You may not have identified Ebenezer Scrooge or the endearing Pip and haughty Estella, but you are unlikely to have missed the distinct flavour of the Victorian era coming through in Tuesday's Google doodle, a tribute to Charles Dickens on his 200th birth anniversary.
Yet, far from being worried that you couldn't place Charles Darney or Tiny Tim, or Oliver's mates in the vivid representations, you ought to be happy that you can still recognise that this is associated with 19th century England. For, the exposure of our students to such classics is clearly coming down, as can be seen from the English syllabus for higher secondary classes.
Shreya Prakash is a voracious reader but none of the classics figures among her favourites. “It is not that that I do not like classics but you are more exposed to the contemporary works where I have got a liking for Sidney Sheldon and Agatha Christie,” says Shreya, a student of class XII, who read ‘Oliver Twist' as a 10-year-old when her mom brought her the book. In the CBSE curriculum, she says, none of Charles Dickens works is prescribed even as a non-detailed in the senior secondary level, and there is little encouragement given to read such books.
It is a similar story in the State Board Higher Secondary School curriculum where no classic literature is introduced to students. Five years ago before the syllabus was revised, ‘Oliver Twist' was one of the short stories that was part of the non-detailed text. Publishers say a good number of schools that used to buy classic books as part of the supplementary reader or non-detailed for class V onwards discontinued after ‘Samacheer Kalvi' was introduced.
E.S. Chandrasekharan, senior teacher of English, DAV Matriculation Higher Secondary School, Anna Nagar, regrets that some of Victorian-era authors have completely been forgotten in the textbooks. “All his [Dickens] characters are living among us today, whether it is Fagin (Oliver Twist) or Charles Darney and Sydney Carton (A Tale of Two Cities). It was emotionally packed, so you could enjoy not only the story but the moral values of life,” says Mr. Chandrasekharan. “Only speeches of Julius Caesar are part of class XII.”
He says the purity of English is lost in the works of contemporary writers; the result is that students struggle when they appear for competitive exams such as TOEFL and GMAT.
At the university level, professors of English do agree that students are more drawn towards modern writers but at least one of the works of Victorian writers are covered as part of period literature. English major students of arts and science colleges affiliated to the Madras University study one of Dickens' works as part of the paper ‘Novel' at the undergraduate level and ‘Victorian literature' at the post graduation level.
Helen Thimmayya, associate professor of English, Women's Christian College, says Dickens' writing might be heavy for those not drawn towards regular reading, which is the case with any classic, but the works were relevant as they presented the social reality of those times.
Talking about the difference between reading for pleasure and reading to appreciate, Ms. Thimmayya says: “In my class of 50 students, only five would have read many of Charles Dickens books for pleasure. But, at the same time, at least 35 of the same class have read it in school and have liked it.”