D J Taylor: What could be more relevant than 'Little Dorrit'?

For a book to work its magic, all the reader needs is an enthusiastic teacher of English
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One expects so little of secretaries of state for education that Alan Johnson's recent comments on the English curriculum have all the allure of September downpours after a long summer's drought. Here we are, in sight of the annual feeding frenzy of the GSCE and A-level results, in which I can confidently predict that everyone will have done very well indeed, and Mr Johnson has suddenly shown himself to be not a force for innovation but an obstructive block set in the path of the Government's own curriculum advisers, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA).

The QCA, a body, alas, of which I had never previously heard, provides schools with lists of recommended writers. These are divided into four categories: writers published before 1914; writers published after 1914; recent fiction; and fiction from different cultures.

The authority's current set of proposals suggest scrapping that pre-1914 list (Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Wilkie Collins et al) as part of a wider review intended to make learning "more flexible and relevant". Mr Johnson has already pre-empted this move by declaring that there is "no danger of dumbing down and dumping the classics". Whatever the protests from the ingrates in Year 10, Dickens and Hardy will continue to be taught.

And amen to that, you might think. Lurking behind this announcement, however - for which anyone who cares about English literature ought to be profoundly grateful - lies a much less obvious question, which is rarely answered by anyone working in the field of secondary education: why encourage children to read great works of English literature?

The review being undertaken by the QCA uses those ominous modern weasel words "flexibility" and "relevance" (generally a kind of shorthand for the disposal of anything that might be considered serious or challenging), and in doing so immediately shoots itself in the foot. After all, what could be more relevant to a child growing up in the early 21st century than, say, Little Dorrit, which, among other deeply deserving targets, is about the evils of an unfettered bureaucracy; or Vanity Fair, which has some claims to be considered the first English novel about celebrity culture?

At the same time, conceptualising Becky Sharp as the spiritual forerunner of today's Big Brother contestant misses the point about great novels; the way they bring off their effects and the social arrangements that can be descried beneath their surface. The first thing that the average television dramatist or film adaptor does with a classic text is to convince himself of its relevance to contemporary life. If none exists, then it has to be invented - hence the spectacle of Mr Andrew Davies cheerfully packing suitcases full of sex into remakes of Victorian novels, where none previously existed, on the grounds that this is what Thackeray, Dickens and co would have wanted.

Not only is this false to the books, it also tends to be false to the historical landscape that stretches out beyond them. The distinguishing mark of the past, sad to relate, is that it did not resemble our own arrangements, was inhabited by people with radically different attitudes and opinions to ours, and is consequently not there to be patronised by our (no doubt) superior modern consciousness. We read Jude the Obscure, in other words, to find out about Hardy and the world of late 19th-century agricultural Dorset, not to establish Sue Bridehead as a proto-feminist heroine.

In much the same way, Pride and Prejudice is not a high-class soap opera but an account of the activities of a particular group of people living at a particular point in time. To imagine it as a kind of bowdlerised early version of Sex and the City diminishes Miss Austen and her modern readers.

Naturally enough, such ornaments of the 19th-century canon are not always easily approached by the teenage reader: at the moment, to particularise, I am engaged in a savage struggle to get 13-year-old Felix on to "proper books".

Again, lurking behind the QCA's bromides about "flexibility" and "relevance" lies the not-quite-conscious assumption that the 700-plus pages of Bleak House are probably a bit beyond the capacity of the average technology-drugged, mobile-swinging 14-year-old, and that the latest Darren Shan would be much more up his street.

To mark down classic Victorian novels as simply another part of that "élitist" superstructure that is occasionally supposed to bedevil contemporary education is, of course, unbelievably patronising to the specimen teenage boy ("Great literature, sonny? No - much better to stick to fluff.").

Twenty years ago, working in a West End public-relations agency, I can recall the office junior, who had divined something of my literary interests, asking if I could recommend a book for her to read. Well Susy, I condescendingly opined, Vanity Fair might just do the trick. Susy read it from cover to cover, pronounced her life transformed and demanded more of the same, whereupon I felt horribly ashamed of myself.

For a book to work its magic, all the reader needs is an enthusiastic teacher of English, on whom the dead hand of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has failed to leave its debilitating impress. Meanwhile, hats off to Mr Johnson, who should now embark on his department's next most important task - making history compulsory until the age of 16.