Comparing Nineteenth century fiction with Contemporary Young Adult fiction


Images: http://www.gramunion.com/monamay.tumblr.com/149125847167; https://mattbredmond.com/2012/01/20/the-house-of-truth-and-the-hearth-of-kindness/


Studying 19th century fiction is also an exciting exploration of changing styles, contexts, characters and narrative trajectories. Take the following two extracts. The first from Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte’s bildungsroman charting the development of the eponymous protagonist as she negotiates her way through various residences, relationships and revelations. The second is from a much more recent incarnation of a rebellious female character, Kate Harker, in Victoria Schwab’s This Savage Song (2016). I have edited the second extract, in true examiner style, to make it fit my purposes! 

Extract 1

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise was now out of the question.

I was glad of it: I never liked long walks, especially on chilly afternoons: dreadful to me was the coming home in the raw twilight, with nipped fingers and toes, and a heart saddened by the chidings of Bessie, the nurse, and humbled by the consciousness of my physical inferiority to Eliza, John, and Georgiana Reed.

The said Eliza, John, and Georgiana were now clustered round their mama in the drawing-room: she lay reclined on a sofa by the fireside, and with her darlings about her (for the time neither quarrelling nor crying) looked perfectly happy. Me, she had dispensed from joining the group; saying, “She regretted to be under the necessity of keeping me at a distance; but that until she heard from Bessie, and could discover by her own observation, that I was endeavouring in good earnest to acquire a more sociable and childlike disposition, a more attractive and sprightly manner– something lighter, franker, more natural, as it were–she really must exclude me from privileges intended only for contented, happy, little children.”

“What does Bessie say I have done?” I asked.

“Jane, I don’t like cavillers or questioners; besides, there is something truly forbidding in a child taking up her elders in that manner. Be seated somewhere; and until you can speak pleasantly, remain silent.”

A breakfast-room adjoined the drawing-room, I slipped in there.  It contained a bookcase: I soon possessed myself of a volume, taking care that it should be one stored with pictures.  I mounted into the window-seat: gathering up my feet, I sat cross-legged, like a Turk; and, having drawn the red moreen curtain nearly close, I was shrined in double retirement.

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte


Extract 2

The night Kate Harker decided to burn down the school chapel, she wasn’t angry or drunk. She was desperate.

Burning down the church was really a last resort; she’d already broken a girl’s nose, smoked in the dormitories, cheated on her first exam, and verbally harassed three of the nuns. But no matter what she did, St. Agnes Academy kept forgiving her. That was the problem with Catholic schools. They saw her as someone to be saved.

But Kate didn’t need salvation. She simply needed out.

It was almost midnight when her shoes hit the grass below the dorm window. The witching hour, people used to call it, that dark time when restless spirits reached for freedom. Restless spirits, and teenage girls trapped in boarding schools too far from home.

She made her way down the manicured stone path that ran form the dormitories to the Chapel of the Cross, a bag slung over her shoulder, bottles inside clinking together like spurs in rhythm with her steps. Bells began to chime the hour, soft and low, but they were coming from the larger Chapel of the Saints on the other side of the campus. That one was never fully attended – Mother Alice, the school’s headmistress-nun-whatever, slept in a room off the chapel, and even if Kate had wanted to burn down that particular building, she wasn’t stupid enough to add murder to arson. Not when the price for violence was so steep.

This Savage Song – Victoria Schwab 2016


First responses:

What are the similarities and differences between the two openings? If you wanted to scaffold some of the ideas, then you could offer some statements or phrases. I quite like using what I call ‘provocative statements’ and these are really effective in a Socratic talk activity (see here). The provocative statements allow some flexibility (some of them might apply to both), but also are useful in that they do not give everything away – they encourage thinking at a higher level.

Themes – which extract matches which theme? Find the evidence. 

