Christopher Smith


There was a funny little story in the press just before Easter about the University of Stirling having dropped Jane Austen from the curriculum of their English faculty. In order to ‘decolonise’ the said curriculum, she was to be replaced as the ‘special author’ on the third-year options list by an American writer called Toni Morrison. Now, I suspect I ought to read some Toni Morrison, who became a Nobel Laureate in 1993. Her best-known novel is Beloved, which was published in 1987. But even so, you might be forgiven for thinking that undergraduates reading English at a British university perhaps ought to read some Jane Austen.

There are, after all, only six substantive Jane Austen novels, and a student of English Literature ought to know them. It seems that there is room for only one ‘special author’ in the Stirling curriculum, and Austen was evidently an easy hit for those wanting to ‘decolonise’ that curriculum—even though it is impossible for a curriculum to have colonies. With Morrison, ‘the main topics covered will include racial difference and critical race theory, gender and sexuality’. The university is, after all, seeking to ‘support an anti-racist agenda in higher education’, so they presumably think that teaching about ‘black postmodernism, Gothic, as well as the aesthetics of the contemporary US and African-American novel’ will go some way to achieving that goal. 

Alternatively, they could have looked more closely at Emma, where Mrs Elton’s ‘Bristol trading background’ comes in for some stick, as does her brother-in-law Mr Suckling’s reputation; he is clearly not the ‘friend to the abolitionists’ that Mrs Elton tries—after the event—to make him out to be. Perhaps that’s all a bit subtle for the University of Stirling. Mr Suckling’s estate is called Maple Grove. Get it? Look closely at the eponymous house in Mansfield Park, too, and note the author’s evident disapproval of the way in which Sir Thomas Bertram made his money.

Stirling undergraduates can sit a paper in ‘Victorian Literature and Culture’, and the prospectus informs us that ‘The module proceeds by way of a self-conscious interrogation of the notion of “Victorianism” itself, addressing such questions as the postmodern fascination with the nineteenth century; the distinctions between fiction and history; as well as the range of pressing theoretical questions attendant upon any act of literary-historical periodization’. Setting aside my nagging doubt as to whether that sentence can really have been written by an English graduate (what is this obsession with using semicolons instead of commas?), I wonder why we are not told what the ‘selected literary texts of the period’ are. I worry that students are being given chapters and extracts, but not reading whole novels.

This matters because we are dealing with a generation that can barely concentrate on any one thing for long enough to put their socks on. They badly need to know what it means to persevere with a novel to the end, even if they are fed up with it by the end of the second chapter. Surely you can only have a meaningful discussion about a novel when you’ve read the whole thing. They also need to learn more about their own cultural history, rather than allowing it to become an adjunct to American culture, to which we are increasingly exposed. I worry that the idea of the shared national culture seems to be dropping out of fashion. Forty years on, I still (metaphorically!) carry my A-Level set books with me: Bleak House, Persuasion, The Return of the Native, two Shakespeare plays, a Canterbury Tale, and so on.

The assumption was that we all ought to know some Dickens, some Austen, some Hardy, some Shakespeare and some Chaucer. I also think we ought to know some poetry, but I cannot find a single, specific, course on poetry as part of the Stirling curriculum. Instead, they offer a module on ‘Language and Linguistics’, in which students ‘will explore literature written in “non-standard” Englishes, a term encompassing language varieties including pidgins, creoles and dialects, but also “broken”, idiomatic and vernacular forms’.

The fuss about the Stirling curriculum came and went in fairly short order, but it does leave us with a question about the value we place on our own history and culture. Again and again we are invited to explore other cultures, which is a very valuable thing to do, but there is something lurking under the surface which implies that we should value our own less. The English faculty of King’s College London, ten minutes’ walk from my front door, boasts that ‘Ours is a department committed to teaching English literatures of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries written in America, Anglophone Africa, Australia, Ireland and South Asia as well as within the UK’. The King’s course is relatively traditional, but an optional module on ‘The Life of the Sonnet’ sits next to one called ‘Multi-Ethnic American Modernisms’, and ‘Chaucer’s Books’ next to ‘Coming of Age in America’.

I’m not one of those people who has a reflexive anti-American prejudice. I just have the sense that American culture, good and bad, has very successfully exported itself around the world, and does so all the more successfully in the age of the internet. But maybe, in this country, we ought still to be able to study Jane Austen as a special author as part of a degree in English.