Jill Carter: Making 19th Century fiction exciting at KS3

Once upon a time, many many years ago, I was subjected to my first Ofsted. I was terrified and, worse still, I was teaching Treasure Island. I remember a wonderfully helpful Learning Support teacher spending hours with me cutting out bits of paper, making some kind of treasure game or something. It was so convoluted that by the time the Ofsted Inspector arrived the classroom was awash with overly-imaginative resources and the students were hopelessly lost in the Try-Too-Hard Ocean. With hindsight, all this was pretty unnecessary. 19th Century fiction doesn’t need to be made exciting because it is exciting already – we just need to approach it from this point of view.

Students love these huge stories – they are the basis of most of the books, games and films they avidly consume anyway, given the chance. The plots are not any more difficult, the characters are no more challenging. Yes, the language is ‘harder’ but it is also richer; they can have a lot of fun unpicking it and, as they are drawn in, they find there is plenty to say about how these ‘classic’ writers used words, grammar, punctuation and structure. Take the following sentence from Dickens:

“I noticed the black vapour hanging like a murky curtain outside the great windows, and I noticed the stifled sound of wheels on the straw or tan that was littered in the street; also, the hum of the people gathered there, which a shrill whistle, or a louder song or hail than the rest, occasionally pierced.”

This one sentence contains: imagery, sibilance, onomatopoeia, repetition for effect and a semi-colon!  It also contains the opportunity to explore context – what is meant by ‘tan’ or ‘hail’? How often, in a more contemporary novel, do we get the chance to ‘mine’ language in this way?

Luckily, these stories have an appeal for both genders – think of Jim Hawkins’ journey and the scientific discovery of a test for blood stains in A Study in Scarlet, Jane Eyre’s quest for self and Maggie Tulliver’s wayward nature. There is something for everyone – wild animals for Year 7 in the The Jungle Book and elements of Gothic horror for Year 9 in all those delicious mystery stories. If we know our students, we can ‘plug them in’ to these themes and ideas. Just because it is old it doesn’t mean it is dead. Try showing them a snippet from The Antiques Roadshow and see how fascinated they are by the value of something really old.

Perhaps one of the most exciting things about this kind of classic literature is the opportunity to explore interpretation – we should encourage students at this early stage to take risks with their own responses and interpretations – they can always be honed into something more ‘acceptable’ later. Why do we ignore branches of critical theory until Year 12?  Why not adopt a feminist hat, a Marxist hat or a psychoanalytical hat to explore a text? What would someone who believes in women’s rights say about Sherlock Homes? What would someone who believes in the redistribution of wealth do with the treasure in Treasure Island? We frequently psychoanalyse characters and authors anyway so why not decide which actions of a character can be attributed to the id, the ego or the super-id?

Context is another area students can enjoy exploring – and it will add meaning to their reading: the fact that The Jungle Book collection is believed to have been written for Kipling’s daughter who died at the age of six, the fact that Conan Doyle studied medicine, botany and ophthalmology, the fact that Stevenson’s father was a lighthouse designer. Facts like these can be used to explore and develop interpretation of texts and to make them more real to students.

If students say, ‘This is too hard’, encourage them not to panic when the language or the grammar is tricky to understand.  We still don’t understand electricity fully but it doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the benefits.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on this – how do you make 19th century fiction engaging at KS3?

Jill CarterJill Carter is an Advanced Skills Teacher and former Leader of English and has been teaching for 23 years. Jill currently works part-time as an English teacher and GCSE Interventionist, as well as authoring for Oxford University Press.