“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
There will be few among us who do not recognise this, the opening sentence of “Pride and Prejudice”, a classic piece of literature written by Jane Austen. I am penning this on the anniversary of her birthday, 16th December 1775. Or more accurately I am using my mobile device. Her world was so different from ours yet her appeal remains in itself “universally acknowledged”. Why is this?
I had the good fortune to study one of Jane Austen’s novels for ‘A’ Level. “Northanger Abbey”, apart from being a fantastic send up of the gothic novel genre, presented characters and relationships with enduring appeal. As indeed is the case in her far more famous, works which have been mined repeatedly for stage and screen. This surely is the mark of a great piece of literature – understanding the human condition.
This point is critical to the promotion of reading amongst young people. Reading classic novels should not just be a requirement of an examination specification at school, a chore, requiring mechanical answers to meet the assessment criteria. Reading great books is about being transported to a range of worlds, light years away from our shiny digital age. Human emotions are a constant as are human frailties. The challenge today is to ensure the generation growing up as digital natives surrounded by the white noise of technological distractions, appreciate the importance of authors like Jane Austen.
There is a great deal of debate in education at the moment about the importance of presenting a canon of knowledge to young people through their education. Clearly the notion of a list of classic works is integral to this approach. There is so much to discuss in this approach but it does imply that education should be a quantifiable product to be presented to young people. Austen, Dickens, Shakespeare – tick, tick, tick. Is that it? I know that English teachers across the country work incredibly hard to inspire their pupils, encouraging a more ambitious approach to reading. Why not read Dickens for fun? In the nineteenth century Dickens’ stories enjoyed the fan base of a soap opera today. The narrative driving his work, the characters towering over these narratives and the skill with which he wrote, is what gives Charles Dickens his enduring appeal.
A key thread in this argument is engagement with a rich vein of cultural life which, across the centuries,serves to bind us together. I am sure we are all familiar with the well-thumbed book, much loved and oft read. There may even be inscribed on the book a name of a previous owner long since gone. With digital books we lose this physical connection with our cultural past. Yet it is the words on the page, digital or hard copy, that really matter. The voice of the classic authors can find new audiences through the Kindle or iBooks.
Given our school has broken up for Christmas, it is appropriate to end this, my last blog of the year, with a reference to “A Christmas Carol” by Dickens. Having learned the error of his ways from the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, Ebenezer Scrooge realises the joy a generous spirit can give to those around him.
“I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a school-boy. I am as giddy as a drunken man.”
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