ACW

ACW

Friday, 6 March 2015

Why knowing our Bibles helps our reading - and our writing - by Fran Hill

I studied for A level English Literature at 37, late to the educational party. I’d failed to accept my school’s kind offer in 1978 of a sixth form place, deeming it preferable to earn £16 a week in a factory, drilling holes in circuit boards. In my teenage wisdom, I thought this more fulfilling than studying Larkin or Shakespeare.

I’m surprised the school even offered a place; I was known more for backchat than appreciation for the Bard. Poor Mr Jackson, my English teacher.

In my mid-30s, I discovered challenging literature.  My childhood reading had been Blyton-dominated. Then, at home in my 20s bringing up three children, I’d read formulaic romances and the novels of Dick Francis or John Grisham - good stories, but a world away from George Eliot, the Brontes or Kate Atkinson. It was Atkinson’s ‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum’ that galvanised me into attending creative writing classes, then later taking my A level. 

But in those English Literature classes on Monday nights, I found my risible knowledge of classic texts a handicap. I’d reached 37 with a tenuous grasp on literary tradition. Any author’s allusions to Greek myths, to the witches in Macbeth or intertextual references to the wife of Bath in The Canterbury Tales mystified me. Other students seemed more clued up; perhaps they’d listened to their parents.

Where I did triumph, though, was with Biblical references. By then, I’d been a Christian for 20 years, so …

Mention of serpents in our text? 

‘Garden of Eden! The Fall of Man!’ I’d yell, glad of a chance to shine. 

References to the parting of the waves? Water into wine? Balaam’s donkey? Lazarus? Ask me, ask me! I fell on the opportunities like eagles onto slow mice. No doubt my fellow students wondered how someone could be so dense in some areas (‘What is an Iliad, anyway?’) and so ‘chapter and verse’ in others.



Later, at university, I hoovered up the myths and the classics, plugging the gaps. Now, I teach English myself (Mr Jackson: stop giggling in your grave) and preach a ‘read the Bible and other classics’ sermon to all my Literature classes. I am shocked by their poor understanding of fundamental Bible narratives such as the nativity, or the resurrection.

‘If you’ve never encountered the Bible,’ I say, ‘you won’t understand how Shakespeare exploited Edenic imagery in The Tempest, or how poets used conventions for describing women like those used in the Song of Solomon.’

‘No?’ their faces say. ‘And this will ruin our lives how, exactly?’ 

As a writer who’s a Christian, I like adding Biblical intertextuality into my writing. Informed readers, recognising the inferences or comparisons, will enjoy them. Who doesn’t like to be ‘in the know’?


And maybe the less informed might just pick that old Bible off the shelf, dust it off, and look up the story of Lazarus to see why I used it as a metaphor for, say, taking off layers of winter clothing.


Fran Hill is an English teacher and writer living in Warwickshire. Her comedy novel about one rollercoaster day in a teacher's life is available from her blog site right here and for your Kindle just here and you can follow her Fran Hill Writer facebook page by going here

18 comments:

  1. I think the story of your journey into English teaching (and writing) is remarkable and inspiring. Do you ever tell this part of your story to your students? About how you used to annoy Mr Jackson and now you're doing his job? Great post.

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  2. I think the story of your journey into English teaching (and writing) is remarkable and inspiring. Do you ever tell this part of your story to your students? About how you used to annoy Mr Jackson and now you're doing his job? Great post.

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  3. Thanks, Deborah. If I do hint to the kids that I was naughty at school, they often don't believe me. Shows how much they see me as an old traditional codger-type who can't possibly have had a 'past'!

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  4. Loved the story of your journey into teaching and writing. Inspirational

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    1. Thanks, Wendy. Glad you liked it.

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  5. Wasn't it Oscar Wilde who said 'youth is wasted on the young'? I'm relying on your superior knowledge to put me right if I'm in error, Fran. But whoever said it, never could a greater truism reflect on our immature ignorance and arrogance. Like you, I deemed work and a wage more valuable than continuing my schooling. True, my first job was working for author, Paul Gallico. But unlike you, I have to live with my regrets.

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    1. Well, the superior knowledge of Google (!) says it's both Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, so who am I to disagree? Hm ... I'm not saying I have no regrets. For a start, I think I ruined a lot of lessons for poor Mr Jackson and I wish he was around for me to buy him a gin and tonic or something.

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  6. I loved reading this, too. I once submitted some poems to the Poetry Society for professional criticism. One of them was roundly condemned for being a pastiche of some poem I had never heard of, let alone read. However, it was full of Biblical allusions which the critic totally failed to notice!

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    1. Brilliant! That made me smile.

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  7. Hoho, Ros, isn't it annoying when people assume you've copied/plagiarised/etc some other creative item - book, say - when you've simply made the thing up in ignorance of some else having had the same idea - only that person was 'famous'?

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  8. Fran, lovely post. So interesting to read someone coming from a different place almost entirely - though I also threw out the suggestion of more study - at Uni - and worked in a bank when I left school ... the bank was frankly so boring it drove me back into education ...

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    1. Eventually I ended up in the NHS, typing X-ray reports. So ... ditto!!

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  9. Hoho, Ros, isn't it annoying when people assume you've copied/plagiarised/etc some other creative item - book, say - when you've simply made the thing up in ignorance of some else having had the same idea - only that person was 'famous'?

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    1. Same happened to me when I submitted my book about a boy wizard at school. I mean, how was I to know?!

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    2. Love it! You have a great sense of humour. It shines through your writing

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  10. Great post, Fran. Well done for being an autodidact! (hope you don't have to look that up...). Mind you, I did an Oxford English degree but it was 40 years ago and I've forgotten almost everything - more recent knowledge is worth a lot!

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    1. Tell me about it ... if I haven't taught a book in the last year I have to re-read and re-study before I feel confident to teach it again. It makes for a lot of reading over the summer of books I've already read 3 times! (At least, I think I've read it before ....)

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  11. Fran - what an encouragement to always be continually learning and adding that richness to our writing - thank you :)

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