Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Twentieth Century attitudes

The –isms that shaped a century

Fascist leaders Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini
Contextual awareness of what people thought and felt really helps us make sense of what people wrote in any given era. It is an intangible world of ideas which, when we understand it can help us succeed if we are studying A Level English Literature.

Often, authors don’t directly refer to widely held attitudes – they just assume that everyone is coming from a particular cultural viewpoint – even if their job is then to challenge it.

The twentieth century saw the questioning of many longstanding cultural norms, which were replaced by newly developed beliefs. For example:

  • In the first quarter of the twentieth century, Enlightenment rationalism was superseded by Modernism
  • This was itself discarded in the last quarter of the century, as being an inadequate perception of how life held together, in favour of Post-modernism.

But what do all these –isms mean? has just provided some handy explanations in its ‘Making sense of the intangible world of the twentieth century’ section. Launched this week are easy to understand pages where you can find out about the following:

Communism & Fascism – two ideologies which shaped nationhood and conflict across the world for much of the century

Feminism – the shift of authority from patriarchy to the recognition of female values and power

Modernism – the scientific, industrial ‘solution’ to human progress

Post-modernism & individualism – the loss of faith in over-arching truths

Religious attitudes – changes in religious observance and cultural certainties

Multiculturalism – a challenge to the British, white, Protestant ascendancy

Simply by living within a culture that held these attitudes at varying times, British poets, novelists and playwrights reflected them and refracted them.

As the summer holidays roll on for most, why not take some time out to explore this rich background, and therefore get the most out of the English literature of the twentieth century?

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Shifts in the way we live

The World of the Twentieth Century has just introduced a new section on site about ‘The World of the Twentieth Century’. This week we are adding to articles about momentous events of the century with some perspectives about how the way British people lived changed between 1900 and 2000.

Recently there was much adulation over the birth of a new royal, Princess Charlotte – but did you realise that there were at least two eras in the twentieth century when the stability of the British monarchy looked in doubt? Check out Monarchy

Right now, Greece is dealing with the cumulative effects of spending without the bank reserves to pay. How did running up personal debt become the norm for many in the UK from the 1980s onwards? See Income & consumerism 

The working environment is often reflected in literature. How did this change for many Brits after the 1970s? Find out at World of work

What helped many UK citizens fall back in love with the British landscape in which few actually lived? Discover the answer at Humans & the environment

Our grandparents and great-grandparents grew up celebrating Empire Day (as Queenie remembers at the start of Andrea Levy’s Small Island). Why is this no longer the case? Find out at Colonialism & post-colonialism

These are just a few of the areas covered by the extra material being launched today to help users make sense of the tangible world of the twentieth century. Remember, it is contextual awareness like this that can help you succeed at A Level English Literature!

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Moments that shook the world

2015 anniversaries 

2015 has been full of anniversaries – ways of remembering key events that shaped the course of history:

  • 800 years ago this year, English King John was compelled to sign the Magna Carta, establishing that even a monarch was subject to the rule of law
  • It is 200 years since the British victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo
  • 100 years ago was the desperate defeat of Allied forces in the Dardanelles campaign, during the First World War
  • It is 70 years since the declaration of Victory in Europe, marking the defeat and downfall of the Nazi domination of Western Europe – the liberation of their concentration camps helped others see the evils of the regime in all its grisly reality
  • It is 25 years since East Germans flooded through the Berlin Wall and it fell, the symbol of division and communist oppression. That same year Nelson Mandela was freed from incarceration 
  • Only 10 years ago London was rocked by the efforts of four suicide bombers which left 700 people injured or killed

Why do we memorialise these events? Because they are an anchor as life passes; they remind us of how we lived, what kind of people we were when the event happened.

Many situations in the list above commemorate the overthrow of oppression and control – the impulse of the human spirit for freedom. Events such as the end of war and liberation of Auschwitz altered the way people thought about themselves.

