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Life in the old classics

Dennis Hamley says today's school editions are far superior to their predecessors. Cambridge Literature Edited by Judith Baxter The Awakening and other Stories by Kate Chopin. Edited by Judith Baxter. Pounds 4.25.

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy. Edited by Patricia George. Pounds 4.50. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. Edited by Tim Seward. Pounds 3.95. Hard Times by Charles Dickens. Edited by Gwen Jose Pounds 3.75. Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Edited by Jane Ogborn. Pounds 4.25. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bront . Edited by Susan Cockcroft. Pounds 4.25.

Pride and Prejudice. By Jane Austen. Edited by Richard Bain. Pounds 3. 95. Silas Marner by George Eliot. Edited by Mary Bousted. Pounds 3.25. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. Edited by Nicholas McGuin Pounds 3.25. Cambridge University Press Longman Literature Edited by Roy Blatchford Oliver Twist. By Charles Dickens. Edited by Robert Southwick Longman Pounds 3. 99. How to Study a Jane Austen Novel By Vivien Jones Macmillan Pounds 8.50.

The modern school edition is a comparatively sophisticated tool. As I first examined this batch, I remembered that by chance I had a copy of a Macmillan school edition of Far From the Madding Crowd first published in 1935 and reprinted regularly until at least 1970.

It contains a long essay full of classical allusions, textual notes less detailed than you might expect and a perfunctory half-page of essay questions. Whether the editor assumed students' prior knowledge or whether the whole reflects a top-down, note-giving teaching method is a moot point: probably both. What is quite certain is that both Cambridge and Longman assume a model of learning and understanding which no defender of traditional standards will ever tell me is not immeasurably superior. So to pick up the Cambridge edition of Hardy's novel is to enter a different world.

All editors in both the Cambridge and Longman series are given a brief, so each book follows a more or less common pattern. The Cambridge Hardy, for example, has a short introduction with valuable pre-reading activities (in this case to do with the novel's provenance, title and the geography of Hardy's Wessex) and, after the text, comprehensive resource notes focusing on six key questions - who wrote the novel, why, what sort of text is it, how presented, who reads it. With minor variations, these six questions apply to every novel and story here.

Information is presented clearly and critically examined, enabling the text to be explored in a variety of ways, so the reader shares in and extends the narrative experience. Judith Baxter in the general introduction writes: "There is a parallel between the way you read this book and the way it was written. " For me, that is a good statement of what all literary study should be.

Austen, Dickens, George Eliot, Hardy - this seems a standard list. But Kate Chopin's ground-breaking turn-of-the-century stories about Creoles and Cajans are marvellous to have, as are sensitive editions of ambiguous classics of childhood such as Huckleberry Finn and Treasure Island. You cannot go wrong in selecting these editions for A-level - and, for able students, GCSE.

The same can be said for the longer established Longman series. Oliver Twist seems a safe enough selection, but this list has developed enterprisingly and unexpectedly over several years. The general brief for editors serves well for A-level texts - but it can also introduce novels for a much wider age range: Judith Baxter's dictum is honoured here as well. A clue to perhaps wider applicability can be seen in the respective further reading lists: Cambridge suggests critics, Longman other novels.

The Longman resource material tends to be more detailed and elaborate: in Oliver Twist there are 17 pages of activities before the text begins - on the writer, the story, the characters, the novel's meanings and messages, with a Reading Log to keep throughout. Already it is clear that a less experienced reader is assumed. The Glossary in these editions is not just a list you can look up if the mood takes you: questions on the text - predictions, evaluations - are interspersed and this device works well.

The Study Programme involves several ways of working and responding to the text: all its aspects are visited, selective reading leads to speaking, performing and writing in different styles. The whole is rounded off with study questions specific to the story and, after suggestions for further reading, wider-ranging assignments.

The Macmillan How to Study series has been popular and valuable for a long time: this expanded revision of Vivien Jones's book on Jane Austen is very welcome. The plan is logical: studies of Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility form an introduction: thereafter, each of the major novels is looked at from the standpoint of a pervasive theme: money and marriage in Pride and Prejudice, judgment and irony in Emma, self and society in Persuasion, place in Mansfield Park. Before a comprehensive chapter on writing essays, there is a survey of the critical debate. The whole is invaluable for the sixth-form library: it will be welcomed by many A level students.

Altogether, this is an exciting crop: there's life in the old books yet.

Dennis Hamley is a former English adviser for Hertfordshire

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