Women novelists warned early on that village life wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be



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Stephanie Palmer, Nottingham Trent University

The season of the good old summer “fayre” is here and many UK readers will be heading off to eat tea and scones and take part in the tombola at their local village fete. There, it’s a good bet, they will hear of local people’s concerns that new housing developments foisted on them by the government will ruin the character of their idyllic rural community.

But the myth of tranquil village life was well and truly exploded in the Victorian age when many writers concluded that life in England’s small rural communities was not a simple idyll of tea, vicars and charitable works.

For many people, especially those who may not have visited the UK, the most accessible pictures of village life are those painted in novels: who can forget the timeless portrait of life in a sleepy Dorset community in PG Wodehouse’s Blandings series, or EF Benson’s Mapp and Lucia books, set in a fictional Sussex village? But fiction has also been highlighting the negatives of village living for more than a century.

The “greetings card” scenario of village life was established early. In her memoir Our Village (published in five volumes between 1824 and 1832), Mary Mitford – who lived at Three Mile Cross near Reading in Berkshire – gives us a classic rendition of peaceful village life. There are quaint depictions of servants, chaste suitors, elderly brides and grooms, blacksmiths and gypsy fortune tellers.

Our Village contains all the myths of village life. Everyone is familiar: a village is a little world “where we know everyone, are known to everyone, interested in everyone, and authorised to hope that everyone feels an interest in us”. There are no newcomers, nobody is systematically excluded and nobody is living a secret or misunderstood life. Poverty is relegated to the margins – there’s only the occasional mention of the workhouse and, Mitford assures her readers, the village is a collection of cottages, not “fine mansions finely peopled”.

But even in the 1820s, such a village felt under threat from the railways, improved roads and the increasing size of the towns of the industrialised North. And no sooner did Mitford complete Our Village than other authors began to parody or correct her vision.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford (1853) is a gentle text still very positive about life in a confined locality. Although Cranford is a town outside “Drumble” – her stand-in for Manchester – it resembles Mitford’s village in that everyone knows each other and the narrative is focused on a limited set of characters. In the case of this novel – and so many others in the tradition – the main characters are women, and it is women’s unpaid labour that makes the community run smoothly. Yet Gaskell gently mocks her characters, Matty Jenkyns, Miss Pole, and Mrs Jamieson, for their conventionality, triviality and timidity.

The women follow strict social rules – an entire chapter revolves around whether these august personages should stoop to visit a former ladies’ maid who has set up a milliner’s shop and hence was “in trade”. In another chapter, the women grow fearful of outsiders when they hear of a cluster of burglaries in the neighbourhood, which proves to be founded on rumour.

Thomas Hardy’s villages such as Weatherbury in Far from the Madding Crowd (1874) or Marlott in Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) are idyllic in some ways, but not in others. Shepherds are close enough to nature to saunter out of their huts at night to tell the time by stars, and the slow pace of life allows for ample opportunity for community and flirtation. Yet sexual transgressions are treated to the full judgement of an unforgiving community, and questions of money and class interrupt any readers’ expectations of rural bliss.

American moral tales

These books sold well in the US, even though villages there were subject to dramatic population shifts westward and industrial development. Writers in the US sought to reinforce or contest Mitford’s vision.

After reading Mitford and migrating to a new village in Michigan, Caroline Kirkland wrote A New Home, Who’ll Follow? (1839), which mercilessly satirised her vulgar frontier neighbours and the wealthier eastern newcomers. When her neighbours read the novel, they ostracised her – and she never wrote anything as trenchant again.

Although the American regionalism that flourished in the latter quarter of the 19th century is known for romantic visions of village life, upon closer examination, key writers such as Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary E Wilkins Freeman reveal many of village life’s negatives.

If Gaskell acknowledges in Cranford that her ladies’ kindness to the poor is “somewhat dictatorial”, Freeman’s A Mistaken Charity (1883) takes this point to its logical conclusion. Two elderly sisters living happily in their dilapidated cottage are visited by Mrs Simonds, a woman who is “a smart, energetic person, bent on doing good”. Mrs Simonds arranges to take Charlotte and Harriet to the poorhouse, where they are forced to wear lace caps and sit indoors. Charlotte and Harriet run away.

Revolt from the village

By the 1910s, there was a literary “revolt from the village”, and writers including Sherwood Anderson focused on the sexual repression of small town life. Although Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, published in 1919, is set in a town, it is a town of 1,800 people, far smaller than many British villages today. Meanwhile, Stella Gibbons parodied rural melodramas in Cold Comfort Farm (1932), in which, instead of graciously fitting in like the urban narrators of Jewett’s fiction, Flora Poste, a visitor from London, forces the members of a dysfunctional family to follow their individual desires rather than their family destiny.

The ConversationAccording to these writers, villages can be conformist, unimaginative, repressive, nepotistic. These fictions imply that villages will be harder to maintain now that women have other outlets for their energies. The negatives come from the same source as the positives in village life, and people who wish to defend villages, and the tradition of rural living, should remember this literary ambivalence and the fact that it has gone on for more than 100 years.

