• Straight Talking English

How to Tackle Context when Teaching Literature.

( I presented a slightly more visual version of this article at New Voices 3 on 12th October. Many thanks to the organisers and attendees!)

Context is vast, and we need to remember that language means nothing in isolation. In order to digest this meal of a concept, I’ve cut it down into five tips:

1. Language is not frozen in time.

Take this line from ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ for example of what I mean by that statement:

‘There was something unspeakable about him.’

To a reader in 2019 this clearly indicates some kind of arcane horror, but for readers in 1885 there were completely different connotations. After the Criminal Law Amendment Act had been passed six months earlier, there was a huge clampdown on anything considered adult material. This included explicit images and magazines, but also pamphlets on birth control and scientific exhibitions. Most importantly perhaps, it criminalised homosexuality. In Oscar Wilde’s trial he described his relationship with his boyfriend as ‘the love that dare not speak it’s name’, so for one of the many readers who devoured the story of a man with a double life, the link to a same sex relationship would be glaringly obvious. In fact, in earlier drafts, Stevenson made it blatantly clear that this was the ‘devil’ which ‘came out roaring’ once Jekyll had taken the potion.

If you don’t check how the meaning of words can change over time, then your analysis will not be factually correct, no matter how beautifully written it is.

2. Get to know your writer.

Not through necromancy, obviously, which is strongly discouraged by all reputable authorities. By reading a biography or seeing where they wrote, we can get into their mindset and predict their views on the issues presented in their work.

Take again the example of Jekyll and Hyde. Robert Louis Stevenson was a non-conformist in every sense: when other students were working hard, he was trying to buy cannabis in a cemetery. He hid illegal literature at his tobacconist so he could enjoy the works of Walt Whitman while smoking a pipe. Yet Louis sometimes felt he lived a double life between his conservative father’s expectations and his desire to be more bohemian. For Louis, to describe someone as living a typical mainstream life was to insult them.

William Blake is another fabulous writer whose headspace we can enter. The definition of radical, Blake rejected everything that society placed in front of him, from the monarchy to the concept of marriage. He was an illustrator and artist who planned for his work to be reinforced visually, and felt a very personal and spiritual connection to the world around him, despite being critical of the Church as an institution. Just by placing Blake in his literary movement (Romanticism), we can extrapolate his views as we as readers know that the Romantics stood for the pure expression of emotion.

By getting to know our writer, their intentions become clear without the need for wrangling with overly complex analysis.

3. Get Out(side help).

In London we are blessed with an excess of sites to see, and free transport, we can find the places which inspired our writers and access their context first hand.

Let’s imagine you are teaching Oliver Twist. In Bloomsbury’s Dickens Museum not only can you see the desk in which Dickens sat to write this book, you can also visit the Barnardos museum where Thomas Bernardo set out to help the young people who would have formed the models for Oliver. If you wanted to delve deeper into the mindset of Dickens, the Clink Museum in London Bridge commemorates the debtors’ prison which Dickens saw as the most formative experience of his younger years. Even if you’re outside London, you can find echoes of the Victorian experience.

Of course, no man is an island, and no teacher is alone in tackling context. You have at your disposal a history department of degree-level specialists in a variety of historical time periods, and even if they don’t have a working knowledge of Gothic literature they may well know someone who does. Universities such as Goldsmiths or Cardiff run outreach programmes and will be able to offer world class experts in your area.

Why not start a book club, or make context part of your CPD? Perhaps every teacher could present weekly on a different topic relating to a set text, or meet in the pub for a discussion of the same biography of a writer.

Several schools have started after-school lecture programmes to stretch their most able students and invited outside speakers in, thus taking the burden off themselves to provide the most intimate details of a text.

4. Love your library.

Sadly, our librarians are frequently under-utilised by English teachers. It only takes an email to get an expert in the field of reading involved in your context struggles. If you’re blessed to have a library lesson, they can assist you in finding materials or focused reading on, say, the life of Shakespeare. For those of us who face the unending catastrophe of silent reading in form time, a box of hand picked books delivered to your door sounds blissful. A most able class could also benefit from a structured reading list or book club run by a knowledgable librarian.

5. Love your language.

Tokens are for trolleys, not context, and if I were in any position of power over a scheme of work (which, fortunately for some, I’m not) I would be integrating context from the very start. Language means nothing in isolation and without considering the resonance of the words you’re looking at at the time they were written, the meaning would be lost. Imagine a teacher of the future wrestling with ‘Lit’ or ‘Yeet’!

If you love literature, which I am assuming you do, and you love words, then naturally you need to cultivate a love of context.


Q: I live in rural Cambridgeshire. How can I access the outside resources you talked about?

A: You will have a local historical society who will be knowledgable, and you live close to one of the oldest universities around! Both Cambridge University proper and Cambridge St Johns will be happy to run outreach, and there is the potential for YouTube and Skype lessons!

Q: Are there any other subjects I can bring into my discussions of context?

A: Art is a great way to look into context, especially with representations of Gothic, Romanticism and Imperial themes.

Q: How can I get my lower ability students to connect their historical knowledge to the text?

A: Try thinking of the text in terms of Semantic Fields. Blake would use imagery of light and dark as he was a religious man, so scan ‘London’ for words relating to light and dark.

You can also use their own experiences to find a resonance between the context and the imagery in a text, such as smoking shisha in ‘The Sign of Four’.

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