Perspective shifts and the arts

The Elephant Celebes by Max Ernst
It is these shifts in perspective which the arts pick up on. Just as modernist painters reflected the sense of moral disintegration in the aftermath of the First World War, so authors and poets channeled the angst or optimism of the era into their works:

  • For example, the looming danger of George Orwell’s novel 1984 picked up on the very real oppression of Stalin when he attempted to blockade West Berlin in1948 (the year in which Orwell wrote his book).

If you are studying literature it is expected that you will understand how events provided a context against which writers created their texts. Indeed, examiners will award 25% of your marks in A Level English Literature on the basis of your ability to:

Demonstrate understanding of the significance and influence of the contexts in which literary texts are written and received. 

The World of the Twentieth Century already has lots of background material to help you make sense of literature up to the end of the Victorian era. Now it has just introduced a new section on site about ‘The World of the Twentieth Century’. Available are eight new articles focusing on key events between 1900 and 2000, such as:

  • the two World Wars, the Cold War and conflict in Ireland
  • The reshaping of the economy after the Wall Street Crash 
  • The shift of power and territory according to ideology in post-war Europe and Palestine 
  • The change in society as a result of immigration and integration.

Texts such as The Great Gatsby, The Handmaid’s Tale and Wide Sargasso Sea make better sense when you can place the worlds they depict against the reality which their respective authors faced.

There will be more to come, so keep looking out for updates!

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Summer shows

Exams will soon be over 

Pericles, Prince of Tyre
Yes really! And the rest of the summer term is a great time to let all you have accumulated over your year(s) spent studying AS/A2 Level English Literature sink in.

Often this is the time when, as students, you suddenly ‘get’ what the requirements of A Levels are all about, rather than feeling out of your depth after the relative shallows of GCSE English. You stop floundering and start swimming. And because of this, you might actually start enjoying literature more!

If you have been studying a play text in the past months (or are soon about to) the easing of pressure after the exam period is also a great time to catch a live production of your drama text. Unfortunately the great majority of them are in London, but with longer days and the summer holidays beckoning, perhaps you could make a day of it in the capital.


Everyone covers the bard.

If your syllabus includes a tragedy see if you can get to:

  • Hamlet, at the Barbican Theatre, London, 25.8 – 31.10.15 (with Benedict Cumberbatch)
  • Macbeth, at the Young Vic, London, from 3.12.15 - 3.1.16
  • Othello, at the RSC, Stratford, is more imminent, running from 4.6 – 28.8.15

If you are studying a problem play, like Measure for Measure, you will benefit from seeing one of these productions:

  • Measure for Measure, at the Globe Theatre, London, from 20.6 – 17.10.15
  • The Merchant of Venice, at the RSC, Stratford, between 15.6 – 2.9.15
  • Measure for Measure, at the Young Vic, London, from 8.10 – 7.11.15

Perhaps you are studying a Romance play like The Tempest:

  • At the new Sam Wannamaker indoor theatre (next to London’s Globe Theatre), a companion piece, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, will be showing from 25.11.15 – 21.4.16

Meanwhile, a Shakespearean comedy on offer is:

  • As You Like It, at the Globe Theatre, London, from 15.5 – 5.9.15

Jacobean drama

Shakespeare’s contemporaries were creating a vivid range of comedies and tragedies, sometimes blurring the two so that the humour is dark and there are flashes of laughter amongst the gore. What’s it like on stage? Check out three productions at the Swan Theatre, the RSC’s more intimate venue:

  • The Jew of Malta, from 1.6 – 8.9.15
  • Love’s Sacrifice, from 6.6 – 24.6.15
  • Volpone, from 3.7 – 12.9.15

Comedies of manners

Before the syllabuses change, current students may well be studying a seventeenth or eighteenth century ‘Comedy of Manners’ such as She Stoops to Conquer, The School for Scandal, The Rivals or The Way of the World. If you want to see how the style of writing translates onto stage, and how the comedy works, why not go to see

  • The Beaux Stratagem, at the National Theatre, London, from 3.6-31.8.15
  • The School for Scandal, at the Park Theatre, London, from 12.6 – 7.7.15.

