Bront classics 'shunned' as creative writing declines

4th August 2006 at 01:00
Tall, brooding Heathcliff, striding manfully across the lonely moors, has long been the stuff of teenage fantasy, with swooning girls leafing dewy-eyed through their copies of Emily Bront 's Wuthering Heights.

But now generations of impressionable females may be denied their windswept daydreams, according to the new chairman of the Bront Society.

Richard Wilcocks claims that pupils are not being given the chance to study classic novels in depth.

"Teachers need to get through a certain amount every week," he said. "So reading is put at the back of the queue. The only access young people have to the classics is through a film or TV series."

The 61-year-old, who worked for 34 years as an English teacher in West Yorkshire, says that Victorian literature is particularly overlooked.

"Nineteenth-century classics get shuffled to the back row," he said.

"Instead, the same modern texts, like Lord of the Flies, turn up again and again.

"But you've got to have a sense of perspective. You've got to put things on the horizon, so that you can judge what's in the foreground."

Mr Wilcocks said that the only contact many pupils have with Charlotte Bront 's most famous novel, Jane Eyre, is in reading-comprehension exercises.

"The same old cliched extracts keep turning up," he said. "And the questions are just inane: why was this adjective or adverb used here? It's so mechanical and soul-destroying.

"I don't want to appear to be some kind of late hippy, but access to the classics should be through exercise of the imagination. There should be more creative writing, more flexibility, more drama."

Ian McNeilly, of the National Association for the Teaching of English, agrees. He said: "Engaging with a whole text gives an enriched perspective of literary history, character development, writing technique, context, everything. But, when you're on a treadmill of coursework and GCSE anthologies, 500-page novels are often the first thing to be jettisoned."

Mr Wilcocks' interest in the Bront s began with a teenage visit to Haworth, the authors' family home. Since then, the father-of-three has re-read their works repeatedly.

"I'm still inspired by Wuthering Heights," he said. "These books are landmarks. They've been interpreted in so many different directions, by feminists, sociologists. People always find new angles."

He hopes this is also true of the many teachers among the 103-year-old Bront Society's 2,000 members.

"Large numbers of kids write literature essays in a formulaic way, just as they do any other exam," Mr Wilcocks said. "But literature is something that ferments in your mind. It's our national heritage. Something that's lasted that long should be appreciated."

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