A report by Robert Lloyd on the first Cardiff BookTalk Schools Outreach Project at Fitzalan High School.
17 March 2016 saw the inaugural event of a new initiative from Cardiff BookTalk, whereby students enrolled at Cardiff University (from undergraduates through to postgraduate researchers) will be given the opportunity to visit schools and colleges in the Cardiff area to give presentations and participate in group-based activities on a literary text currently being studied as part of the AS/A-Level syllabus. The first visit was to Fitzalan High School in Canton, at which Dr Catherine Paula Han and Rob Lloyd gave short presentations on different aspects of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre to around 35 Year 12 students.
Catherine’s presentation discussed the portrayal of Jane as an artist, and contextualised this within a broader discussion of the status of the amateur woman artist in the nineteenth century. Catherine focused particularly on a passage in the novel in which Jane’s portfolio of sketches and paintings are examined by Mr Rochester, and suggested that their content (and the language with which they are described) constitutes one of the fundamental practices through which Jane is able to distinguish herself as a character and construct her textual identity. With their ‘peculiar’ character and ‘elfish’ thoughts, these paintings dramatize Jane’s status as an individual, a theme which is similarly reinforced in the portraits she draws of herself and Blanche Ingram to give a textual/textured form to their respective physical differences.
After her presentation, Catherine encouraged the students to perform a close reading of a relevant passage in the novel, to draw out the key words and images that could be used to support an argument about Jane’s status as an artist and how this can be used to describe her relationship with Mr. Rochester. The students developed some really interesting ideas, drawing upon their readings of the passage and other moments within the text in which art is shown to be a crucial component in constructing Jane’s subjectivity in relation to other characters.
Rob’s presentation focused on the idea of Jane as a secret-narrator; that is, as a character who unravels the secrets of the text (through her privileged narrative position), but who at the same time is established and maintained as a textual secret herself. Drawing on the critical work of Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle, Rob suggested that Jane constructs her narrative around a dual process of revelation and occlusion, whereby secrets are simultaneously disclosed and new secrets are created as the text progresses, and traced various manifestations of this duality throughout the novel.
For his post-presentation activity, Rob asked the students to think about the character of Bertha Mason, whose revelation at the centre of the text constitutes the novel’s most important disclosure. However, Bertha remains a secret-ed (non-)presence, denied a narrative voice or history outside of her imprisonment in the attics of Thornfield, and often invoked merely as the dark shadow to Jane’s material presence. The students were asked to think about Bertha’s various appearances in the novel, and consider the ways in which she is described and, more interestingly, the ways in which she is denied a secure description. Once more, the students came up with some very detailed analyses of Bertha’s position within the text, seeing her both as an important point of reference for defining the characters of Jane and Rochester, but also identifying her almost ghostly operation at the edge of the narrative, suggesting that she was and remained the text’s most enduring secret.
By way of a conclusion, Catherine and Rob played some clips from different televisual and cinematic adaptations of Jane Eyre, and encouraged the students to identify the various ways in which Bertha has been represented, and how these different interpretations might inform a discussion of the variety of functions Bertha fulfils within the text. This was followed by a general Q&A in which the students were able to ask anything they liked about the novel, and to tailor these questions specifically to the requirements of the syllabus.
This was a fantastic inaugural event for the BookTalk schools outreach programme. The students responded in an engaging way to the material with which they were presented, drawing on their knowledge of the text to ask detailed questions and to draw out specific points that would be useful for their own revision. It was also rewarding to be able to provide students with a flavour of the kind of work they might encounter at undergraduate level, should they be interested in applying to study English at university. The organisation and dedication of the staff at Fitzalan played a major part in the success of the event, and it was gratifying to know that the students benefitted from the activities and presentations. We look forward to establishing a network of relationships with a whole range of Cardiff schools, and very much hope to organise a regular series of events in the future.