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A seminar on the London novel

Our focus was on novels that take place in London, those novels for which the city of London transcends the function of simply a backdrop for a narrative, and instead takes centre-stage.

The seven novels on which we focused spanned the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries, from Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist, first published as a newspaper serial in 1837, to Monica Ali’s highly popular Brick Lane, written in 2003. Each novel can be understood as an encapsulation of the historical era to which they belong, a lens through which we may view London and its inhabitants at the moment in which each author was writing.

For the first ten minutes of the seminar, David, the School Principal and teacher, discussed the significance of the city to each of these novels, illustrating the ways in which the London presented in each book varies, according to the period of writing. Each student was given two excerpts of a London novel to read, and David provided a valuable piece of advice: to skim read the text first before writing anything, then to note any unknown words and look them up in a dictionary. Having reached an understanding of the words, the students took it in turns to either discuss the texts one-one-one with David, or read over the remaining texts. As the obstacle of unknown words had been overcome, meaning and themes came to light.

The rest of the hour was spent discussing the seven texts as a group. Each student had both a detailed understanding of two texts, and an overview of the others, leading to a productive discussion of vocabulary, themes, characters and, of course, the setting itself. The seminar aimed to strengthen students’ skills and flair for written English and reading comprehension. Although faced with the challenging task of reading texts of a high calibre of English, each student became significantly more confident and fearless in their approach to learning.

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With regards to the books in question, our discussions led us to the observation that genres and themes first showcased by one novel have blazed a trail for later novels. Thus the early example of satire that is Dicken’s Oliver Twist, in its portrayal of the unromantic reality of child labour, crime, and desperation in Victorian London, paved the way to Ali’s Brick Lane many years later, a depiction of the complexities and barriers of race in modern Britain. Themes of family, love and friendship have similarly transcended the passing of time, as have depictions of human emotions. The pangs of jealousy exhibited in The End of the Affair, the heartbreak undergone in Vanity Fair, the loneliness in Mrs Dalloway – each are universal emotions that capture the essence of human nature.

And what of the element that ties each novel together, the city of London? As we discovered, similarly to what has happened with genres and themes over time, London itself has been transformed, and yet in many ways remained the same. Despite the constant developments, as houses have been built and torn down and inhabitants have lived and passed on, the areas in which the novels take place have retained their authenticity just as much as they have retained their significance to the spirit of London, immortalised into the urban fabric. Adding to this immortality is the association one attaches to each part of London with the literature that references it. The Baker Street residence of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson; Clapham Common, where the doomed lovers of The End of the Affair resided; Westminster, where Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway lived – each area has been imprinted by the fictional figures who called it home.

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221B Baker Street and Baker Street underground station: home to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes

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Engaging in literature in a foreign language need not be a terrifying or insurmountable task. The notion that one must advance greatly in the language before embracing the literature, films or music in its origin country is a myth that our courses aim to dispel. The students who attended our London novel seminar were not of a level of total fluency, nor did they have backgrounds in literature studies. The texts they read and spoke about were a challenge, texts that spoke of complex human relationships, antiquated class systems, deeply entrenched racial tensions, and yet these are themes that are universal across country and language.

When you break through the meaning of complex vocabulary and unknown grammar, compelling stories begin to unravel. The words that once mystified and confused you instead becoming compelling, and add to the fluidity, even the aesthetic, of the text. You need not be advanced in a foreign language to achieve this pleasure from reading: the more daring you are with your goals, the more rewarding the outcomes. For the students in our seminar, their goals were to take on small quantities of complex text and be able to understand and discuss them in English, which they excelled in by the end of the lesson. These specific outcomes for the class contributed to the wider goals we had for them – to think critically and independently, to immerse themselves in not only the language but the culture and imagination of English, and to apply their language skills to a wide context.

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……………Brick Lane, the setting of Monica Ali’s 2003 novel about the London Bangladeshi community

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A list of the novels we explored in our seminar:

  • Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens, 1838
  • Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray, 1848
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle, 1892
  • Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, 1899
  • Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf, 1925
  • The End of the Affair, Graham Greene, 1951
  • Brick Lane, Monica Ali, 2003