Scrooge gets new partner;Secondary;English;Reviews;Books

17th September 1999 at 01:00
CAMBRIDGE SCHOOL ANTHOLOGIES: Introducing Dickens. By Alex Madina and Valerie LynnCambridge University Press pound;5.50.

Introducing Dickens to lower secondary school students is a good idea. If the "heritage model" of English teaching has the value claimed for it, then Dickens ranks next to Shakespeare in the pantheon of past writers whose work is still alive and well. Our national imagination on so many subjects, such as Christmas and London, is still deeply formed by Dickens's work.

Quite right, then, that students at key stage 3 or thereabouts should have a look, and given the length of the Victorian novel, an anthology is a sensible way of proceeding. Dickens is full of almost free-standing, vividly dramatic scenes that make life easy for selectors. Considered just as an anthology, Introducing Dickens works quite well. Extracts, some quite lengthy, from five of Dickens's best-known novels illustrate effectively the power and versatility of his imagination. Many are already famous, such as Oliver's first encounter with Fagin and Pip's with Magwitch, but no worse for that.

The book's limitation lies in the questions and "activities". Ideas for improvisations based on analogous present-day events are useful, but the closer the authors get to Dickens himself, the more schematic they become. The activities are obsessed with Dickens's "techniques", and structure the students' investigations with a constrictive dependence on charts and diagrams, inviting mechanistic readings.

The search for modern relevance is the problem. By accident this goes comically far, when the name of Bob Marley the reggae-singer displaces that of Scrooge's partner. The extracts show that Dickens, skilfully selected, can speak for himself to today's students, given the chance.

Peter Hollindale Peter Hollindale is Reader in English and Educational Studies at the University of York

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