I took O Level English Literature at a girls' grammar school in 1979. We studied three texts: Flora Thompson's Lark Rise to Candleford; E M Forster's Where Angels Fear to Tread and A Midsummer's
I found the detailed social history contained in Flora Thompson's memoir of life in rural England completely tedious. Forster's examination of Edwardian snobbery and xenophobia in Forster's novel was somewhat baffling, sixteen-year-old girls not being best placed to appreciate a story about a middle-aged* woman's lust for a younger man (Eeeuw, yuck, disgusting). Re-reading it, 35 years later I was surprised to find it laugh-out-loud funny.
I didn't enjoy English Literature O level, but I was good at it, and that was why I continued on to A level, which I found much more rewarding, with its wider (but still 100% English...not even British) texts.
Around the same time my husband received a reading list from his school. It included 22 plays, including contemporary works (Arnold Wesker's Roots, Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey), four plays by George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, and Sophocles' Antigone. For W Shakespeare the list read 'Any Play'.
The list for prose was longer - 44 books. They included plenty of nineteenth century novels: Jane Austen, Brontes C and E, two novels by Dickens and one by Hardy.
There were many twentieth century texts, British, American and translated : Anne Frank's Diary; Of Mice and Men (and another Steinbeck), To Kill a Mocking Bird. George Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984; Nevil Shute's A Town Like Alice and The Pied Piper, Graham Greene's Brighton Rock, D H Lawrence Sons and Lovers.
The list covered many genres - science fiction (Day of the Triffids); romance (Pride and Prejudice); historical fiction (Rosemay Sutcliff's Warrior Scarlet); memoir( Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals), dystopian fiction (Fahrenheit 451); mystery (Josephine Tey's The Franchise Affair) a western (Shane by Jack Shaefer) and a thriller (Alistair McLean's The Guns of Navarone). There were several true-life stories from the Second World War, one by a Polish writer, one by an Italian and Alan Burgess's novel A Small Woman about a British missionary in China.
This list was clearly designed to be as broad as possible, introducing pupils to classic works of literature and inviting them to find out what sort of book they enjoy. It was challenging, interesting, reflecting different social classes and nationalities, as well as ethnic minority groups.
Should schools find this extensive list too short, there was a note: 'Candidates from Schools whose extended lists have been approved by the Board may, of course, refer in addition to texts on these lists.' My husband remembers that pupils were told to read at least five or six of the 66 texts on the list, but he read at least 20, some in class, some from the local library. The final examination at the end of the course asked generic questions such as: 'Write about strong characters in some of the books you have read.'
This list fostered a love of reading in my husband which eventually led him to read English Literature at Oxford University.
The really interesting thing is that he was taking CSE English at a Secondary Modern school, a school to which he had been condemned by failing the 11 plus. CSEs were widely seen as useless qualifications for thickies, but I would contend that anyone who was given that list and had a crack at reading six books on it, would find something enjoyable and challenging to read which might inspire them to read more in the future.
Our daughter took GCSE English recently, studying anthologies of poetry and short stories, a few scenes from Macbeth and Of Mice and Men; a syllabus which seemed to be designed for kids with short concentration spans. Of Mice and Men was the only text she read that ran to any length at all - all 107 pages of it. I have nothing against Steinbeck's classic, and certainly nothing against Macbeth, I am sure that the anthologies contained good material, but I have to admit to a great deal of parental frustration as I watched my daughter thoroughly turned off by this thin fare, and irritated by being asked to compare World War One poetry with Macbeth, an exam question that she found pointless and off-putting. .
I am writing this, of course, because of the recent kerfuffle over GCSE English, a row in which facts got lost to prejudice (for and against Michael Gove, for and against American literature, for and against Dickens and other nineteenth century authors).
Depending on who you read, Gove had personally interfered to ban books, or had bravely intervened to widen the curriculum, or Gove had nothing to do with any of it. As the saying goes, fools rush in, where angels fear to tread: it seemed as though the way the changes to GCSE English were reported and discussed was designed to make everyone look foolish (a Machiavellian plot by Gove himself, perhaps?)
I watched the row develop with increasing frustration, as it had so little to do with the actual crisis facing British children's literacy. Libraries are closing! Schools are being designed without libraries! Reading is being re-defined as deciphering phonics! School library services are closing! Children are spending more and more time glued to screens and less and less time reading for pleasure! These are the real crises, not whether Of Mice and Men remains on the school syllabus.
When I read that Bailey's Prize winner Eimear McBride wants to spend some of her £30,000 prize money buying copies of Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird to give free to teenagers, I want to scream. These books haven't been banned, Eimear! Schools have so many copies that they will, no doubt, find a way of using them, perhaps by teaching them to Y9 pupils. Instead, please give your money to the Siobhan Dowd Trust which has the simple and essential aim of promoting the love of reading among disadvantaged children and young adults.
Yesterday the review section of The Guardian newspaper asked a select group of authors and academics to pick GCSE texts (no librarians, English teachers or children's writers among them). The choice that make me giggle the most was put forward by Linda Grant: Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth. And the one with which I agreed whole-heartedly was Hilary Mantel:
Should we play the Gove game, by setting up opposing lists? Or should we ask, which Gradgrind thought up the idea of set texts in the first place? Why should students be condemned to thrash to death a novel or a corpus of poetry, week after week, month after month? No novel was ever penned to puzzle and punish the young. Plays are meant to be played at. Poetry is not written for Paxmanites. Literature is a creative discipline, not just for writer but for reader. Is the exam hall its correct context? We educate our children not as if we love them but as if we need to control and coerce them, bullying them over obstacles and drilling them like squaddies; and even the most inspired and loving teachers have to serve the system. We have laws against physical abuse. We can try to legislate against emotional abuse. So why do we think it's fine to abuse the imagination, and on an industrial scale? What would serve children is a love of reading, and the habit of it. I wonder if the present system creates either.
*As a 16 year old I definitely saw Lilia as middle-aged and her love for a 21-year-old made me queasy. On re-reading I discovered she was only 33.