Wider reading for A Level English Literature: 5: Life in Victorian Britain

Here is the next instalment in our series on wider reading for A Level English Literature written by an Oxford Home Schooling tutor.

Now is a good time to refresh your memory about those general aspects of Victorian life – maybe have a look again at the books I’ve mentioned before or why not dip into Life in Victorian Britain, a very readable book by Michael Patterson? Don’t neglect the way life was being lived in the countryside though – have a look at Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford which tells you in a very easy to digest way about the lives of agricultural labourers and their families in the 1880s. Remember though, don’t read these books from beginning to end, just dip into them…

That should give you an appetite for finding out more about our third major topic, social problems, looking particularly at urban poverty and the working class and again we need to have examples from poetry, prose and drama. For poetry there are some interesting examples from poets like Elizabeth Barratt Browning, look at ‘The Cry of the Children’ and read Matthew Arnold’s ‘East London’ and ‘West London’ contrasting sonnets – a good opportunity here for you to revise the sonnet form… You might also like to look at a poem which was very popular with contemporary audiences, ‘The Song of the Shirt’ by Thomas Hood.

Your prose reading will be a little harrowing, so you might want to do some selective dipping in and out of texts. Look at Dickens – Hard Times, of course, but don’t forget Bleak House and particularly Joe the crossing sweeper. You need to also look at some even more hard hitting texts like Morrison’s The Child of the Jago and Gissing’s Netherworld.

As always drama is more difficult, many of the most popular plays in this area were not works in their own right but adaptations of books like Hard Times but have a look at some of the plays which ordinary people went to see like Maria Marten and the Murder in the Red Barn, The Streets of London and Fanny by Gaslight which tell you a lot about their lives.

…and after all of this rather depressing reading, I suggest tea and cake to cheer you up!

Anne Thomas


For more information on studying distance learning A Level English Literature you can contact a student adviser on 0800 0 111 024.

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