A full supporting cast

7th July 1995 at 01:00
Brian Slough admires a thorough approach to the classics. LONGMAN LITERATURE. A QUESTION OF COURAGE. By Marjorie Darke. Edited by Roy Blatchford 0582 25395 0. SILAS MARNER. By George Eliot. Edited by Jackie Head 0582 23662 2. THE WESSEX TALES. By Thomas Hardy. Edited by Robert Southwick 0582 25405 1. THE MIST IN THE MIRROR. By Susan Hill. Edited by Jackie Head 0582 25399 3.

HEAT AND DUST. By Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Edited by Barbara Bleiman 0582 25398 5. A NORTHERN CHILDHOOD. By George Layton. Edited by Julie Revans 0582 25404 3. CHAIN OF FIRE. By Beverley Naidoo. Edited by Jane Joyner 0582 25403 5. JOURNEY TO JO'BURG. By Beverley Naidoo. Edited by Jane Joyner 0582 25402 7. THE RIVALSTHE SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL. By Richard Sheridan. Edited by Jacqueline Fisher 0582 25396 9 Longman Pounds 3.99 each.

With most series, consistent approval can switch to admiration. So it is with these additions to the well-established Longman series, which does not exclude recognition of their foibles.

One such is the introductory material of certain texts, especially its influence on conscientious, but inexperienced readers. My own preference is that of Marjorie Darke, expressed in her "Writer on Writing" piece preceding A Question of Courage. "I feel strongly that nothing (her italics) should be allowed to come between a story and the person about to open the covers of the book ... Afterwards you may take it to pieces, study and compare notes with other people as much as you wish. But story first!" Introductions differ considerably between texts and editions. In the Cambridge Silas Marner it is only one page, focusing on predictions, "to look back at when you have finished the novel". Longman's Silas has 20 pages, incorporating biography, setting, story as fable, children and childlessness, lives of country people. Splendid in itself, but justifiable before the novel is read?

Certainly, most books exist outside a vacuum: covers, reviews, pre-publication hype, might influence our choices (denied to many exam students?) if not our critical judgement. Indeed, it is pleasing that some assignments in the study sections employ these influences. The question is not so much "what?", but "when?" Standardised "reading logs" conclude the introductions. Thoroughly worthy, their worthily thorough bullet points risk death by reader-interruption when reinforced by rapid-fire glossary questions (75 in Wessex Tales).

Overkill threatens the glossaries; Longman, befitting its name, has more than 700 glosses on Silas (Cambridge 80). Most glossaries are helpful (the succinct Heat and Dust a notable example). Dialect words, technical terms, and historical detail take time to research. Against that, repetition ("clout" and "Bridlington" duplicated on facing pages) and the idiosyncratic are fodder for mischievous minds.

But even opponents of study texts must acknowledge pedagogical expertise within the study programmes. The stimulus material includes photographs in Beverley Naidoo's books and postcards and posters in A Question of Courage, along with a disturbing autobiographical description of force-feeding. Reviews from The Sunday Times and Times Literary Supplement on The Mist in the Mirror are genuinely purposeful; so, too, the suggestions for further reading.

Assignments are clearly presented, often supported by "starter" suggestions for character charts, plotlines, storyboards and spidergrams. The approaches and methodology are imaginatively varied, with increasing references to visual responses (drawings, collages and so on), word processors and media-synergism ("J'adore or J'accuse Thomas Hardy": Vic Reeves in the Sheridan text). I am glad that radio plays, formal debates and sharp textual analysis are not forgotten.

An award is deserved for Jackie Head's advocacy of responses in poetry, audience-awareness, and Times obituaries. Parents might have some words to say on the idea of time-lines on the back of wallpaper rolls, however. Oh, and tasks requiring a London A-Z are tricky in Fleetwood.

An Oscar should also go to Roy Blatchford, the series editor. Moreover, his edition of Darke's novel is a model of what study texts should be.

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