Mid twentieth century

There’s hope for those of you living in the north of England or Scotland. Two productions are coming up from autumn onwards:

  • Waiting for Godot, at the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, from 19.9 – 10.10.15
  • The Crucible, at the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, from 18.2 – 19.3.16
  • In London you can catch the RSC’s Death of a Salesman, currently running until 18.7.15

If you know of other productions around the regions, please let us know – email

Above all, enjoy the experience and - after all your hard work - remind yourself why you took English in the first place…

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

King Lear catch up

The count-down begins

At the start of February a new, searchable online version of Shakespeare’s King Lear was launched at

Over the half term break a free, comprehensive King Lear text guide came out, with everything A Level English Lit. students and teachers need to ensure exam success. 

Now, as revision starts to get serious, help is at hand again in the shape of Teachers’ worksheets on King Lear.

Worksheet contents

The six Crossref-it worksheets  contain material for a number of lessons focused on Shakespeare’s tragedy. Accompanied by supplementary student handouts, they cover areas such as:

  • Exploring the characters and themes established at the play’s opening, particularly the parent-child theme
  • Analysing the dramatic impact of Act 3 Scene 2.
  • Considerations of key themes in the play, for example
    • Love and relationships
    • Seeing and blindness
    • Madness, wildness and disorder and how they connect
  • Exploring the impact of the final scene (Act 5 Scene 3) and the play’s sense of justice.

Teaching variety

Every worksheet contains a variety of teaching approaches, including:

  • An opening exercise - to help student engagement
  • Textual examination of key passages
  • Discussion ideas - to deepen understanding
  • A recreative task - to help make connections
  • Critical tasks - enabling traditional essay practice
  • Extension tasks - to widen knowledge.

Student help

It’s not just teachers who will find the worksheets helpful. As a student preparing to be assessed this summer, you might just be starting to panic as you uncover any gaps in your notes / understanding / lesson attendance. Trying downloading and working through a worksheet and you will end up with lots of helpful ideas to throw back at the examiner.

Have fun!

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

The misfit who is chosen

Unloved misfits 

Used for centuries as beasts of burden, strong and capable, yet ugly and uncherished, donkeys and their near cousins asses (the crossbred offspring of a pony and a donkey) are in many areas of the world rather like we regard electricity – vital but taken for granted.

An unlikely subject therefore for a poet to focus on. Yet, at the start of the twentieth century GK Chesterton did just that, creating in The Donkey a simple ballad with a surprising twist.

When fishes flew and forests walked  
   And figs grew upon thorn,  
Some moment when the moon was blood  
   Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry
   And ears like errant wings,  
The devil’s walking parody  
   On all four-footed things.

Many suffering from body dysmorphia might identify with the Donkey’s self-description as having ‘ears like errant wings’ and a ‘monstrous head’. It likes neither the way it looks nor the ‘sickening cry’ of its voice. It regards itself as a primeval beast, a throwback to an unsophisticated, ungainly world, an animal which has remained stubbornly uncivilized despite the progress of the millennia.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
   Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,  
   I keep my secret still. …

As such it feels an outsider, a misfit in a slick world, unable to curtail its desires and self-expression to fit the mores of modern society. Because it its ‘crooked will’ others have rejected the Donkey, mocked it, ill-treated it and punished it (the scourge was a multi-strand whip with sharp stones or twists of metal designed to tear the flesh from whatever was being beaten).

Hidden joy?

But, amazingly, this Donkey has a secret hope, a memory that outweighs all its privations.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
   One far fierce hour and sweet:  
There was a shout about my ears,
   And palms before my feet.

It remembers going for a noisy walk…..

That’s it?!

One hour trotting near palm trees is enough to make up for society’s – and the Donkey’s self – hatred?

Missing the point 

Well, if we leave it there, we have entirely missed Chesterton’s point. But to feel the punch of the poem, we you need to know a bit more about the subtext (see previous blog, 4.3.15).

