The English Department's Blog

Jun 15

AQA are refreshing their English Literature A-level syllabuses.  These aren’t wholesale changes, but texts are being changed, jigged about a bit, and I thought the changes being made to the Gothic element of the A2 ‘Texts and Genres’ unit were worth a bit of scrutiny. If you want to read the specification for yourself, you’ll find it here (the relevant part begins on page 11), and the full details of the changes can be found here, squirrelled away at the very bottom of the page.  That latter point leads me to wonder, how many centres will overlook these changes – they’re hardly flagged up for all to see – and prepare their students for books not on the exams?  Changes to the AS units have already caught out a few schools, and I can see it happening again here, but that’s another blog post.

So, what’s new? Well, let’s start with the old, shall we?  The original selection of texts for the Gothic element of ‘Texts and Genres’ ran as follows:

William Shakespeare Macbeth
Christopher Marlowe Dr Faustus
John Webster The White Devil
John Milton Paradise Lost, Books 1 and 2
Geoffrey Chaucer The Pardoner’s Tale
Post 1800
Mary Shelley Frankenstein
Emily Brontë Wuthering Heights
Bram Stoker Dracula
Angela Carter The Bloody Chamber

Now, you’ve probably raised an eyebrow here: for a unit about Gothic literature, there are surprisingly few ‘Gothic’ texts on offer, at least, not in the canonical, conventional sense of the word.  There’s nothing from the first flowering of Gothic writing in the late 18th century, no Otranto, no Udolpho, no Monk. Moreover, none of the texts in the pre-1800 category would ordinarily be found included in a collection of Gothic fiction, or listed under that heading in the Oxford Companion to English Literature.  Several of them were, I grant you, very significant to writers of Gothic fiction – whence Ambrosio without Satan, for example – and it is right to read them when studying later works, but as Gothic texts in themselves, it’s a bit of a stretch.  In the end, the guidance from the board is that these texts deal with similar ideas to ‘real’ Gothic writing, and produce some similar effects, so that’s ok, we can shove them in the same ‘genre’ and off we go.

So far, so moderately unsatisfactory.  But now, the changes.  In place of Milton, we are offered Middleton’s The Changeling, and in place of Dracula, Northanger Abbey.  All of a sudden, the picture begins to look very bleak.  It is now the case that the two principle periods of Gothic writing – the late eighteenth century and the fin-de-siecle of Stevenson, Stoker and Wilde – are not represented at all on an A-level syllabus calling itself ‘Gothic’.  There is no longer any poetry, and it is entirely possible for candidates to go through a whole A2 unit without reading a novel.

The losses must be keenly felt, too.  Of course, Austen is a greater writer than Stoker, but Northanger Abbey is a parody of gothic writing, and a satire on the reading habits of young ladies like Catherine Morland.  Parodies are often an excellent way of understanding the object of their laughter, caricaturing and magnifying as they do the object’s characteristics, but if one wishes to understand a genre, surely it is better to start with the genre itself, before looking in from the outside.

The Milton is a dreadful loss to the syllabus. He towers over English writing and for all Middleton’s lively interest as a playwright, it is a great loss to any bright student who wishes to read English at university to be denied the chance to grapple with Paradise Lost. We are now left with a ‘Gothic’ unit where almost half the texts are Renaissance plays, and there is a gaping hole between The Changeling (first performed in 1622) and Northanger Abbey (written in 1798-99 and published in 1817). The board offers no explanation or justification for its choices, beyond saying that the texts are “representatives of [the] genre” and “individual texts will be explored and evaluated against some of the commonly accepted principles of the chosen genre.”  How it will be possible for any student to form a coherent understanding of the ‘commonly accepted principles’ of the ‘Gothic genre’, or, heaven forbid, to form their own critical appraisal of those principles, is beyond me.

1 comment so far

  1. Abbie
    12:58 pm - 6-3-2013

    I completely agree with this. I am an English Literature student in London and my texts for this exam are The Bloody Chamber, The Changeling and Northanger Abbey. I feel at a complete loss not studying the original or ‘first’ gothic texts from Radcliffe and Walpole, as how am I meant to know which texts Austen is parodying in Northanger Abbey!

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