Classic commentary

7th June 1996 at 01:00
Bethan Marshall on the Cambridge Literature series. CAMBRIDGE LITERATURE series - editor Judith Baxter Four Women Poets Pounds 4.95 A Room of One's Own Pounds 2.95 Great Expectations Pounds 3.75 Age of Innocence Pounds 4.50 The Alchemist Pounds 4.95 Cambridge University Press

Publishers producing school editions of well-known texts face stiff competition from the run of Pounds 1 editions of the classics. To get English departments to spend three or four times as much, any new edition has to offer something these cheaper versions do not. The Cambridge Literature series edited by Judith Baxter does just that.

Usable at both GCSE and A-level these books all come packaged with a clear editorial view that is more often found in media studies than in English. Notes are organised under headings such as "What type of text is A Room of One's Own?" "How does A Room of One's Own present its subject?" "Who reads A Room of One's Own and how do they read it?" This approach is particularly helpful when looking at Great Expectations. Everyone knows that the novel was written in serial form, but I have never seen an edition that actually shows where the episodes would have come. Much is made of the way it was produced and the effect on Dickens' writing - he had to write to a strict page count, which he found "crushing" - and the way his ending was altered for commercial reasons.

This information is translated into helpful classroom activities that both consider the way the novel was produced and critically analyse the text. Students are asked to imagine they are editing "All Year Round" and decide whether the first instalment grabs the reader's attention. Role play and drama is central to the way students are encouraged to engage with the text. The notes are full of imaginative ideas linked to specific pages in the novel.

But the series does not simply stick to well-established novels and plays. Cambridge has also brought out a new anthology of poetry, Four Women Poets, which includes works by Carol Ann Duffy, Fleur Adcock, Liz Lochhead and Jackie Kay. The styles are very different, from the powerful dramatic monologue of Kay to the poised ironic voice of Adcock. But juxtaposed they raise interesting questions about the way people read and write poetry, about whether poetry is about being heard or read or both. As an anthology they create a debate about whether there is such a thing as a "woman poet" at all.

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