Despite my delight at the inclusion of unseen 19th century fiction on the new English Language GCSE, I know that it will present some challenges to pupils. This means it will also present challenges to teachers in working out how pupils will access prose that differs greatly from the kind of prose written today.
With that in mind, I thought I’d share how a colleague and I have thought about introducing 19th century fiction to pupils starting the new GCSE this year.
We decided that, rather than concentrate on exam skills in the first instance, the initial study of 19th century fiction should be an introduction: we will look at conventions, literary devices and stylistic features.
So, whilst we are teaching for the Edexcel specification*, which differs from other specifications in some ways, this may still be useful as an introduction to 19th century writing if you are using other exam boards, or when introducing the English Literature GCSE 19th century text.
The challenge in reading 19th century fiction is, as mentioned earlier, that it does differ from the prose of today: there are stylistic, linguistic, grammatical differences, not to mention that the historical context means the content may be quite alien to pupils reading it today.
Of course, when talking about ’19th century fiction’ we are making reference to hundreds of different writers, from different countries all over the world, and from literary schools of different aesthetics, writing at different times over a period of 100 years, so we should acknowledge that it isn’t a homogenous mass and that each text will present it’s own separate challenges. However, there are certain similarities we can see across a varied range of texts, similarities that are a result of 19th century fiction’s placing within the wider literary tradition.
So here’s how we will be approaching the teaching of this topic.
After a lesson or two recapping sentence structures and composition, we’ll start by looking at a piece of 19th century prose fiction alongside a contemporary piece of writing and try and identify the differences. We’ve chosen the opening to Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) and the opening to Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now (2004), if only because of the beautiful symmetry in seeing the opening words alongside each other.
We’ll ask pupils to note how the writing is different, eliciting ideas on sentence length, syntax and language.
Before exploring these differences in detail, we’ll want pupils to understand a context for these changes, and will prompt them to think about this with these images:
We’ll briefly introduce the idea of the rise of the ‘plain style‘ that we are familiar with today, and situate 19th century writing within the context of its readership. Pupils should note that, amongst other influences:
- many writers of the era had enjoyed a classical liberal education and so were well versed in elaboration
- a lot of Victorian fiction was aimed chiefly at educated women of leisure – an audience with nothing but time to kill were compelled by elaborate prose.
- industrialisation and rise of mass media democratised written language – as more people could read, fiction began to appeal to a broader audience (one without a classical education).
- speed of communication (rise of the telegraph) meant that brevity was king – letters would previously take weeks to arrive so more time was taken over elaboration.
- perhaps increasing secularisation meant that the ornamental language of scriptures became less pervasive.
- in the early 20th century, influential writers such as Ernest Hemingway openly promoted the plain style.
With a little historical context behind us, we’ll spend some lessons looking at:
- syntax – how much of the 19th century writing may just seem strange or initially difficult because of word order, and how moving around that order can help pupils decipher it. Mark Miller‘s excellent post on syntax was hugely helpful in our planning here.
- archaic language – how can pupils try to make sense of language that isn’t in regular use today? We’ll go through some basic reading strategies that pupils can use to overcome this. We’ll ask pupils to see if they can identify and root suffixes or prefixes within these archaic words and whether they can help with meaning. And we’ll encourage pupils to look at the word within the context of the writing. In this example, I’ll point out that ‘flags’ here doesn’t mean those cloth things:
Finally, we’ll spend a bit more time looking at the lengthy sentence structures, or more specifically:
- periodic sentences – these are those long, winding sentences that withold the main clause to the end. They often have a number of subordinate clauses that build the sentence up, and are prevalent in 19th century writing. We’ll look at the effect of them and have pupils identify the main clause in examples. Here are some examples of periodic sentences, starting with a famous one from Nikolai Gogol’s excellent short story ‘The Overcoat’:
Once these key features have been explored, we decided that we would then explore other linguistic features of the writing across a range of extracts.
We sat down and looked at some extracts together and noticed how much of the writing utilised classical rhetorical devices. So we turned to our secret weapon… Mark Forsyth’s excellent book The Elements of Eloquence.
We noticed how writers relied on figures of rhetoric throughout the extracts we’d selected (from Jane Austen, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Charlotte Brontë, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, amongst some already spoken of in this post). Probably something to with that classical liberal education that I mentioned earlier. We identified a number of these figures that were used more prolifically than others and chose to structure lessons around introducing these within the context of the writing.
The lessons from hereon in will follow a similar structure (note that this structure isn’t necessarily all one lesson – these stages will most likely take place over a couple of lessons):
- Introduce figure of rhetoric.
- Explore examples of the figure in literature, look at varieties of usage and identify the effects created by the writers in using it.
- Introduce an extract from 19th century fiction and explore: look at meaning and various linguistic features used by the writer and their effects; identify where the writer has used the figure of rhetoric introduced earlier and explore effects.
- After modelling by teacher, pupils will write a short response to the extract (we start with David Didau‘s Reading Skills Ladder as a structure), discussing the effects of identified language.
- Pupils will then be given a stimulus linked to the extract (image/video clip) and then a writing prompt to produce a piece of imaginative writing. They will be asked to try and use the figure of rhetoric they have just learned about and, as they work further through the unit, to use a variety of these as they accumulate in their writing ‘armoury’.
We’ve also produced a display of the linguistic devices pupils will need to know over the course of the scheme of work. The premise of this display, similarly to the one I produced on the elements of language before, is to only give memory cues to pupils: they don’t explain the devices, they merely give images and examples that should help pupils recall the figure in question. Below is an overview of the display, so you can see the figures of rhetoric pupils will explore over the unit. For lower ability pupils, you may choose to condense some of these figures into one device (i.e. isocolon and anaphora = parallel structures; litotes and hyerbole = emphatic expression; anadiplosis and diacope = repetition). Once this is fine-tuned, I’ll upload the display here.
So this is how we’ll try to introduce 19th century fiction on the new English Language GCSE this year. It isn’t groundbreaking at all – I’m sure that this is a structure that many use. And I’m not saying it is the right way – I’m sure that our ideas will develop a lot as we teach it. But hopefully this will be of some use to some of you; moreover, we hope that you might be of some help in how this develops with any comments you have on it.
*(I think Edexcel slightly differs from other specifications, as Edexcel will always use 19th century extracts on Paper 1, whereas others such as AQA may draw from 19th, 20th and 21st century for their Paper 1 – correct me if I’m wrong.)