Classics or curios;Reviews;English;Secondary

29th May 1998 at 01:00
Pre 20th-Century Literature. Selected and edited by Paul Roberts. Oxford University Press pound;5.75

National curriculum requirements for the study of pre 20th-century literature produce some defensive reactions from anthologists trying to cater for it. The preface to this collection aims to pre-empt consumer resistance. "Why do we have to read this? It's too old, it's got nothing to do with the way we live now!" Some of the items are a powerful answer to such complaints by the key stage 4 and GCSE pupils it is aimed at. Others make you feel they might have a point.

The anthology covers short stories, letters, reportage and drama, and five sets of poems, thematically grouped. Each genre or sub-group has three to five items. Cross-references between groups are possible on the basis of theme, character, social observation or language. This is a serviceable package, neatly covering curriculum requirements.

The grouping is deft, but individual choices are an uncertain mixture, best illustrated by writers who make more than one appearance. Jane Austen's short story "The Three Sisters" is excellent - funny and accessible. But her gossipy letter from Bath is interesting only for Janeites, likely to be few in key stage 4 groups. Shelley's "Ozymandias" is a hackneyed but great poem, whereas his huffy letter to his girlfriend's obstructive father is a comic but trivial curio. Costume dramas in costume language, such as She Stoops to Conquer, are best avoided, and several items are just dull.

Some of the collection's best pieces come from outside Britain. Kate Chopin's tragic story "Desiree's Baby" is a moving and powerful anti-racist text; Chief Seattle's letter to the US president is an environmentalist's Old Testament; and Gogol's The Government Inspector is marvellous comedy, not to mention potential therapy for stressed teachers.

This is a mixed bag, but on balance useful. The activities are mostly uninspired, however, and too reminiscent of old-style comprehension questions. Teachers will need to augment them.

Peter Hollindale is a senior lecturer at York University

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