  • Rebellion
  • Confinement
  • Isolation
  • Battle against authority
  • Outsiders

Style and narrative voice

  • This one uses more short sentences for dramatic impact.
  • Adjectives are used in this extract to build feeling of gloom and despondency
  • There is a degree of cynicism in the narrative voice
  • The use of a list reinforces the sensory impact
  • The use of a list contributes to the strong depiction of character
  • The setting contributes greatly to the impact of the narrative
  • This one seems more old-fashioned (give them the extracts without the dates and titles)


  • This extract has a quicker pace
  • Flashbacks are used to condense narrative information
  • The short sentence acts as a summary of the character’s motivation.
  • The focus shifts in this extract highlight the contrasts between the characters
  • The focus shifts in this extract draw attention to internal feelings and external information
  • The final paragraph shifts focus to the main character


  • It is harder to like the main character in this extract
  • We are made to feel sympathetic to this character
  • The character in this passage is more active


Another way of exploring this in class would be to just go with students’ ideas: get them to write each idea down on a post-it note, for example. Then use this chart to get students to categorise their ideas (or get them to come up with their own categories)

  • Style: syntax, diction, figures of rhetoric, register, tone, POV, structure
  • Context: themes, representation, ideas, author, genre
  • Content: narrative, characters, setting, events etc

Once they’ve come up with some ideas, put some big poster paper on the desks – Venn diagrams are great because they allow for the usual overlaps – always useful!


Screen Shot 2018-03-04 at 20.27.45


Some things to say about Jane Eyre:

Style: syntax, diction, figures of rhetoric, register, tone, POV, structure

Students might identify the longer, more complex sentences; repetition of degree adverb ‘so’ to intensify the sombre atmosphere; the archaic anastrophe (‘dreadful to me’). They might comment on the sense of place created by the lexical field of the weather and nature, a sense modified by the adjectives which build up a semantic field of gloom.

The whole story is told in retrospect by a first person narrator. The story begins with Jane as a child which reflects its autobiographical style. However, there is a sense of immediacy in its first sentence: ‘There was no possibility of taking a walk that day’; the reference to ‘that day’ foregrounds its temporal importance and suggests it is a pivotal moment in the narrative.

The structural shifts are also interesting: it begins with a description of the weather (a pathetic fallacy as the ‘sombre’ description at first matches Jane’s mood). The description of the weather gives way to the description of Jane’s reflections on the repercussion of taking a walk. The shift from ‘we’ in the first paragraph to “I” in the second exemplifies Jane’s feeling of isolation – notice how the sentence structure isolates her from the Reeds who are placed at the end of the sentence. The third paragraph shifts focus once more to the Reeds and again the physical divide is reinforced this time by their position in the room – the children are ‘clustered round their mama’, whilst Jane, later on in the passage, is separated not merely by being in a different part of the house but also by the curtain she draws across her. The clauses and sentences in the final paragraph begin mostly with the active voice – the ‘I’ alongside the active verbs – ‘slipped’, possessed’, ‘mounted’, ‘gathering’ and so on draw attention to Jane’s conscious self-removal from the Reeds. The strong visual image of Jane sitting ‘cross-legged, like a Turk’ also point up her ‘otherness’. The phrase at the end of the passage, ‘’shrined in double retirement’ reiterates her ‘double’ removal from a world to which she clearly does not belong.

Context: themes, representation, ideas, author, genre

The genre is a bildungsroman – following the development of a character over a long period of time. This was a popular genre in Victorian literature – think David Copperfield and Great Expectations, for example. The bildungsroman describes an opening up of horizons and aspirations to its protagonists and this is reflected in the way Jane appears confined in this opening passage. (Although some critics argue that bildungsromane with female protagonists are not afforded the same prospects as their male relations: ‘Reader, I married him’ could be criticised as another form of confinement – this time in the form of adherence to patriarchal institutions).

Content: narrative, characters, setting, events etc

There are intimations of the typical ‘spoilt Victorian child’ (not The Fall song) in the characters of Eliza, John and Georgiana, whilst Jane fulfils the archetypal outcast, a cuckoo in the nest who needs to live in her imagination to compensate for the misery of her daily life.

