My name is Richard Vardy and I’m Head of English at Reigate College. I’m looking forward to welcoming you to our popular department in person at the beginning of the academic year, but in the meantime, I’d like you to complete a series of tasks and activities over the coming months as preparation for the Literature course.
You will need to complete these tasks independently, but there will be the opportunity to discuss what you’ve learnt when we start the A Level course in September. As well as completing these tasks, please remember to be reading as widely as possible during this time.
All the tasks should be completed by Choices Day on 25 August. We hope you enjoy working through them and getting a taste of being an A Level student of English Literature.
The tasks will be released here in three phases:
Explore your Subject – 4 May
Exploring dystopian fiction
Think of any novels you’ve read – or perhaps films you’ve seen – which are set in the future (or an alternative present). What kind of futuristic world is the writer trying to create?
Now conduct some research into dystopian fiction. These websites might help you, but feel free to explore other sources:
Once you’ve conducted your research, please answer the following question:
To what extent would you say the text(s) you considered could be categorised as dystopian literature?
Becoming a critical reader
One of the reasons universities and employers value A Level English Literature so highly, is that you learn to consider what you have read carefully before developing views of your own.
Read the following extract. It’s from the opening of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a text you will be studying on your A Level English Literature course:
We slept in what had once been the gymnasium. The floor was of varnished wood, with stripes and circles painted on it, for the games that were formerly played there; the hoops for the basketball nets were still in place, though the nets were gone. A balcony ran around the room, for the spectators, and I thought I could smell, faintly like an afterimage, the pungent scent of sweat, shot through with the sweet taint of chewing gum and perfume from the watching girls, felt-skirted as I knew from pictures, later in miniskirts, then pants, then in one earring, spiky green-streaked hair. Dances would have been held there; the music lingered, a palimpsest of unheard sound, style upon style, an undercurrent of drums, a forlorn wail, garlands made of tissue-paper flowers, cardboard devils, a revolving ball of mirrors, powdering the dancers with a snow of light.
There was old sex in the room and loneliness, and expectation, of something without a shape or name. I remember that yearning, for something that was always about to happen and was never the same as the hands that were on us there and then, in the small of the back, or out back, in the parking lot, or in the television room with the sound turned down and only the pictures flickering over lifting flesh.
We yearned for the future. How did we learn it, that talent for insatiability? It was in the air; and it was still in the air, an after-thought, as we tried to sleep, in the army cots that had been set up in rows, with spaces between so we could not talk. We had flannelette sheets, like children’s, and army-issue blankets, old ones that still said U.S. We folded our clothes neatly and laid them on the stools at the ends of the beds. The lights were turned down but not out. Aunt Sara and Aunt Elizabeth patrolled; they had electric cattle prods slung on thongs from their leather belts.
No guns though, even they could not be trusted with guns. Guns were for the guards, specially picked from the Angels. The guards weren’t allowed inside the building except when called, and we weren’t allowed out, except for our walks, twice daily, two by two around the football field, which was enclosed now by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. The Angels stood outside it with their backs to us. They were objects of fear to us, but of something else as well. If only they would look. If only we could talk to them. Something could be exchanged, we thought, some deal made, some trade-off, we still had our bodies. That was our fantasy. We learned to whisper almost without sound. In the semi-darkness we could stretch out our arms, when the Aunts weren’t looking, and touch each other’s hands across space. We learned to lip-read, our heads flat on the beds, turned sideways, and watching each other’s mouths. In this way we exchanged names, from bed to bed:
Where is the extract set? What has changed over time?
How are the women controlled and oppressed?
What do you think might be the significance of the women touching ‘each other’s hands across space’ and whispering their names?
What key pieces of information is the writer withholding?
Can you identify any features of dystopian fiction?
Did you find this an effective opening to a novel? Did it make you want to carry on reading? Why / why not?
Reading is at the centre of the A Level English Literature course. Students enjoy developing their ability to read with greater insight and sensitivity. They also enjoy making connections between texts. Try to read as much fiction as you can in the coming months. Keep a brief reading record with the following headings:
Why I chose this book
What I like (or dislike) about this book
What I find distinctive or interesting about the way the book is written
If you are unsure what to read next, here are a few suggestions we think you might like. Those marked with an asterisk (*) are other examples of dystopian fiction.
