What makes good writing? Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

Reading Time: 4 minutes In this series, I look at just a few sentences to get under the nuts and bolts of writing.

This post, it’s Frances Hardinge’s Skinful of Shadows*, which I’ve just finished.

When a creature dies, its spirit can go looking for somewhere to hide. Some people have space inside them, perfect for hiding. Makepeace, a courageous girl with a mysterious past, defends herself nightly from the ghosts which try to possess her. Then a dreadful event causes her to drop her guard for a moment. And now there’s a ghost inside her. The spirit is wild, brutish and strong, but it may be her only defence in a time of dark suspicion and fear. As the English Civil War erupts, Makepeace must decide which is worse: possession – or death.

Identity and belonging: the importance of names in The Handmaid’s Tale

Reading Time: 10 minutes   If you’re studying this text for A-Level, you can pretty much write about the significance of names for any topic – gender, class, rebellion, politics, personal identity, relationships – even the use of humour can get a good paragraph on the politics of naming. Names are one of the main ways we signify our identities to other. In The Handmaid’s Tale, like so much other dystopian fiction, characters lose, change or adapt their names as they’re subjugated to the will of others or trying to represent themselves in different ways. Places are renamed too, to fit the new regime …

Compare how poets present romantic relationships in ‘Love’s Philosophy’ and ‘Sonnet 29’

Reading Time: 5 minutes   Percy Shelley uses traditionally Romantic natural imagery to conjure an impression of a world coupled up, blissful in its togetherness, with the final persuasive implication that, therefore, the listener should also want to be a part of this happy pairing. Barrett-Browning’s poem is less happy, more questioning of her lover and determined to convince them that she is always thinking of them, as though answering an unheard accusation of forgetfulness. Shelley’s natural imagery creates a progressive sense of coming together. Verbs like “mingle”, “mix”, “kiss” and “clasp” are all sweet, gentle, even elegant, creating an impression of a caring …

Alan Bennett’s “The History Boys” – the importance of literature

Reading Time: 8 minutes Below is a pretty lengthy post, of an essay I wrote to discuss writing style with my Y11s in the run-up to their Christmas mocks.

“Literature is medicine, wisdom, elastoplast, everything”. How does Bennett presents the importance of the literature in the play?

Bennett’s conflicted representation of literature is perhaps startling coming from a man who is, after all, an accomplished and acclaimed writer. Hector’s viewpoint of literature as salvation, comfort, the ultimate distinguisher of humanity, is, after all, the way that writers would, we assume, like to view themselves: creating something of value within the world. However, by the end of the play a very different perspective emerges. Literature (with a capital ‘L’, as ascribed to works of canonical quality) and ‘popular culture’ become indistinguishable as Hector teaches the “tosh” of Gracie Fields and Brief Encounter alongside Larkin, Housman and Shakespeare. For the boys, literature loses its significance, echoing the ways in which the boys grow up and lose some of their admiration for the adults in their lives. The tragedy of Posner is the crucial answer to this question: he is searching for meaning, solace and comfort, and while he has all of the quotations from Hector he has none of the guidance he needs. Although as a writer, Bennett – like many others – might like to think his work has longevity and speaks to our humanity, he is also ruefully aware that for many, echoes of the past fall short.

If you’re studying The History Boys, I’ve also written a five-star revision guide that’s available for just £3!

Flowers and fancies in Shakespeare

Reading Time: 9 minutes We all know if we ask for symbols of love, the rose is high up the list. Floriography – studying the meaning of flowers – has more or less dropped out of English custom. We might occasionally hear that lilies are better for funerals, but most of us don’t attach much symbolic meaning when our loved ones show up with a bouquet. Pre-twentieth century though it’s a different story. Victorians wrote whole handbooks on the meanings of flowers and dedicated time to deciphering the hidden messages of a buttonhole. Flowers in paintings back to the medieval period were also loaded …