The English Novel in the Twentieth Century: 3: Televising a Classic Novel for Students

By Bentley, Hala | Contemporary Review, March 1996 | Go to article overview
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The English Novel in the Twentieth Century: 3: Televising a Classic Novel for Students


Bentley, Hala, Contemporary Review


The English novel throughout this century has been deeply influenced by its great predecessors. Yet increasingly students just encounter the great classics through 'Classic Drama' on television. A teacher in a comprehensive school considers the effect of the dramatisation of one of the greatest novels on her students.

More than ten million viewers were riveted to their screens last autumn, for the final episode of BBC Television's production of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, produced by Sue Birtwistle. Somewhat to my surprise, I found myself among that number.

Secondary schoolchildren in England and Wales sit two sets of examinations, the G.C.S.E. (General Certification of Secondary Education) at 16, and 'A' (Advanced) level two years later. As an 'A' level teacher currently studying Pride and Prejudice with a mixed group of students, I prepared to watch the first episode with some resignation. It had to be endured, since I had encouraged my students to watch and must be in a position to discuss the production with them, but I did not anticipate much pleasure in the prospect. The thought of watching a great classic novel, which one knows intimately, simplified and popularised by a medium that relies upon over-statement and explicitness made the heart sink.

In the event, despite caveats regarding the relative beauty of Jane and Elizabeth, the insertion of unnecessary new dialogue, the removal outdoors of certain drawing-room scenes, the apparent lack of underclothing and modesty, and the unbelievable, bright cleanliness of all the locations, I found enough to enjoy to ensure that I kept a date with subsequent episodes.

What advantages did my 'A' level students gain from watching the production? In order to give some indication of the benefits I believe the televised form of the novel yielded to exam-dominated teenagers, I shall need to describe the kind of student I generally find myself teaching. The average teenagers of today, educated at the average English comprehensive school, who choose to study English at 'A' level, face difficulties beyond their own immediate comprehension. They will have enjoyed studying English throughout the five years of senior schooling up to G.C.S.E. level at age 16, and probably gained good grades (A or B) for English Literature. The government-prescribed National Curriculum they have followed has enabled them to begin to develop a number of skills: understanding of plot, interpretation of character, some grasp of the idea that concepts and themes may underpin plots, the beginnings of an awareness that language differs according to the time when it was used and the audience it addresses.

Inevitably, however, most of the in-school texts to which they have been exposed have been novels, plays and poems of the twentieth century, often carefully chosen for readability and appeal. This may seem perfectly proper, and in many respects it is; but an emphasis on material with easy access and relevance to the young reader has dangers.

Why tackle more demanding works, why be concerned with absolute standards of quality, when so many texts with instant, if transient, appeal, addressing whatever issues are currently fashionable, are immediately available?

The National Curriculum attempts to redress the balance by requiring all pupils to study a minimum of one play by Shakespeare and one other pre-twentieth century text, which might be a poem if one wishes merely to pay lip-service to the stipulation, in the two years before G.C.S.E; a mere feather in the scale against the mass of amusing, light-weight poetry by Roger McGough and Mike Rosen, and the trendy novelettes about teenage problems in Northern Ireland, Chile or Iran which sometimes seem to dominate the Eng. Lit. canon.

Does it matter? No, not very much to most pupils. It's good that the less able reader, the non-reader, the disaffected pupil, the unmotivated, and (chronic sickness of our time) the bored pupil should be lured towards finding some pleasure in a book, even if that book is not of such calibre that it will ever be nominated a classic.

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