Framework Press (Department F), Parkfield, Greaves Road, Lancaster LA1 4TZ.
English literature teachers know all too well how hard it is to interest most young students in the classics. In the first place, convoluted plots demand fierce concentration and much perseverance; and the unfamiliar language, with its strange cadences and complex sentiments, hardly compares with the instant pleasures of the teen mag or the video.
Designed mainly for use at key stage 4 and by students of A- level English Language and Literature, Exploring Pre-Twentieth Century Fiction makes a number of lively attempts to further students' interest and involvement in several such novels: Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Oliver Twist, Hard Times, Great Expectations, Far From the Madding Crowd, The Mayor of Casterbridge and Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Each of the eight sections has two parts: "Reading the Signs", in which students are encouraged to scrutinise the texts in the light of their own experiences, and "Mapping the Texts", which offers activities to help explore the larger issues in each book. In the main, the authors have done good work; if only the same could be said of their publisher.
First, though, the activities. Of the numerous useful suggestions, several stand out. In the Hard Times section, for example, students are asked to analyse Slackbridge's overblown mode of public address, then to write a speech of similar style urging fellow students to strike action.
Equally constructive are two of the Wuthering Heights activities: one, to design an estate agent's leaflet for the actual house, the other to plan and act out a coroner's inquest into Heathcliff's death.
There are many other, equally bright ideas. Getting readers of Great Expectations to write a letter from Pip to Herbert, telling of Magwitch's death, will certainly test their powers of recall, understanding and inventiveness, while older students should enjoy adapting The Mayor of Casterbridge for television, complete with snappy character profiles for the TV Times. And Oliver Twist readers will gain much from imagining themselves as Nancy and describing how they got mixed up with Fagin and Bill.
Even so, there are a few exceptions to this general high standard. In particular, the Tess of the D'Urbervilles section lacks the freshness of the others. More especially, an activity that involves storyboarding a fraught, largely verbal encounter between Tess and Angel Clare is surely misguided: professional storyboarding is almost exclusively confined to big action scenes. And the Casterbridge television adaptation apart, this particular section leans too far too heavily on "discussion" sessions. Compared with the variety offered elsewhere, this is an arid component.
But by far the biggest disappointmentcomes from abysmal proof-reading. One might reasonably expect particular care to be taken with a photocopiable resource, but evidence to the contrary turns up time and again. One sheet mentions "harrassment" four times, while others feature such pairings as "druken stupor", "sneak of", as well as, horribly, "Tess'" (with "Tess's" on the opposite page, just to confuse things), "similies" and "forcast".
As if teachers didn't have enough problems with spelling. Nowhere near as many, it seems, as "staring" Peter Firth, who took one of the major roles in Roman Polanski's Tess, the film of Hardy's novel. Of all the problems suggested by Firth's performance, this one was lost on the rest of us.