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Should you Teach your Favourite Novel?

Teaching texts you hate is hard; but sharing your favourite novel with unappreciative teens can break your heart, warns Sarah Ledger...

  • Should you Teach your Favourite Novel?

You can argue all you like about critical distance, but the truth is, teaching English Literature is subjective.

And it’s a fact that I chose my degree because I couldn’t decide between Holden Caulfield or Nicholas Nickleby as my future ideal husband.

Back in 1983, Manchester University offered a Joint Honours degree in English and American Literature.

On the advice of my head of sixth form I wrote a personal statement that steered away from the shallow and tended towards erudition, and landed a place on three-year course where I could indulge my passion for fictional men.

Mixed feelings

You’re judging me I know, but think about it. How many English departments have been divided over Heathcliff?

Half the department are openly infatuated with him, while the other half despise him as a dysfunctional abuser.

And therein lies the problem for the teacher of English literature.

If you can love or hate characters in novels, teaching texts you don’t like can be a tricky business … but the real nightmare is teaching texts you love.

At present, my Year 10s are ‘doing’ Pride and Prejudice.

It’s got everything: a sparky heroine, an acerbic hero, finely honed ironic wit.

And although we all maintain we teach with no gimmicks, there’s a wealth of TV and film adaptations readily available should morale run low.

I love it too much.

And they don’t love it at all.

As I described Austen’s works as ‘social comedy’ one of my most committed students sat up with a jolt.

‘Is this supposed to be funny?’ he demanded.

I replied in the affirmative while he leafed frantically through the pages searching for evidence.

‘Which bit?’ he asked in desperation.

I tried not to take it personally, but I could sense the tumbleweed rolling through the classroom and I felt somehow I’d failed.

High points

There have been moments of joy. There was audible gasp from the class when Mr Darcy blurted his proposal to Lizzie.

A couple of weeks later the two back rows burst into spontaneous applause when they finally untangled the line ‘her sentiments had undergone so material a change, since the period to which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure his present assurances’.

Mind you, they still weren’t entirely happy. ‘Why didn’t Jane Austen just write “Elizabeth said ‘yes’”?’ they complained.

I’ve found the best way to deal with this is to channel my inner Lady Catherine de Bourgh, trampling over the sensibilities of my students, booming out demands for homework and caring not a jot for anyone else’s opinion.

Still, I need to be careful. There’s no point teaching characters as constructs if you divert the focus of your lesson into an unacademic diatribe about how – honestly – Elizabeth would be better off with Mr Collins; at least she knows what she’s letting herself in for.

If she thinks Mr Darcy isn’t going to revert to haughty disdain two years and an heir into the marriage, she’s very much mistaken.

I realise that, however rigorous I might be about free indirect thought and the nuance of satire, that’s bound to be the bit that will be reproduced in full on the exam paper.

Out of bounds

So, next time you sit in a department meeting and your favourite novel is mooted as a curriculum staple, before you thrill with delight that finally you can open the eyes of Year 9 to the joy that is Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner … stop … consider.

Only agree if you can bear your beloved’s prose to be laid out, dissected and finally rejected as ‘boring’ by a student who wouldn’t recognise quality if it was boiled and served up to them with chips.

That’s why I don’t teach The Catcher in the Rye. If anyone was mean about Holden, I’d burst into tears and go home. And no one who doesn’t really exist is worth it – are they?

Sarah Ledger has been teaching English for 32 years.

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