Part 1: The Problem
Work in ProgressPeter Hunt
In Arthur Ransome’s Pigeon Post – the first book to win the Carnegie Medal, in 1936 – the children ponder the fate of their Uncle’s pet armadillo – probably drowned on the voyage from South America.
‘Oh, well, if he’s dead he’s probably been dead ages, and been sunk to the bottom of the sea.’
‘Wrapped in a Union Jack,’ said Dorothea.
‘Suffered a sea change,’ murmured Titty, ‘rich and rare… probably coral…’
Nobody, least of all the author, bothers to explain this. His readers, like his characters, are expected to recognise the classics – both the fictional characters and the real readers are well read in the classics. But could we make that assumption today?
On 1st April, 2011 there was a headline in the London Evening Standard :
Michael Gove: Literature is dying out in schools
Classic literature is at risk of dying out in schools, the Education Secretary warned today.
Michael Gove said fewer than one in 100 teenagers who sat one exam board's English literature GCSE last year had studied novels published before the 20th century.
He claimed only 1,236 out of 300,000 students read Pride and Prejudice, 285 read Far From The Madding Crowd and 187 studied Wuthering Heights as part of the test.
More than 90% of exam papers were based on three books alone - Of Mice And Men, Lord Of The Flies, and To Kill A Mockingbird - all of which were published after 1930.
He added: "We're not picking up enough new books, not getting through the classics, not widening our horizons. In short, we're just not reading enough."
This is not a world that Arthur Ransome and his characters and readers would have recognised. Leaving aside the dateline, and the feeling that we might have been having our legs pulled, the clear implication of Mr Gove’s argument is not that we’re not reading enough – it is easily argued that we’re all reading more than ever – but that there is something in the ‘classics’ that makes them more worth reading.
Well, obviously, or they wouldn’t be classics.
Of course, that statement doesn’t bear much examination, but we should look carefully at another implication - that classics should be read in their original form – their original language. What happens to classics if their language is changed? What does that mean for the readers?
In the real world, children obviously come to ‘classics’ from very impure directions – film, or comics or other media impact first. Mr Gove is still being challenged: Frank Danes, head of English at King’s Ely Senior School, Cambridge, wrote to The Times in May this year:
‘That Mr Gove thinks we should force a 900-page 19th century novel [Middlemarch] on teenagers who barely read at all – the fault of the zeitgeist, not of teachers – is more proof that he has no idea what happens in a classroom.’
So, what happens in the classroom has changed. Titty has read (happily, one assumes) The Tempest – she has also read Keats and Defoe and Macaulay – but if she had read them – as many children now do, in modified, altered, or abridged forms, what difference would that have made?
If children today – inside and outside of books – read different things from their predecessors, let us look at some of the ways in which the language of the classics has been changed to suit new generations of children. Then we can ask
- what difference does it make which version we read?
- if the language changes, does the whole nature of the ‘classic’?
- is this a matter of literacy, culture, politics … or something in between?
One of the many definitions of a classic is a work that has entered the public domain - the public culture - and so it is fair game for constant re-interpretation. After all,
Shakespeare has survived Baz Luhrmann, Franco Zeffirelli and Mel Gibson, productions with every kind of modern dress and undress, twins of different races, and a female Prospero.
The difference with children’s classics is that the adaptations tend to be reductive in content and form. (Of course, in the case of Shakespeare (and, indeed, most books) there is much that the inexperienced reader wouldn’t understand – much that most readers wouldn’t understand – but where children are concerned, reductiveness rules.)
There is plenty of evidence that with time and patience even young children can take on complex original texts, but it is commonly assumed children prefer narrative, and that they can’t cope with ‘difficult’ language
And the result?
Take a scene from As You Like It, in which Rosalind’s wicked (or misguided) Uncle banishes her:
Duke Frederick: Mistress, dispatch you with your safest haste
And get you from our court.
Rosalind: Me, uncle?
Duke Frederick: You, cousin:
Within these ten days if that thou be’st found
So near our public courts as twenty miles,
Thou diest for it.
Rosalind: I do beseech your grace
Let me the knowledge of my fault bear with me…
Duke Frederick: Let it suffice thee that I trust thee not…
Thou art thy father’s daughter; there’s enough.
Edith Nesbit, who held the somewhat paradoxical view that ‘the stories are the least part of Shakespeare’, but that the best way of giving Shakespeare to children was to give them the stories, thought that that scene was all to complex. In 1897 she tried her hand at adapting:
‘You must leave the court at once’ [the Duke] said to Rosalind.
‘Why?’ she asked.
‘Never mind why,’ answered the Duke, ‘you are banished… If within ten days you are found within twenty miles of my court, you die.’
Never mind why, indeed.
But what about books that were originally designed for children? Surely there is no need to change them.
…by the time she was six years old she was as tyrannical and selfish a little pig as ever lived.
end up in the Macmillan Readers, ‘Pre-intermediate Level: about 1400 basic words’ version in 2008:
Mary quickly became a very difficult and selfish child.
Changes like this over a hundred years are fascinating, if not disturbing – and in Part 2 of this blog strand, we can look at some more examples.