Literature - Dickens is more than just 'an old, bearded Victorian'

31st January 2014 at 00:00
Hook children with tales from author's life, descendant says

As a boy, Charles Dickens was just like today's schoolchildren: he worried about being bullied and about his family, according to the author's great-great-great granddaughter.

In fact, Lucinda Dickens Hawksley says, teaching children about the life of the eminent Victorian could be an alternative to teaching his books in schools.

"I love it when children are taught the classics, but I don't think it should be a blanket rule: you're going to do Dickens or you're going to do Shakespeare," Ms Hawksley told TES. "It worries me that children get put off his books because they think that he's unknowable or boring. That's really not true."

Ms Hawksley, who has written a biography of her famous antecedent and delivers Dickens workshops in schools, said there was a common misconception that the author was just "an old, bearded Victorian".

"One bearded Victorian looks very much like another," she said. "Teachers need to show him as someone young, someone pupils can engage with. When [children] understand more about Dickens' own life, they realise that he was like them once."

The young Charles, for example, saw his father thrown into prison and worried that he would be bullied about it. These fears gave him the necessary experience to write the scene in Great Expectations in which the young Pip is bullied by escaped convict Magwitch.

"You don't have to have met a convict in a graveyard to know what it's like to be scared," Ms Hawksley said. "Human nature hasn't changed. It's valid to feel frightened, as Pip does. These are things that children still feel today.

"Dickens writes about things that affect us now - real human emotion, real human situations."

Although society has changed since the 19th century, the poverty and hardship that Dickens writes about have not disappeared entirely. "Children are really aware of hardship and of what's going on in the world," Ms Hawksley said. "Even if they don't happen in the UK, the things in his books are happening around the developing world. That's something that children are very aware of. They see it on the news, they see it online."

Last week, TES reported that Dmitry Livanov, the Russian minister of education and science, had called for the rest of the world to follow his country's example and compel schoolchildren to study the full canon of native classic authors. He was shocked that British students could leave school without having read any of Dickens' novels.

Similarly, England's education secretary Michael Gove has spoken of his desire for schools to teach the English literary canon.

But Ms Hawksley believes that only teachers who are able to see the relevance of Dickens' work for themselves will do it justice in the classroom.

"All literature should be taught by someone who loves it," she said. "There's no point in teaching a writer you don't enjoy yourself. All you'll do is pass on to children your dislike."

She would be happy for Dickens to be instead discussed during history lessons. "Dickens is an important historical figure," she said. "It would be quite worrying if children could get through school without learning anything about him.

"But I also think it's great when some people come up to me and say, `I didn't read Dickens as a child, but I've discovered him as an adult and I love him.' "

This sentiment is echoed by Bethan Marshall, senior lecturer in English education at King's College London. "If Dickens is taught badly, he can be hideously dull," she said. "People can be put off him for life. I'm not sure Charles Dickens would want kids to plough through David Copperfield just because he's notable and kids ought to know him. But Dickens taught well can be very good."

To mark Dickens' birthday on 7 February, a DVD of the West End stage version of Great Expectations will go on sale. It is accompanied by a free education resource pack.

More resources on Dickens.

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