I recently wrote about my surprisingly wondrous experience with “David Copperfield” (book, not person) here, and this prompted me to write a longer post about Dickens.
I alluded to my chequered history with Dickens in the above post. We didn’t get on at all. My expectations were overly high, I think, after watching the movie musical “Oliver!” a hundred and twenty four times, and on reading “Oliver Twist” I was scared by its complexity, desparately searching for characters who were the spit of the film. I was also, clearly, missing the singing and dancing.
The Artful Dodger of the musical is unrecognisable in the book. In the musical, he is affable, exciting and cute – but most of all he is not at all threatening. In the book, he is like a grotesque of a street child – terrifyingly wise beyond his years, an adult in an adult world, despite his childish appearance. In my younger years, I was unable to reconcile this difference. Similarly, the underworld of Victorian London, when not singing and dancing in unison, seemed remarkably unattractive.
Shortly after “Oliver Twist” came “A Christmas Carol.” This was a book I could get along with. A lovely clear moral, nothing overly nasty to deal with, and much simpler language. This was until the story was forever ruined by a subversive lecturer in university, who described the story as an advertisement for capitalist Britain (“Scrooge atones for his wrongs by buying his way into the favour of others”).
I trekked my way without joy through “Bleak House,” only to discover the BBC series (one of the best things I have ever, ever seen) and wish I had spent more effort in the reading. This lack of joy was topped by “Dombey and Son”, which I believed at the time of reading was one of the very worst books ever written.
Yet my recent breakthrough with “David Copperfield” has convinced me that my original beliefs were entirely misguided. Having previously warmed to “Great Expectations” and “The Old Curiosity Shop” (which went to convince me that the problem was not the text, but me – Dickens is Dickens, but in the midst of a crowded University or school term I race through and miss the point), it made me think again about the value of teaching Dickens.
I am beginning year 7 this year with an in-depth unit on Dickens, created before my arrival in my new school. Until this point, my teaching of Dickens was confined to a mere one lesson; one of writing descriptions for year 7, using the opening of “Bleak House” and focusing on the fog. My year 7 found the passage tough, but that only enhanced their enjoyment of it. The major outcome of this lesson related to vocabulary – there were many tricky words in the passage that I glossed for students. I might have even suggested they aim to include some of these words in their own description. Whatever I did, the thing I remember is that they went on using these words, even a week and a month later. For the children I was teaching, vocabulary was power. They loved it.
Every year, we teach a Shakespeare play, and we never think about arguing against this. Shakespeare is, after all, the greatest creator and user of language in the history of the world – undisputed. But why do we – or rather, to make it personal, why did I – think it was acceptable to say “I hate Dickens” for so long? Dickens is clearly the master of the novel; his work endures; its humour endures, its message endures. This reminded me of the David Lodge book where the characters, all university professors, play a game of saying books they haven’t read (it’s like a “never have I ever” for nerds). (There is shock a horror when one admits to having never read “Hamlet”, I recall.) I wonder how many of us are walking around, having never read a Dickens novel, without shame?
My year 7 are not tackling a lengthy Dickens novel. They are reading extensive passages from a variety of works, before moving onto a new scheme of work purely focused on “A Christmas Carol” after half term. I’m not sure what I make of this, but I wonder if it might be worth revisiting Dickens in year 8 or 9. In fact, I wonder about the value of studying only very short excerpts of a novel, and this is something I will quiz my students on.
Enjoying Dickens is so easy. Read it aloud, then read it slowly. Look up the words which are unfamiliar (this goes for me as well as my students). Every student should be taught to enjoy Dickens, lest they end up like me circa eight weeks ago.