Monica Ali, Brick Lane
Margaret Atwood, Surfacing
**Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre
**Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights
Albert Camus, The Stranger
**Wilkie Collins, Armadale
*Philip K. Dick, Electric Dreams
**Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
Sebastian Faulks, Engleby
Aminatta Forna, The Memory of Love
Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere
Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
**Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge
*Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go
*Cormac McCarthy, The Road
*George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
**Edgar Allan Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings
Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea
Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things
J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
**Bram Stoker, Dracula
Miriam Toews, A Complicated Kindness
**H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds
**These titles are all available as free e-texts online. Please read other books if you’re unable to get hold of any of the above list – they are just suggested titles and the most important thing is that you keep reading.
You should complete this section of tasks by 1 June.
Get Going – 1 June
You should complete this section of tasks by 1 July.
An important aspect of studying English Literature is understanding and integrating the contexts in which your texts were written. This is particularly important when it comes to studying William Shakespeare. One of the first texts you will be studying is Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night – and knowing and recording in your own words something about the life and times of this writer will give you a flying start.
task is to put together a written summary of your research on The Life and
Times of William Shakespeare.
Please do not just cut and paste text. Images are fine – but try to make the writing
Your teacher will be delighted to look at your summary in the first week of learning.
This summary can be as long or brief as you have time for but it really would be helpful to you to consider at least two of the following areas:
1. What do you already know about William Shakespeare? What play(s) have you already studied?
2. Shakespeare’searly life in Stratford-Upon-Avon.
Find two or three interesting facts. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust have some great materials for you to consider.
4. Late sixteenth and early seventeenth century England
The time of Shakespeare, whose career
straddles the later part of Queen Elizabeth I’s and the early part of King
James’ reigns, was a period of enormous change.
It was arguably the beginning of the Modern Age as we know it today and
Shakespeare played a significant part in the way we think and speak.
Explore the following key ideas:
Anti-Catholicism, the Reformation and
the rise of Puritanism
The Renaissance, particularly the late
Renaissance in England.
Wikipedia is very helpful in explaining
these quite difficult concepts:
Tom Stoppard’s excellent film Shakespeare in Love is very good at
placing Shakespeare’s plays in some of their social and cultural contexts. You may have already seen this film; if not
it is a very entertaining introduction.
This video, associated with Stoppard’s
film, is very informative and is also well worth watching:
5. Shakespeare’s work
There is, of course, a great deal of
material you could research here so perhaps just focus on one of the following aspects of Shakespeare’s work:
the differences between Comedy and
recurring themes and ideas in
Shakespeare’s plays (such as the distinction between appearance and reality)
the differences between prose and blank
Shakespeare’s sources: where did he get
his ideas from?
These two brief videos are a well
organised and presented introduction:
The British Library has a range of
particularly well-illustrated resources:
Remember, your summary of research can
be as long or brief as you have time for.
Good luck putting it all together: it
will be very useful for when you come to study Twelfth Night on the English Literature course.
Aim High – 1 July
You will begin your A Level
English Literature course at Reigate College with a study of an anthology of
twenty-first century poetry. The anthology contains an exciting and diverse
range of poets and subjects.
The first poem you will study
in class will be ‘The Gun’ by Vicki Feaver. In the poem, the speaker’s partner
brings a gun into the house. It initially has an unsettling and menacing
presence, but the speaker’s attitude soon changes…
Read the poem carefully a number of times and jot down answers to the
questions which follow. This will prepare you for your first A Level English
Literature lesson, where you should bring your responses to discuss in class.
Focus on the aspects of the
poem you enjoy and feel more confident about. Do not worry if there are parts
of the poem you are less sure about – these will be clarified for you in the
Bringing a gun into a house changes it.
You lay it on the kitchen table, stretched out like something dead itself: the grainy polished wood stock jutting over the edge, the long metal barrel casting a grey shadow on the green-checked cloth.
At first it’s just practice: perforating tins dangling on orange string from trees in the garden. Then a rabbit shot clean through the head.
Soon the fridge fills with creatures that have run and flown. Your hands reek of gun oil and entrails. You trample fur and feathers. There’s a spring in your step; your eyes gleam like when sex was fresh.
A gun brings a house alive.
I join in the cooking: jointing and slicing, stirring and tasting – excited as if the King of Death had arrived to feast, stalking out of winter woods, his black mouth sprouting golden crocuses.
How does the gun change the house in the first
half of the poem? Select one or two quotations.
Look again at the second half of the poem, from
‘Soon the fridge fills with creatures’ to the end. How has the gun changed the
house and the people living in it in this
half of the poem? Again, select one or two quotations.
Why do you think the poet decided to include the
line ‘A gun brings a house alive’ in a stanza (verse) of its own?
What do you make of the final stanza? Are there
any ideas, images or poetic techniques that stand out to you?
What does the poem seem to be saying about guns
and violence? Do you find this surprising?