Stephanie Palmer, Senior Lecturer, School of Arts & Humanities, Nottingham Trent University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Schools can’t tackle child literacy levels alone – it takes a village



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More than half of children under two and nearly half of children aged three to five are not being read to every day at home.
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Catherine Wade, Parenting Research Centre

The recently released NAPLAN 2017 results and findings from the latest Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) have got Australia talking again about how our children are faring when it comes to literacy.


Read more: NAPLAN 2017: results have largely flat-lined, and patterns of inequality continue


We know from PIRLS, while most Australian children are meeting international benchmarks for reading at year 4, nearly one in five are not meeting these benchmarks. Australia has one of the largest proportions of students who fall below the “intermediate” benchmark into the “low” or “below low” categories, compared to other English-speaking countries, including the US, Canada, and England.

Despite the range of steps that have been taken to address literacy levels across Australia, a large proportion of children are still not meeting international standards for reading. So what other approaches could we try?

Parents: an untapped resource

New research from the Parenting Research Centre highlights an area ripe for intervention: better supporting parents in reading to their children.

Our findings from a study of 2,600 parents showed more than half of children under two and nearly half of children aged three to five are not being read to every day.


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We found, while most children were being read to by an adult in the household four to five days a week, a concerning proportion were not being read to at all or very infrequently. Specifically, 13% of 0–2-year-olds and 4% of 3–5-year-olds were not read to at all by an adult at home in the previous week.

Our research also looked at how important parents’ educational values and aspirations for their children were and how they felt about their interactions with their children’s educators. The survey has national relevance, as most of the findings relate to broader parenting issues.

Why early reading is vital

We know from decades of international research that what parents do at home with their children has a profound effect on children’s learning outcomes. Children who experience enriched, cognitively stimulating home environments are at an advantage in the learning process because they have had exposure to many more words.

The evidence in support of providing a language-rich environment to children is vast. Children with language delays at school entry are at greater risk for academic difficulties. With flow-on effects to later academic and socio-emotional challenges, the imperative to tackle language and literacy problems early is paramount.

Sitting together, opening a book, and reading and pointing to words can be incredibly helpful in building the foundations of good literacy.
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A number of high-quality reviews of the scientific literature show good evidence for the benefits of parental shared reading for children’s literacy.

And while older children typically need less input from parents when it comes to actually looking at words on the page, that doesn’t mean the parents’ role in supporting reading diminishes. Creating a home environment that encourages time and space for books is key.


Read more: Research shows the importance of parents reading with children – even after children can read


If we know reading works, why don’t we do it?

The message that simply sitting together, opening a book, and reading and pointing to words can be incredibly helpful in building the foundations of good literacy has certainly cut through with many parents of young children.

But there are many reasons parents don’t read at home. As we know from sectors such as health, simply telling people what needs to be done – such as exercising more – does not take their personal context into consideration. Alone, it’s not enough to motivate people to adopt new patterns of behaviour.

Considering how best to support parents to read more often to their children is an important question and will depend on a thorough understanding of the barriers that are preventing them from doing so. Family and work pressures and parental confidence around reading books are some possible factors that could be further explored as barriers.

A shared concern

Children’s literacy is not the sole responsibility of parents, but it’s clearly an area where parents and schools can work together. This parent-educator partnership featured in our survey, which explored parents’ views about their interactions with kindergarten, child care and school teachers.


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Most parents (92%) felt comfortable communicating with their children’s teachers. Although 21% did not think or were unsure if their child’s teacher understood their child.


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Also, 20% did not agree they were able to participate in decisions that affected their child at kinder or school.

Of note, fathers tended to feel less comfortable talking with their child’s teachers than mothers did.

While 82% of parents felt their opinions were valued in discussions with their child’s educators, 11% had mixed feelings about this and 7% felt their opinions weren’t valued.


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Given what we know from research about the value of parents being connected with their children’s educational settings, it follows that parent-teacher partnerships are important for children’s educational outcomes.

Consequently, it’s important issues like literacy are looked at holistically. Literacy is not just as an education system issue, and not just a parenting issue. It’s a societal issue.

Parents are ready to engage

We found the vast majority of parents (93%) see their own contribution to their children’s learning in the early years as important. This supports the view that today’s parents are generally well placed for taking on information about how to improve their children’s literacy and educational outcomes.

It’s encouraging that most children are being read to at home – even if not every day. But in the context of concerns about Australia’s position in international literacy rankings there’s more to be done.

The ConversationThe message to parents is clearly “read early and read often”. The message for policy makers and professionals is “support parents to better engage with their children’s learning”. This could take many forms and is dependent on context. It could include strategies such as building literacy messages and materials into existing parenting support services and promoting online resources for parents, given our survey found 79% of parents look for answers online about parenting issues.

Catherine Wade, Principal Research Specialist, Parenting Research Centre

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.