I can recall a few works that I resented having to read at school, or that at the very least I said goodbye to with complete indifference, but on the whole I was lucky with the things I was made to read at O-level, and with those I half-chose to read by taking A-level English. So I can ask with good reason what the Associated Examining Board thought it was doing when it chose Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water as a set text — presumably working on some undigested Romantic assumption that Nature is morally uplifting — but generally speaking I’ve no cause for complaints.
The text I was made to read at sixth-form college that had no connection to our syllabus was the ‘Time Passes’ section of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Our class usually studied two texts in parallel with two different teachers, Miranda O’Connell and Joan Clark, but at some point in the spring of the second year, Mrs Clark suffered a slipped disc and had a week or so away. In the first instance the college drafted in a teacher from the Henley Technical College, who I think was called Sally Benjafield, and so we found ourselves doing a practical criticism exercise on ‘Time Passes’. Opinions were divided: I found it strange but haunting, and couldn’t put my finger on why it sounded like poetry; Dan P., who regularly sat next to me, and who was refreshingly free of illusions, declared it to be ‘pretentious’.
Whether this was the first time I’d ever heard of Woolf I can’t be sure. Colin Gregg’s adaptation of To the Lighthouse had first broadcast on the BBC in March 1983, and was given front-cover treatment in the Radio Times, but I didn’t watch it then; we saw it on videotape some time at sixth form: possibly as a follow-up to the close-reading class on ‘Times Passes’, but possibly as a quite separate extra. And although this was the first time I’d read Woolf, and although I remembering being intrigued by it, I didn’t immediately rush out and get hold of To the Lighthouse. In part because I was busy preparing for A-levels, and busy preparing for that summer’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and in part too because presenting ‘Time Passes’ without any narrative context might make for a good practical criticism exercise, but it doesn’t make for the best introduction to Woolf.