Star Turn

June 11, 1999

Melody Mellor meets a man who makes his adult students relive the sex and class warfare waged by 19th-century novelists.

"It's a terminal condition, masculinity, and there's usually no cure," said Luke Spencer, prompting laughter and agreement from the 12 continuing education students around the table of the pot pourri-scented and book-lined meeting room of the Bront Society in Haworth.

Spencer had been leading a discussion on class and gender relations in the 1840s, their impact on the novelists, and novelists' contribution to contemporary debates. He was outlining damaging masculine stereotypes - the violent, alcoholic Arthur Huntingdon in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and the misogynist Mr Dombey in Dombey and Son - but for a moment everyone chose to dwell on the contemporary relevance of Spencer's comment. It was more fun, especially as the men present were outnumbered. But Spencer skilfully led the discussion back to his main theme, "From class war to sex war in mid-19th century fiction".

Spencer had already "deconstructed" this and told us that the title of the morning's session was "Continuity and convergence in representations of class and gender conflict" in relation to a selection of mid-19th century novels. The students clearly relished the opportunity to study these works and discussed ideas and examples from the texts eagerly and with insight.

The seminar was part of "The Bront s In Context", a 20-credit module developed and delivered in partnership between the School of Continuing Education of the University of Leeds and the Bront Society. One of two modules run in alternate years, it is delivered during four weekends in Haworth.

Afterwards, over a "Cottage Pie Rochester" and a "Steak Sandwich Heathcliff" in a local pub, Spencer confirmed that the interest and enthusiasm continuing education students bring to the course was one of its most satisfying aspects. "They come from a wide range of backgrounds," he said, "Some have missed out on formal education. Some are graduates, or are retired or in late middle age, and take the course out of pure interest. Others are members of the Bront Society. The really good thing is that no one dominates the discussion."

Spencer can take much of the credit for encouraging these contributions. After 35 years at Leeds, he is retiring this summer but will continue to teach part-time.

Back in the meeting room, students were reminded that "in exposing the wrongs heaped upon the lower classes, novelists trod carefully for fear of appearing to encourage revolutionary ideas and thus alienating the predominantly middle-class audience".

Moving on, Spencer encouraged his students to visualise the "incendiary nature" of relations between men and women of different classes. "It would be interesting to consider how often in the 19th-century novel - and in some 20th-century ones - men have to be physically incapacitated for women to assert themselves." This statement drew another roar of approval.

After completing both modules, some students will take a further module at Leeds, leading to a certificate in Bront studies. Spencer is helping develop a distance-learning course; and over half of the weekend's students gladly accepted the invitation to "road test" part of it.

Even those who will not continue studies are clear about the benefits. "It's an opportunity to catch up on the things I missed out on when I was younger," said one. "But I wish I'd had teachers like this at school."

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