Teacher as author;Features amp; Arts;Subject of the week;History;Interview;Vyvyen Brendon

5th November 1999 at 00:00
Vyvyen Brendon is head of history at St Mary's school, an independent girls' school in Cambridge. She is the author of 'The Age of Reform', 'The Making of Modern Italy: 1800-1871', and 'The Edwardian Age', all part of the History at Source series for ASA-level students, published by Hodder amp; Stoughton. Her new book on the First World War comes out next year I started teaching history in 1963, and, when my children were young, I taught from home for the Open University. That helped me later on with the books, because I was teaching not just history, but the history of science, philosophy, literature, even music. It broadened my approach, and I've always tried to include a cultural aspect in my books.

In 1994, I got a schoolteacher fellowship at St Peter's College, Oxford, and St Mary's school gave me leave of absence for a term. At the same time, I was commissioned to write a book for Hodder after I answered an advertisement asking teachers for ideas, and so that was what I did in Oxford. I had a really exciting time there, and it was just like being a student again. I loved the research, and had lots of ideas - but, obviously, what's really difficult is the actual writing, saying what you want to say and getting the words right. It has made me very sympathetic to my pupils when I correct their essays, because you remember how hurtful criticism can be.

When I wrote The Age of Reform, a social history of the first half of the 19th-century, I included material on writers like Dickens and Mrs Gaskell. But when I wanted to do the same in The Edwardian Age by including HG Wells, Shaw, and Kipling to provide some social comment, my editor was less keen. But I did keep most of the writers in the end.

I think the whole point of teaching history and writing about it is to enable people to get back to the period. You've got to feel you've been there, like going to another country. That's what I try to do.

Back in the 1960s, history textbooks were pretty factual, whereas now they help pupils much more - help them with essays, break things down into headings, include useful diagrams. The emphasis now is much more on thinking for yourself, and I think the standard of pupils' history has improved.

I don't write during term-time, because you can get over-keen on a topic you're working on and then inflict it on your pupils. In the holidays, the books have involved me in quite a lot of travelling, which is exciting - like when I was researching the First World War, finding myself on the top of Italian mountains looking at amazing war memorials.

Vyvyen Brendon was talking to Diana Hinds

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