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Post-Exam Reading

The Lowe Down

Freddy Lowe Published: 01 May 2024

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The iconic Romantic poet George Gordon Byron – commonly known as Lord Byron – wrote a lyric called “Lines Inscribed Upon a Cup Formed From a Skull”. It is narrated by a dead man’s skull (because why not?) that is being used as a receptacle for alcohol. The general gist is that we’re useless when we’re alive, so we are at our most helpful when our dead skulls can be mugs for other people’s drinking. So we may as well drink as much as possible because that’s about as significant as it gets while we’re alive. It’s very proto-Ricky-Gervais wisdom: eat and drink whatever you want and just die because we’re insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

It's a great poem (and probably true!) but not very helpful advice for day-to-day life. We may ultimately be no more than “worms and wasting clay”, as Byron says, but that doesn’t help us if we have exams; they will affect our lives before we become worms and wasting clay. Exam season is approaching both for myself and our Wymondhammer GCSE and A-Level students, so Byron’s words may not help in the short term. One of my revision strategies is to set a stopwatch target while doing flashcards and pretend I’m on “The Final Chase” from the ITV quiz show, except instead of answering general knowledge questions, I’m giving the meanings of Chinese characters. (“Ever worry you have too much time on your hands?” said Sister Michael from Derry Girls. An apt quotation…but anything to keep oneself from getting bored mid-revision.)

Of course, it will be over sooner than it came, and when the post-exam summer arrives, it means just one thing: the freedom to read the books you choose for yourself outside the confines of reading lists! That is where this Lowe Down comes in: here are a few recommendations. My summer guilty pleasures are always whodunnits: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, etc. (I’ve recently also discovered Stieg Larsson: the eminently readable and emotive writer of the Millennium trilogy, featuring Lisbeth Salander. Book 1 – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – was adapted for film with Daniel Craig in 2011.)

This summer though, I’ve been reading more Victorian fiction than ever. It might seem out-of-touch to recommend Victorian literature to students who have just finished exams – but you’d be surprised! I remember a female student who was in my year at Wymondham High. She was lovely; her name was Herishtha. She was streetwise and always hanging out with the cool kids; she didn’t seem nerdy at all to an outsider. One day, she turned around to me in English class and, to my delight, said, “Jane Eyre is one of my favourite books ever. Isn’t it so good?” (Yes it is!)

The Brontë sisters in general were excellent, and their books remain far from the stereotype of stuffy, dull traditional texts. Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are plot-driven, gothic, melodramatic soap operas, written by Charlotte and Emily, respectively. (And glorious ones too.) Anne is the most realist of the three sisters. Agnes Grey is a thought-provoking examination of the mistreatment of young, female governesses by their clients, but it is much less gothic.

Two other (lesser known) Victorian writers who entirely defy the stereotype of dry dullness are J. Sheridan Le Fanu and Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Their complete works are available very cheaply on Kindle, though many remain in print as well. Their books are remarkably easy to read and very pacy. Both wrote ‘sensation’ fiction, a distant ancestor of what we now know as detective novels. Le Fanu is for the fans of horror: he wrote a vampire novella, Carmilla, and a very creepy mystery fiction/survival thriller Uncle Silas, in which the young female protagonist is caught in a web spun by the eponymous uncle. Braddon is most famous for Lady Audley’s Secret, a book which unites hardcore classics fans and non-classic-fans, but Aurora Floyd is very strong too – a similar plot to Lady Audley’s Secret but with a more proto-feminist spin.

Summer is almost here. At the time of publication, I believe the Wymondham High language oral exams will be almost over, and it’s now the home stretch. The students will nail it. And once they have nailed it, they should go home and read those aforementioned books.

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