The setting, as already mentioned, suggests confinement. The pathetic fallacy of the gloomy weather reflects Jane’s own mood (although her mood is lightened later on in the chapter when she takes an imaginary journey through the world of the book that she is reading). Jane’s little reading niche reinforces her separateness from the others; the stream of verbs that she uses to describe her movement is a contrast from the stasis suggested by their inability to take a walk. The active verbs also foreshadow the mobility she will imagine in the book she reads.

Some things to say about ‘This Savage Song’

Style: syntax, diction, figures of rhetoric, register, tone, POV, structure

As with Jane Eyre, the narrative begins with in medias res although the events are much more dramatic. The second paragraph shifts focus to a flashback to some of Kate’s previous mischiefs, building a picture of a rebellious, dangerous character who appears out of control. The third paragraph, two short sentences, are punchy in their tone but also offer some kind of justification for Kate’s actions and suggest that her arsonous intentions might not be entirely criminal. The sudden shift back to the present tense adds a sense of immediacy, and the active verb ‘hit’ conveys real intent (you might comment on the synecdoche here – ‘her shoes’ does not mean just ‘her shoes’ – it’s her whole body that’s jumped), whilst the reference to ‘witching hour’ introduces a potentially supernatural element, but one that is subverted by the irony at the end of the paragraph which conflates the restless spirits of the afterlife with Kate’s desire to be free. The final paragraph continues to emphasise Kate’s mobility but there is also a focus in on the sensory qualities with the sound of the bottles ‘clinking’ which is a contrast to the sound of the bells chiming described immediately after. The bottles (as we will find out later) are bottles of alcohol which she will use to set the fire, so the writer draws attention to the instruments of violence in the bag to other instruments of ‘violence’ – the bells, themselves metonymic symbols of the church, religion and all that has seemingly held Kate hostage.

The tone in the first paragraph is blunt and immediate and the writer offers no real reasons for Kate’s intentions. In fact there is an insouciance about the writer’s tone – ‘I don’t care what you think about Kate, this is what she is doing so get on with it’. This irreverence seems to echo Kate’s own rebelliousness.

Context: themes, representation, ideas, author, genre

Whilst Victorian literature would have (generalised comment) venerated religious establishments, this modern text is iconoclastic. The literal burning down of the church is a clear affront to /rejection of religion and religious sympathies and might suggest that this is a book about evil. However, as we read on, we are offered some reasons for Kate’s actions and therefore, although the reader is not truly aligned with Kate, we might begin to understand her motives.

Content: narrative, characters, setting, events etc

The descriptions of Kate’s actions in the second paragraph – physical violence, defiances, infringements, all contribute to building a picture of the rebellious teenager, a perennial archetype and one that is reminiscent of Jane Eyre herself. Both are strong female protagonists, both apparently outsiders, both looked after and in a sense institutionalised. There is a feeling of isolation in both; perhaps even an element of intertextuality – Schwab might even be alluding to Jane Eyre with both characters awaiting salvation from the increasingly oppressive effects of a patriarchal institution.

And finally…

Of course, this list of elements to draw out of these two text is not exhaustive, but gives you an idea of the rich vein of ideas inherent in both texts. The activity is good practice for several elements of the GCSE English Language exams (and Literature of course). Structure especially figures heavily in some of the analyses I’ve included. But there is also the chance to practice comparative skills – what about the viewpoints in each text? Why is it more difficult to obtain a ‘viewpoint’ in Schwab’s story? So how can we glean the writer’s viewpoint? (Yes, I know that’s in paper 2 non-fiction, but skills is skills, so stop pigeonholing them and confining students to the penitentiary of paper specific practice).

Contemporary young adult fiction is alive with ideas (see here for a great website which can do young adult fiction more justice than I can). Do two things at once – open your students’ eyes to the study of great contemporary literature which might (just might) get them reading it as well!



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