Along with Shakespeare, the Victorian novel is perhaps the greatest victim of the British schooling system. For many, the only nineteenth-century novel they will ever read is a Bronte, Dickens or Hardy ‘ploughed’ through over months of tedious class group reading and beaten to death through ridiculous exercises and slavish commitment to assessment objectives. During my time in school English classrooms I liked literature despite (not because) of how it was taught and, several years on, here are some personal reflections on what works and what doesn’t when introducing students to weighty, complex but rewarding texts.
I can imagine this stroke of ‘genius’ as it came to my disgruntled, disillusioned GCSE teacher. Her students hated English, hated her, and seemed certain to hate the selection of Victorian stories on the supernatural we were to tackle for coursework - H.G. Wells’s The Red Room (1894), Wilkie Collins’s The Ostler (1855), Charles Dickens’s A Confession Found in a Prison (1840-1) and Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1839). What if she could only harness our superior attainments in Mathematics! We were soon set to work on graphs, designed to chart how suspense was created and varied throughout a short story, mapping how key moments in plot affected our (hopefully equally susceptible) nerves.
The results were disastrous. Some science-loving students had their suspicions that English was far from academically rigorous confirmed as people bickered over whether a door slamming was a 6, 7 or 8 out of 10. Our teacher muddled her terms, as war erupted over labelling the x and y axes. And most of the room couldn’t even remember the events we were meant to be ranking from the Poe, they had found the prose so impenetrable.
An alternative: Talking about the ways suspense can be created could be really fruitful, but only talking about plot ignores the very language students are meant to be learning to analyse. Why not show students a suspenseful scene from a modern movie dealing with the supernatural and then get them to write it in the first person, using some techniques employed by the authors of these (first person) stories? Concentrating on what language can add – what it is, rather than what it isn’t – is the way to explain its value.
Don’t tell students the ‘answer’:
‘Why does Eustacia marry Clym?’ (in Hardy’s The Return of the Native, 1878), ‘How does Tennyson feel about war?’ and ‘Are we meant to like Nelly?’ (E. Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, 1845-6) were all questions with set answers, which could be neatly bullet-pointed and forcibly ingested ahead of exam time, when I was first asked to consider them. This isn’t fun for anyone, especially not the teachers who have taught the same set texts for years, and it’s not reflective of the moral questioning and skilful ambiguity which pervades much of the writing of the period.
An alternative: Encourage debate, get students to argue a point both (or even more than two) ways and suggest how this potential for discussion can be a strength, not a fault of great writing. This will help those approaching literature academically for the first time get better at differentiating between tones, recognising subversion and appreciating nuances of expression.
Don’t ‘do context’:
Students who are perfectly capable of A Level standard history work, are routinely fed the kind of facts about Victorians which decorate the walls of primary schools as soon as it comes to adding ‘context’ to their English essays. Apparently, Victorians treated women badly, liked trains, were upset by Darwin, were very uptight about sex and that’s about it (okay, well maybe the last one wouldn’t be included in a younger children’s collage).
The alternative: Context isn’t an extra in English. Historical and social contexts should inform how students read and interpret literature at every point. The best way to approach this is by simply reading more – about the period or just from within the period. Rather than focussing on one novel the whole time, the more successful students will read around the subject. You will perform better if you’ve read more than one novel by the author you’re studying or by one of his or her contemporaries - not because you can name drop, but because you’ll have imbibed more about the time.
What were your experiences (good and bad) of nineteenth-century literature at school? Scarring? Inspiring? And, if you’re a teacher, how do you approach long and difficult novels with your classes? Let me know below, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist. And if you enjoy the blog, please VOTE for the Secret Victorianist in the UK Blog Awards!