Teaching 19th century literature

Teaching 19th Century Literature was the title of the one-day event at the British Library aimed at teachers working with GCSE and A-levels students. However, since my students come to the UK with limited background on literature in the period and in a certain way I have to cover the ground that is equivalent to the secondary school curriculum, I found this would be useful for my teaching practice and, above all, particularly stimulating considering my own literary interests.

The day started with a brilliant plenary by Prof John Bowen talking about the relationships between Dickens and magic. He titled his presentation ‘The Spell of Literature’. He began by talking about Dickens’s capacity to conjure images and powerful feelings from his readers and audiences due to his astonishing gift for crafting language and brilliance as a performer. Bowen highlighted Dickens’s interest in the communication with the dead; his interest in going beyond materiality, defying the laws of nature and society and how in his novels  often the world turns upside in a reaction to the kind of materialism represented by Gradgrind. Bowen also discussed how magic in Dickens serves as a form of escape from imprisonment, both material and psychological confinement.

However, as he pointed out, magic in Dickens is different from magic in Fantasy as Dickens’ magic depends on the mundane world. His novels are socially and historically realistic and deeply secular and as such magic depends on our capacity to see the dark and bright side of life. Dickens creates magic with language as it is language that performs the spell and here Bowen drew on a comparison with Prospero and his spell books in The Tempest. Bowen gave examples of ‘spells’ used in different circumstances in Dickens novels, for example the marriage proposal as a spell in Little Dorrit, and Pip’s incantatory words in the graveyard that conjure the images of his dead parents and summons Magwitch as a ghostly father in Great Expectations.

Bowen concluded his talk saying that literature holds together three kinds of spells: the spell that allows us to spend a period of time in a world different from ours; the spell that make us capable of believing in stories told to us; and the spell that makes us capable of using the stories as source of inspiration and drive to change our world.

After the plenary we had a choice of workshops. I attended James Durran’s session on 19th Century Novels on Film, which ties very well with the approach I use in my English literature & language module. Durran advocated for an approach to film that goes beyond the utilitarian use of films when the teacher has some spare lesson or some spare time in a Friday lesson to an approach that integrates film with the study of the written text. He suggested a couple of practical activities, such as reducing texts to create a film script and comparing script with the original texts.

In the afternoon I attended a talk on the Romantics and their understanding to revolution and discovery. The presenter talked about the image of the romantic scientist hero, the revolutionary poet and the tension between political revolution and individual freedom. She drew on a number of poets but focused on Keats  by asking as to do a close reading of ‘Lamia’ in the light of the Romantic ideas about the natural world and science that prevailed in the 19th century.

The event closed with a talk from Tracy Chevalier, the author of Girl with a Pearl Earring and Burning Bright, among others. Tracy gave a very informal talk on a project she develop with schools in conjunction with the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Haworth on stories inspired by Jane Eyre. She pointed out that Jane Eyre is a novel where large chunks of the story happen in a school, both when Jane is a child but also when he becomes a teacher herself. This makes possible for schoolchildren to relate to the novel since the school is the social environment that dominates their lives. Though the novel is it possible to explore with teenagers issues with which there are deeply concerned, such as bullying, gender discrimination, and economic independence.

It was bright sunny day in London which I spend indoors without windows but it was worthy as I met new people and enjoyed presentations which explored new angles and possibilities when teaching the literature in the period.