On A-Levels, and Jane Austen

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Today I experienced my first bout of Paywall Annoyance. I read some things in the Times that I wanted to blog about, but couldn’t link to, or even cut and paste from. Instead I had to rip the segments out of the newspaper and store it in a top pocket until I was reunited with my computer. In a small, microcosmic way, it summed up the anti-collaborative nature of paywalls. That said, the bits I wanted to blog about were good enough for me to rip out and store. And type up. Rupert would say that this demonstrates the quality of the product, and, therefore, its inherent cost. Paradoxically, I think it demonstrates both: the quality, and the frustrating insularity.

Anyway, on a day of mass academic hysteria, an excellent snippet from an editorial:

Yes, in the educational world, an A-level result haul of AAA beats ABB, which is better than BCE. But in the real world nobody recites Beowolf, and the only people who use fractions professionally are drug dealers and racecourse bookmakers.

Your grades fall short of your university offer? It’s not the end of the world. Churchill never went to university. Nor did John Lennon. Or Tom Stoppard. Or Shakespeare. Or John Major. Or John Humphrys. Or P.D. James. Or Frank Sinatra.

And, deeper into the paper, another snippet that struck a chord. While studying for my own A-Levels, I was subjugated to a full term of Jane Austen. I found it unbearable. I found it even more unbearable that Jane Austen was considered to be one of the finest literary products this country had ever produced. Surely not? I argued with my teacher extensively about it, couldn’t stomach more than three chapters of Emma, and blagged the exam by plagiarising York Notes. I was overjoyed to read that I’m not the only Jane Austen refusenik out there. From a commentary piece by Philip Collins:

It’s not that there aren’t some nice, ornate sentences. It’s just that it is hard to disagree with Kingsley Amis’s view that [Jane Austen] spends a lot of her time on the things that don’t matter and hardly any time on the things that do.

Reading Jane Austen is like a long phone call when you’re busy with someone who is mildly entertaining but who can’t quite get to the point. There are long passages of dullness about manners when, at the time, England was at war with France, a moment of national destiny that none of the characters mention. And just as the action gets going we get more pages of writing that is comic in every sense.

It has to be conceded that she has, for a comic novelist, a substantial legacy. Jane Austen’s account of romantic love has left generations of women with a false view of what men are like. Most men are not like Mr Darcy; I’m afraid the best you can hope for is Mr Collins.

As Joseph Conrad once asked H.G. Wells: “What is all this about Jane Austen? What is it all about?” It’s about a load of pointless messing about, that’s what it’s about.

Amen to that.

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3 responses to “On A-Levels, and Jane Austen

  1. With you on Austen. The equivalent of laboriously munching your way through a plate of beautifully presented celery, only to find that you’ve gained no nutrition from it and you’re still ravenous.

  2. Mark Twain expressed my reaction to Austen best. “I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” And if you think studying Austen at A Level was bad enough I had to teach her at A level for about ten years.

    I wouldn’t disagree however that Austen “is one of the finest literary products this country had ever produced.” Whilst I can’t stand the suffocating focus on manners in her novels I’d admit she could write a fine sentence or two.

  3. Pingback: A-level results blog – EdConnect

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