IGCSE English Courses

for home educators by Catherine Mooney

IGCSE English Literature Course Sample

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A Romantic Story

It seems appropriate to begin an English Literature course by telling you a story, so sit back and enjoy. The story I am going to tell you is a romantic one, so first I'll introduce our heroine. She isn't particularly old by present day standards - in fact, she's only in her mid-thirties - and she lives in a comfortable house which she shares with her mother and her beloved sister. I say it's comfortable, but the year is 1810, so there is no central heating and it can be bitterly cold in winter. She has very little money, and neither she nor her mother and sister own the house because when her clergyman father died he left them hardly anything. In fact the house belongs to her wealthy elder brother.


It's quite a nice house, but very simply furnished. In fact, there is only one comfortable place to sit in the sitting room - a small sofa, which she has to share with her mother and sister. Our heroine isn't pretty and she isn't ugly. She's somewhere in between. But although when she was much younger she was described by a jealous friend as being 'the prettiest, silliest, most affected, husband-hunting butterfly she ever remembers!' she has matured since those days, although she hasn't managed to attract anyone to marry her. Yet.



Although she's not the most beautiful romantic heroine, she has lots of other qualities, which ought to make her attractive. She is clever and witty, intelligent and kind, and absolutely brilliant with words. No matter how dark things get, she can always see the funny side of things; she writes wickedly funny letters. In fact she's the sort of person you'd really like to have as a friend.  You might wonder why such a gifted woman would be in need of a husband. Well, you have to remember that this is 1810, an age when cleverness and wit aren't prized amongst women - in fact it's quite the opposite. Bright, intelligent women are mistrusted and it would be over a century before they would be allowed to vote! Women rarely received a proper education; instead they developed accomplishments such as sewing, singing, drawing and playing the piano. To the left you can see three young women busily engaged with the task of making hats! In other words, women were trained to be quiet, compliant, wives who had enough skill to be able to cook and mend clothes, but not enough brains to make them want to challenge their husbands' authority.

Not only that, it simply wasn't socially acceptable, or even possible, for women to live independently. There were very few jobs for women in the middle classes, and those that there were didn't pay very well. A woman might work as a governess, which was a sort of live-in teacher for the children of rich people, but governesses didn't earn enough money to have their own house. The only real option for women of the genteel classes who wanted to have any sort of a life at all, was to marry someone - and that someone had to be rich.


Which brings us back to the problem with our heroine which is... you've probably guessed it. Rich men could take their pick of the women available, and not only did they tend to pick the pretty ones, but they also went for the ones who already had money because they came from rich families! Just to make it extra difficult, in 1810 it wasn't possible just to meet someone and get to know them, fall in love and perhaps marry them. No - people had to be formally introduced to each other, which made things very complicated indeed. However one of the ways that women could meet men, if they were very lucky and they could afford a beautiful dress, was at a ball. Balls were exciting social occasions, and the whole community would get involved. The rules of the game were still pretty complicated - as with most social interactions, women couldn't just go up to someone and chat, introductions had to be formally made. But at least they were in with a chance. (What our heroine really needs at this point is a fairy godmother and six white mice, and they are pretty thin on the ground as well.)



So anyway, one day our witty, intelligent, young heroine finds herself at a ball and - excitement upon excitement - a good-looking young man looks as though he is going to ask her to dance. Her heart must have been beating very fast at this point. However the next day she was to write to her friend 'One gentleman, an army officer, a very good-looking young man, who, I was told, wanted very much to be introduced to me, but as he did not want it quite enough to take much trouble in effecting it, we never could bring it about!' What did she do when she got home? She probably had a large slice of cake. Our heroine turns out to be very human. When the going gets tough, she turns to cake. In another letter she writes 'you know how very interesting the purchase of a sponge cake is to me!'


There were a couple of other occasions where she met eligible men, but it never came to anything. Once she met someone while she was on holiday at the seaside, but they never quite got it together and years later she heard that he had died (it was quite common to die young in the 1800s). On another occasion someone actually proposed to her and she accepted, but she thought better of it the next day and told him she'd changed her mind.  He was rich, to be sure, but she told her sister he was also 'big and awkward'.


