Saturday, 17 November 2012

They're afraid of Virginia Woolf?

How can it be that Virginia Woolf is missing, or under-represented, from the majority of A-Level English Literature specifications, ?  True, OCR, AQA and WJEC allow a tiny smidgen of Woolf in one of their units, but never for the independent studies, and usually as a single choice amongst many other texts.

Woolf is a vital date in the timeline of English Literature.  She is one of the more accessible 1920s English writers, and provides a useful transatlantic counterpoint to those mainstays of Literature syllabuses, Fitzgerald and early Hemingway.  Her writing is a wonderful 'way in' to Modernism (which should be a module on any Literature course!), and fills the gap between the Victorians (who are amply represented) and the mid-late 20th century poets, such as Heaney, who also fill the syllabus.  Her writing is structurally unusual, and she did things with the form of the novel that all students could get their teeth into.  Let's face it - Woolf's writing is something all students of literature should get a taste of.  But they don't.

A student reading Mrs. Dalloway would learn a lot about individual writing styles, about character development, about train-of-thought, about biased narration, and about structure.  They would also learn a great deal about the nature of writing, and its tribulations.  Sure, students discover something about the difficulties women faced in the world of literature if they check out the Brontes, but studying Woolf (with, perhaps, Plath as well) would flag up the less rosy side of literature, which, I believe is something worth highlighting - it's not easy, being an artist.

With the release of the new KS4 curriculum, I was hoping there would be more room for Woolf, but disappointment was the inevitable result.  The focus of the literary side of the syllabus (which is certainly full, if nothing else) is on pre 1918 work, with only a tiny possibility of inserting any 20th century prose (British fiction, poetry or drama since the First World War - pretty harsh either/or choice there...)  Thus we get more and more Shakespeare and less and less Modernist or Postmodernist texts.  The way the world's going, and the need for every student to be able to make rapid links in a modern world, makes me very sad that this is the case.  Woolf's modernity, flavoured with some delicious Mansfield and then some postmodern garnish, would have created a tasty chunk of GCSE fare.

Show students The Waves, and you'd simply blow their minds with what novels can actually be.  Give them a snippet of Orlando, and they'd never be the same again.  Get them to read A Room of One's Own, and see them understand the literary process as never before.

I first came across Woolf in my second year and University, and she blew me away with her style, technique and imagination.  I don't think it should be left that late.

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