The Cambridge English faculty was founded in 1919, but when I went up to read the subject sixty years later my college had only just started admitting undergraduates to do so. It didn’t even have a dedicated director of studies. When I asked why, I was told that, until recently, the fellowship had believed that a gentleman (there were no women in the college then) should already have read the great works of English literature, irrespective of what he planned to study. I have been musing on this for nearly forty years.
During the current election campaign, a number of promises have been made about education. One is to beef up English literature studies in schools by teaching more of the ‘classics’. To me that evokes Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Austen, Eliot and possibly Dickens; others will think of Ian McEwan, Carol Ann Duffy and Salman Rushdie. In a world where the demands on teenagers are greater than ever, getting them to read exacting works of literature, particularly in a thoughtful way, will prove something of a challenge.