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Saturday, March 17, 2007

Is Jane Austen a women only writer?

Give the nice comments in the previous post, I am going to keep on writing my blog as I see fit -- typos et al.

I ask the above question because I had interesting conversation with my eldest's English teacher.She showed me a list of the books that they could choose from to study in depth at AS level. On the list were Waterland by G Swift (the teacher admitted it was *challenging* -- code for boring? non linear? confused plot line?), The Colour Purple (these are the two texts that the school uses), Tess' D'ubervilles, Great Expectations and Pride and Prejudice. As P&P is one of my favourite novels, I said -- oh why not-- P&P, the teacher looked vaguely uncomfortable and said she disliked like doing it if there were a lot of boys in the class. I stared at her in astonishment. When did JA become for women only? She is a classical writer who helped make the modern novel what it is today. P&P is far more than simply a good romance to curl up with. It is just as worthy as Waterland to be studied. Has its success as a romance blinded people to its other qualities? When I did Emma at school, the emphasis was on the characterization and social satire, rather than on the story. I don't think the boys complained. Why should a novel with a good and easily accessible plot be ignored in favoured of something that may or may not stand the test of time.

Unfortunately, I did not get to say any of this, because a would be A level student came in and loudly announced she hoped there was no poetry on the course, she couldn't see the point. I resisted the temptation to make a snide remark to the girl, and felt sorry for the teacher. It must be hard.

I am currently reading Waterland. It was with no small irony that I saw the opening quote was from Great Expectations... Swift is a lyrical writer whose prose is replete with symbolism. I am hopeful of finding the plot soon.

6 comments:

juliemt said...

A good novel should speak to us all regardless of our sex or our age and Austen's books have been speaking to us all for generations. The themes she tackles - love, prejudice, class divison, loneliness - affect men and women equally and it's a shame that your daughter's teacher fails to recognize this. No one says Shakespeare's tragedies are for boys alone because they deal with war, so why should we make this distinction with Austen?

Sela Carsen said...

I think it does a disservice to boys to assume that they have no interest in the emotional side of life. And we wonder why they're so heart-mute as men.

Michelle Styles said...

I agree with you both.

Julie -- my eldest is a boy. If it had been my daughter..she would have been spitting tacks. P&P is one of her all time faves.
My son is still annoyed at havnig to do Kez for GCSE. I am thus hoping that Waterland willbe more to his taste.
He delights in teasing his English teachrs. He took to using so many Communist words that his teacher asked him if he had been reading the Gulag Archepelago. He was honest and admitted that he had as he had recieved it for Christmas, but was currrently reading Brideshead Revisited as his mother had forced him.
My son apparently displays a talent for English and History...

Julie Cohen said...

The thing is that whereas girls will generally read anything, boys will only be attracted to books that feature male protagonists. This is not always true, but as English is often these days taken mostly by female students, the teachers are often eager to select books that will attract more male students, for a more balanced class mix.

It's not that JA is only for women--but it's more that she has the reputation as a romantic author, with all the adaptations aimed at women (and the new chick flick about her life)--and therefore boys who don't know the books will not always want to read her out of choice.

In any case, any and every book is "worthy" to be studied; the teacher has to make a choice based on what she knows about the students and the syllabus. (I have taught P&P for many years BTW and was very sorry when it was taken off the GCSE syllabus.)

I really enjoyed Waterland when I studied it at university. It's a very literary, intertextual novel, and I seem to remember it having good characters and plot. It relies heavily on Great Expectations and is in some ways an answering book.

I think the real crime isn't that the teacher isn't choosing books that are, in her opinion, "suitable"--it's that the A level these days requires very little reading (two books for AS!?), that the "suitable" books are likely to be the ones that are easier to write about in exams (such as ones that revolve around issues and stylistic devices rather than character and plot, as that's what's rewarded) and that the curriculum encourages teaching that really does teach students that there's no point in poetry, as they have a prescribed (and often uninspiring) set of poems rammed down their throats for GCSE.

There...off my high horse... ;-)

(PS I would choose Great Expectations and Tess...I think P&P would be too difficult to write about at AS level standard, because Austen's style is too transparent.)

Julie Cohen said...

Sorry--my first sentence should read "The thing is, it's a common opinion that whereas girls will read anything, boys will only be attracted to books that feature male protagonists."

(Because it's not necessarily true, but is a truism.)

Michelle Styles said...

Ah Julie --
I figured I would get a comment from you.:)
And yes, I know the truism. And I do suspect JA has been a victim in some ways of her popularity... which is a shame.

And I do agree that the real crime is how little they have to read. 2 novels, one Shakespeare (Hamlet) and some poetry (I think this includes Chaucer). I was adding up what I had to read as junior in high school, and then what I had to read for AP English as a senior. It was far more.

It is handy to know that Waterland is the answering book to Great Expectations. I shall my edlest read GE as I don't think he has. It is a pity that the two are not going to be taught in tandem. Actually he should probably read the whole list, just to give him a rounded education...