The Times carries a report that people in the Hampshire city of Winchester have blocked the erection of a new statue in memory of the English novelist Jane Austen, arguing that the city already already has sufficient memorials to the writer of such novels as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. It is not hard to feel sympathy for the objectors.
Starting an A Level course at Strode College in Street in the autumn of 1977, I remember wondering if my subject choices had been wise. History was fascinating: the European history element began with the French Revolution of 1789 and concluded with the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, while the British history component of the course covered the ninety-nine years between the victory at Waterloo and the disastrous slide into the Great War in the summer of 1914. Economics was something altogether new to me and has never lost its fascination in the forty-odd years since. It was English that caused my doubts.
English at secondary school had been two subjects: language and literature. English language had been fun, comprehension and composition. English literature had not been overly demanding, there was some set reading, but choices were available.
English at A level was literature, and not always literature that seemed calculated to capture the imagination of a teenage boy. William Shakespeare’s Hamlet was a heavyweight piece of writing, but was engaging, and was accompanied by Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead which was an amalgam of Hamlet and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Poetry included William Blake, Geoffrey Chaucer and Gerald Manley-Hopkins. It was the novel that was the problem – the one novel we read in the two years of the A level course was Jane Austen’s Emma. Emma is a tale of middle class young women seeking marriages and organising dances among genteel social circles in Regency England.
Emma was a novel entirely disconnected from the realities of its time. Reading tales of polite conversations and ball gowns, there is no hint of the social upheavals and violence of the time, no acknowledgement of the extreme poverty endured by ordinary people.
Why were we reading Jane Austen’s writing? We were told at the outset of the course that her novels were part of the canon of English literature. We were told to copy a timeline of the development of the English novel from the board. Canons, timelines and reading the novel in class, with the tutor providing a commentary, did nothing to make the novel more compelling.
Google such titles as Pride and Prejudice now and the first search results are the film and television adaptations. If people were compelled to read the texts of the books they might be inclined to agree with the objectors to the Winchester statue.