Trollope for the pre-teens?

18th August 2006 at 01:00
Is Alan Johnson right to say pupils as young as 11 should study the bard of Barsetshire ?

Jeremy Sutcliffe and Julie Greenhough discuss the viability of the Education Secretary's wish-list of 'classic' authors

Dear Julie,

I have tried to get someone to defend the inclusion of Anthony Trollope on the Government's approved list of pre-1914 "classic" authors for 11 to 14-year-olds. I could have asked Education Secretary, Alan Johnson. But the last thing I wanted was a piece ghost-written by a dutiful civil servant; The Bearded One's legion of fans deserves better than that.

In search of a worthy advocate, I tried John Major, perhaps Trollope's most famous fan, but he was unavailable. Another Trollopian, Labour MP Denis McShane, was out of the country. I know it's August, but I thought getting someone to defend the great man's honour would be a piece of cake.

I turned to Andrew Davies, the greatest living adapter of classic texts for the small screen. Would he support the let-them-read-Trollope view? Sadly, no. "I didn't start reading him until I was 50, and that's about right," he told me. I even tried Victoria Glendinning, winner of a Whitbread prize for her Trollope biography. She told me he was great for sixth-formers and adults, but it was "pointless inflicting him on the kids".

In despair, I've taken up the case for the defence, so here goes: Trollope, though not as renowned as Thomas Hardy or George Eliot, is one of the great Victorian novelists and deserves to be studied. OK, some themes may be too adult for 11-year-olds. But teachers are imaginative; there's plenty that they'd lap up, such as his The Hunting Sketches for the Pall Mall Gazette.

"Women who ride, as a rule, ride better than men," he tells us. Kids would love that.

Dear Jem,

Sorry for not replying earlier but I fell asleep after the tedium induced by the Government's list of "prescribed" literature for key stage 3.

"Prescribed" conjures up images of a vile medicine that we must swallow because it's allegedly good for us. The predictable names lulled me into a stupor. Dead White Males. Dead White Hysterical Consumptive Women.

When will civil servants stop forcing us to worship the canon of English literature as they try to preserve some dream of a better England? Have they met any 11 to 14-year-olds lately? Have you, Jem? Trust me; thinking they will find the notion of ladies riding amusing is way off the mark.

Kids now ride skateboards, they don't join the pony club.

The world's changed since Victorian times. If we want children to be engaged by reading, then we must use texts that fire their imaginations.

Who wants to read about a churchwarden (Barchester Towers) or the moral dilemma of the Rev Harding, accused of living on almshouse funds (The Warden)? Give them Benjamin Zephaniah's "Gangsta Rap", or "Refugee Boy"

instead. Now there's a chronicler for the youth of today.

It's disappointing that no one would speak up for Trollope. Perhaps it's because they know that even at the end of his career he'd begun the fall from literary grace. Sure, his themes of bribery, scandal and corruption sound interesting, but not in the context of Victorian society.

Yes, Trollope was one of the greatest writers of his period but how relevant is he now when we find it difficult even to define what it means to be British?

Dear Julie,

I am not in favour of government-approved lists. But that's not to say there should not be a canon, or that 11 to 14-year-olds should give up on pre-20th century classics. There should be debate about what is in the canon, and teachers (not ministers or civil servants) should lead it.

Instead of having fewer than 20 authors from before the First World War, why not have twice as many - twice as much choice for teachers?

But don't dump Trollope. Your point about the world changing is valid: life has, indeed, changed out of all recognition since the Victorian era. But isn't that the point of education? What could be more rewarding than exploring what's changed since the days of Barsetshire, and what endures?

And here's a real bonus: Trollope makes great television. What could be better than those BBC classics, The Way We Live Now and The Barchester Chronicles, to get the debate going? You say Trollope's world is no longer relevant. Fair enough. But wouldn't young Marie Melmotte, an immigrant in a strange land, have loved multi-cultural London, today? Shirley Henderson plays her in the Beeb's version. All the kids will know her - she plays Moaning Myrtle in the Harry Potter films. Cool, huh?

Dear Jem,

Oh dear. Your notions of cool are so way off mark. Macbeth on the Estate is cool; the opening of Baz Lurhmann's Romeo and Juliet is cool; a ghost locked in a toilet at Hogwarts is not cool.

The problem you and those politicians have is that you look at literature from your own ethnocentric viewpoint. It takes a lot more than parsonages and bonnets to grab modern children's interest.

I'm not advocating dumping Trollope. Like you, I'm passionate about our literature and heritage - that's why I'm an English teacher.

However, there's a time and a place for everything. Did you read Trollope at 11? In the urban, multi-ethnic classrooms I teach in, 11 is not the time or place.

You presume kids will sit still and read for the lesson, that they can read at the level required to access Trollope, and that they read English. In a school where there are 54 languages spoken and where 60 per cent of pupils don't have English as a first language, the job of an English teacher is very far removed from what politicians think it is.

Dear Julie,

I admit I only discovered Trollope at university, and I'm not sure how I would have responded at 11. So much would have depended on my teacher. I don't believe you would advocate avoiding great writers, just because the language is difficult and the society and customs are different from our own.

You have no problem teaching Shakespeare to 11-year-olds, so please don't rule out Trollope because he's white and Anglo-Saxon. We need a canon with great writers from all sorts of backgrounds. If a great teacher like you can fire pre-teen imaginations with Macbeth, surely you can do so with short stories such as The Mistletoe Bough?

Also, not every teacher is as London-centric as you - some even have pupils in the pony club. Let them read Trollope if they want to - he's great.

Dear Jem,

Of course I wouldn't force anyone to read anything. As a teacher I hope to pass on my adoration of great writing, just as my teachers did with me.

Certainly I don't avoid great writers, I just have a wider concept of "great". Julius Caesar has never been more apt for our politically intriguing times. If politicians read the poems of Owen and Sassoon, then maybe war really would cease.

Certainly, children should be stretched, and metaphorically poked in the eye by literature. It should take the lid off their minds and leave them gasping for more. That's what makes it great and that's what a great teacher can do with any text, including Trollope.

There's always more than one-way of looking at the world, be it London-centric or not. A different point of view is just the view from a place where you're not - and Alan Johnson isn't in my classroom (though if you're reading this, Alan, do drop in at any time).

If everyone thought the same, if everyone read the same books, then nothing would ever change. We owe Trollope a debt. He did, after all, establish the novel sequence in English literature, the Victorian equivalent of sequels and prequels. But am I going to inflict him on my pupils? No way.

Jeremy Sutcliffe is comment editor of The TES. Julie Greenhough teaches at a London boys' school

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