due to her execution by her male slayer, Perseus. Her power of turning everything she glanced at in to stone, also presented Medusa as a destructive and dangerous female. Duffy’s use of intertextuality may suggest the victimisation of Hindley within The Devil’s Wife. Hindley claimed she was not responsible for her actions due to the physical and sexual abuse that she endured from Ian Brady (her accomplice), who also supposedly tortured and threatened to kill her. Therefore, during this time of great public controversy, some people believed the manipulation that Hindley experienced by Brady was true, recognising her victimisation that is reflected within the poem Medusa: “I howled in my cell”. Duffy uses an animalistic image of Hindley to partially create a sense of her dangerous and abnormal actions, as well as inflicting a feeling of her madness and demented rage due to her captivity. Duffy uses intertextuality as a method of re-evaluating the possibility of female monstrosity and victimisation, as well as suggesting females are equally capable of committing violent crimes as men, reflected within Medusa: “I didn’t care”. Duffy utilises a dismissive tone through her use of an emphatic sentence, denoting the emotionless and detached characterisation of Hindley. Arguably Duffy exploits subjunctive history to rewrite traditional gender stereotypes, in contrast to Bennett’s broader use of it to explore the nature of history itself.

To conclude, Bennett and Duffy utilise revisionism in order to re-evaluate the patriarchal nature of literature and history, whereby Bennett paradises the male-dominated society and Duffy reverses gender roles to liberate the matriarchy. Both authors use social commentary and satire to attack societal occupations, regarding the re-evaluation of the materialistic nature of the 20th Century (by Duffy), and Bennett’s presentation of the commodities of the 1980s British education system. Lastly, Bennett and Duffy make use of subjunctive history to encourage the reader to re-evaluate certain possibilities in history, as well as Duffy’s revisionism of women’s capabilities, suggesting their empowerment lies in the exploiting both their creative and destructive abilities.


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