So here is our poor heroine - no money, no husband, no house of her own, and only the occasional slice of sponge cake to keep her happy... What on earth is she going to do?


Well, all is not lost because she has one truly amazing talent. I've already told you that she is brilliant with words, but in addition to that, her mind is full of stories, and she finds she is very good at writing them down. In fact, she is so good that several years earlier, when she was twenty, she wrote a love story called First Impressions which she sent to a publisher. Unfortunately, the book was rejected - the publisher didn't even bother to read it - but that didn't put her off. She persisted with her writing, and still does, in secret. I say in secret, because the business of writing is not easy in a house which you share with your mother, sister and extended family. She doesn't have a private study and has to write her stories at a desk and chair in a shared living room. She knows the family wouldn't approve of her writing, so she scribbles away on small sheets of paper which look like letters and which can easily be concealed if someone should come into the room. She has a trick for avoiding questions from visitors, too. There is a creaky door which she insists isn't mended because when it creaks, it gives a signal that visitors are on their way, so she can quickly hide her work before the prying eyes appear and the questions begin!


Sadly though, she is starting to show the first signs of a painful and incurable illness which is already sapping her energy and taking her away from her precious writing. Sometimes she is so ill that she needs to lie down, but as I said before, there is only one sofa in the room, and her mother is usually sitting on it. So our heroine puts two chairs together whenever she needs to rest, and when she is well enough she carries on with her writing. Scribbling away on those small sheets of paper, hiding them whenever anyone comes into the room.


After several years of living like this - writing in secret and coping with her painful illness - she finally submits a completed manuscript to a publisher and he agrees to publish it. He says can't publish it under her own name of course - what would the family say? - and she has to bear the financial risk herself. Nevertheless, the book is published, and the cover simply states that it is 'By A Lady.' Our heroine makes a profit of £140! Almost a fortune in those days.


Encouraged by this success, she digs out some of the novels she wrote when she was younger, including First Impressions. Maybe, if she revised it a bit? Gave it a snappier title...?

So this is what she does, describing the revised First Impressions as my own darling child (although she was never to have children of her own). The book is published in 1812 and becomes so popular that even the Prince of Wales enjoys it (not Prince Charming, unfortunately, who continues to elude her). She is a success at last and this inspires her to revise and to start writing more novels.




Unfortunately however, just as she is becoming successful, the illness from which she had been suffering for several years becomes more serious. Although she writes a few more novels, just five years after the publication of the revised First Impressions, she dies at the age of 41 and is buried in Winchester Abbey. (In those days, women were not expected to attend funerals, so her beloved sister, Cassandra, was not present.)





Perhaps by now you have guessed the name of our heroine. I didn't try particularly hard to hide it from you. But if you didn't guess, I can now reveal that she is none other than Jane Austen herself. And the book which she originally called First Impressions...? again, you've probably guessed it. It's Pride and Prejudice. One of the most famous love stories in the whole of English Literature.


In the 21st century it is so easy to take for granted the benefits that would have been unheard of in Jane Austen's day: there would have been a cure for her illness, for example (it was probably Addison's Disease) and she would have been rightly appreciated for the amazingly talented woman that she truly was.  I have told you this rather long story about a woman whom I truly believe to be one of the greatest heroines of English Literature, because I think it adds to our appreciation of her writing if we understand the context in which she wrote.


I don't mind saying that what I find extraordinary about Jane Austen's achievement - and it's something I hope that you also come to share with me - is that in spite of the traumas and difficulties in her life, she managed to write in such an upbeat and inspiring way. She certainly had plenty to grumble about: she had no money, no independence, literary success eluded her for most of her life, and she never met and married the man of her dreams. She also became ill in her thirties and died quite young, by today's standards of mortality. Indeed Jane Austen had every reason to feel sorry for herself and to write gloomy stories expressing anger and bitterness about her life. But she was an insightful and witty social commentator, and seemed to be amused, rather then exasperated, by the restrictions of the times in which she lived. Her books are a delight to read but also give a wonderful insight into what life was like in the early 1800s. Jane Austen rose above the difficulties in her personal life to stories that have uplifted, amused and entertained many generations of readers. Perhaps this is why they are some of the most enduringly popular novels in the whole of English Literature.


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