Understanding the context of a novel using historical newspapers

There is so much that students can learn from historical newspapers. From how novels were received at the time, eyewitness accounts and news stories of political, economic, and social issues of the time. It is these stories that are so crucial to a student’s success at A-Level.

Part of the Assessment objectives for A-level and AS level English Literature qualifications is the ability to understand the context and its significance when studying a novel.

AQA and Edexcel define the aim as ‘demonstrate understanding of the significance and influence of the contexts in which literary texts are written and received’ and OCR states that students must be able to ‘develop understanding of relationships between texts and of the significance of cultural and contextual influences on readers and writers.’

Newspaper archives are a vital tool for students taking on the challenge of exploring a novel’s context.

Using newspaper archives students can discover how the novel they are studying was received in its time. Many books that are now considered classics were less than favourably reviewed by some critics when they were published.

Reasons for this vary from the individual opinions of the critic to the political leaning of the newspaper the review was published. Students are able to witness different opinions and feelings held by people of the time and understand and explore bias and the reasons for it.

How can bias be explored further?

The political, social, and economic environment of the time the novel was written, set and published may have (and quite probably) had a considerable influence on both the novel and its subsequent reviews.

Historical newspapers allow students to read history as it was written and follow the news of the time over days, weeks or years as the stories were being reported. This can help them develop their understanding of the messages that the author is trying to deliver through the plot, characterisation, symbolism, and themes in the novel.

The writer’s life

Something may have happened during the writer’s life to influence their writing, such as a legal case they were particularly close to, an event in their home town, political policies that personally affected their family members or themselves.

Using historical newspapers students may be able to find out information that isn’t in (or contradicts) their textbooks or guides meaning students challenge their own views and

Literary trends

There may also have been developments in the novel’s genre at the time the author was writing. Was it in fashion to use long complex sentences, or to use particular motifs or themes?

Students may be able to find out more about the reasons behind a novel’s structure or use of language in historical newspapers, from reported conferences, meetings of authors or opinion pieces.

Newspapers engage students’ curiosity, open up topics for discussion and develop a student’s understanding of the context of a novel whilst developing critical thinking and research skills that are so essential for higher education.

Take a look at our full case study on To Kill a Mockingbird for a detailed look at how students could use historical newspapers to explore the political and social environment that influenced Harper Lee.

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