Horror fiction does the trick;English

22nd January 1999 at 00:00
Victoria Neumark finds how teachers get teenagers keen on the classics.

Every GCSE English candidate has to study a text written before 1900. Although some schools take this in their stride, romping through Dickens' novels, Romantic poetry and Oscar Wilde plays with their 15-year-olds, many are daunted and fall back on the Sherlock Holmes short story.

But why be defeatist, asks Peter Traves, headteacher of Wakeman school in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, and an English teacher of 25 years' experience. "I think the worries are misplaced," he says. "They are based on too broad an assumption about young people's interests and too broad an assumption about the texts."

Peter Traves says, "I've had a phenomenal amount of pleasure from great literature. why shouldn't they?" He advocates drawing young people in through their existing interests - crime, gender wars, injustice - which can be found abundantly in such writers as the Bront s. "There is no sure-fire text, but I think the 19th-century novel can be a terrific experience for them."

Sarah Conway agrees. She is head of English at King Solomon school in Redbridge, east London, and a "passionate advocate" of teaching pre-20th century literature. "We've done Blake and they absolutely loved it. Even though this is a Jewish school and there is so much Christian imagery, they found their own interpretations of the texts. And that's what I think you have to do, to show them they can relate to the texts, look at them in the context of today."

Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles, for instance, gained renewed resonance by being paired with Alice Walker's The Color Purple and looked at as an exploration of the suffering of women from oppressed groups - the agrarian poor in 19th-century Britain or early 20th-century America.

The Color Purple is also, of course, about black experience. Both Sarah Conway and Peter Traves are eager to point out that the study of literature needs to be more, not less, inclusive.

Caribbean literature, Indian writing...the shelves are full of riches. As the net is drawn wide, however, so it must be drawn deep to include, as Sarah Conway says, "our literary heritage".

If that sounds hard to sell to Year 10, listen to Peter Traves. This year he has been working on Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bront and Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. Wide Sargasso Sea is a short, poetic novel which imagines the life of a woman named Antoinette, first wife of Mr Rochester, Jane Eyre's lover. In Bront 's novel, Antoinette is only a malign secret, the "madwoman in the attic" in academic Elaine Showalter's phrase, whose presence is felt in an atmosphere of suspicion, climaxing in her setting fire to Rochester's mansion.

Rochester is blinded while trying to rescue Bertha (as she is called in Bront 's novel), and his suffering purifies him to live happily ever after with Jane. Bertha, on the other hand, is buried.

Here is ample food for thought for young people raised to believe in sexual and racial equality (BerthaAntoinette is Creole, or white West Indian, heiress to a slave plantation). Peter Traves found that using a variety of techniques - reading the novels in class and at home, listening to audiotapes, writing letters between the characters and discussing such topics as whether Jane can ever be reconciled with her aunt or the different uses made of point-of-view narration in the two novels - the class very quickly made sophisticated observations. When it came to the final essay for their coursework, the quality was "astounding".

Here is 15-year-old Branwyn Poleykett: "Jane Eyre is not a typical 19th-century heroine. She is poor and plain and relentlessly sceptical about what she observes of the life of the upper classes. She regards herself as no less than any person separated by gender or class and clings on to these ideas stubbornly. Antoinette is beautiful and rich, less intelligent and a lot weaker than Jane. In 19th-century society the most attractive quality in a wife or daughter was obedience. women were educated in things like languages and music but a marriage was based on wealth and class and the decision would probably be made by the father."

But it is not only the high-achievers who can gain from the study of pre-1900 texts. "It gives them confidence that the teacher thinks they can do it," says Sarah Conway. Recently she taught H G Wells' War of the Worlds to a mixed-ability group. She was delighted by how quickly they caught on to its themes of a world in trouble from pollution, exploitation, the wrong use of science. Though the class felt that Wells would have been read only by "highly educated people", they themselves were energised by his racy way with ideas.

Ideas, Sarah Conway believes, are a royal road into the literature of the past. She cites a recent production of Othello by her Year 10s where Othello was a woman dealing with harassment at work and the poster was designed by a Net-wise pupil sampling off the World-Wide Web.

Another route in is language: looking at stories by Sherlock Holmes and a Ruth Rendell and seeing how different use of adverbial clauses allows the authors to make different effects. "It's empowering," says Sarah Conway, to use grammatical analysis of different genres of writing as an aid to sharpening students' own writing tools.

Genre is a third key to interesting teenagers in the literature of the past. Sarah Conway worries that the literature classroom is overly dominated by female sensibilities. Over the past few years she has made a determined effort to use ancestors of today's horror, crime and science fiction to attract boys. "You show them the origins of the literature today in the literature of the past."

Thus Mary Shelley's Frankenstein or Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde can be read as either horror or science fiction - but what is it that these writers are trying to say with their grisly narratives? Gender stereotypical it may sound, but boys are hooked when they realise questions about the limits and value of science, the ethics of medical research and the nature of human anatomy are posed in these works of fiction.

With works like these, too, the teacher is able to use the class's visual expertise to underpin their textual analysis: they will all have seen the film and have ideas about how films and books relate. "Only two out of 20, even in my A-level class, will be avid readers," says Sarah Conway, "but they can still gain so much from studying literature."

"What we should be doing for our young people is making sure that the whole of our culture is available to them," says Peter Traves. "I don't mind if they say they don't like Jane Eyre, but I mind if they say it's not for the likes of them."

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