The Donkey’s ‘sweet’ hour was the occasion related in the New Testament when, a week before he died, Jesus chose an ass to sit on and ride into the city of Jerusalem. He was greeted rapturously at the time, with people waving palm branches and throwing them down, along with their cloaks, to create a ‘royal causeway’ for the man they anticipated as king (an event commemorated by Christians as Palm Sunday). An easy retelling of the story can be found at or you can read the original in Matthew 21:1-11.

For the Donkey, the amazing fact was that a monarch (the ruler of all the earth according to Christian belief) chose this rejected, unattractive beast for the greatest honour it could ever experience. Chesterton portrays Jesus choosing the unloved and unlovable ass and touching its life with glory.

The poet is reminding us that those we overlook or shy away from are actually special. If you think you are the misfit, remember what this simple poem tells you.

Palm Sunday is celebrated this weekend.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Western cultural influences on literature

Getting ‘in the know’

Don’t you just hate it when there is a facebook or text conversation full of abbreviations you aren’t quite sure about? A while ago the UK Prime Minister famously mistook LOL to mean ‘Lots Of Love’ when actually those ‘in the know’ realised that LOL stood for ‘Laugh Out Loud’. David Cameron was, accidently, not sending affection but mockery.

In almost every written communication there is a context which helps the reader to make sense of the words, and often a subtext - an assumption by the writer that the reader shares an understanding as to what is being referred to.


For example, in one of Wilfred Owen’s poems, Hospital Barge, the reader of the poem understands that it is written from the perspective of a First World War soldier (Owen himself) in northern France, enjoying rare time away from trench bombardment. Sitting by a canal, he observes a barge take away those wounded at the Western Front – that is the context.


The departure of the wounded, symbolised by the scream of the barge’s funnel, makes the poet think of Avalon and Merlin. Owen is assuming that, just by mentioning these mythic names, his readers will understand the subtext he is referring to – the legends surrounding the heroic British King Arthur. Owen had recently re-read a well-known Victorian poem by Poet Laureate Lord Tennyson, with which he might have been confident his original readers were familiar.

Unlike many of the upbeat legends about Arthur, the mood of Tennyson’s poem is one of grief and loss. It chimes in with the idea that Arthur’s chivalric code ultimately did not withstand human corruptibility. By drawing on this understood subtext Owen is therefore communicating that the valiant glory of battle/the First World War is superseded by the cost of suffering and loss… But if you aren’t familiar with the subtext, you will miss this additional layer of meaning.

The most shared subtext of all

In the Western literary tradition, the most shared subtext of all is the Bible. Every writer from Chaucer onwards has assumed that readers will ‘get it’ when, within their work, they create parallels or counterpoints to famous biblical narratives, that alluding to biblical characters or events will serve as a shorthand to a shared understanding.
  • When in King Lear Edmund cheats his brother out of his father’s affection (Act 1, scene 2; Act 2, scene 1), playing on the infirmities of an ageing parent, Shakespeare would expect his audience to think of another brother who tricked his sibling out of his rightful status - Jacob cheating Esau Genesis 27:1-41.
  • When Dr Frankenstein is aghast at the ugliness of the monster he has created (Frankenstein, vol 1, chapter 4), Mary Shelley expected her readers to see that as a counterpoint to the goodness of God’s creation emphasized by Genesis (Genesis 1:26-31; Genesis 2:2; Genesis 2:7. The contrast of narratives highlighted Shelley’s theme that any such human creation could only come to a bad end.

Light shining in darkness

If you already know this stuff, it’s like having a light to illuminate the texts you are studying. Yet many today do not have the time or brain-space to read the entire sixty-six books of the Bible. However, this week is adding to its range of handy paraphrases of famous biblical narratives. For example:
With ninety-six of the most referenced biblical stories on site, can give you the low-down on what most Eng. Lit. authors assume you already know – keeping you a step ahead of your peers. LOL.