Saturday, August 15, 2020

William Wells Brown extract on our VLE

One of the great things about running a VLE like ours is that we aren’t restricted, as the GCSE English curriculum is, to UK authors. That means that the wealth of literature (both fiction and non-fiction) written in the English language by those who were not born in the UK (or there naturalized) can be used.

One author that we can now add to our list is William Wells Brown. You can see a short biography of him in the graphic above. This is just a snapshot of his life – but this man was remarkable. As well as making a living as a writer – hard enough under any circumstances – he overcame huge obstacles in order to realise his potential.  Plus his novel Clotelle has many elements that make it perfect for those studying GCSE English.  I have chosen an amazing extract for inclusion and will be using it in the Paper 1 Question 3 section - that's the one about how writers structure their texts.

Most of us, fortunately, cannot imagine being born into a life of slavery as Wells Brown was. Yet added to this there was betrayal. His father, George W Higgins was the cousin of his owner – a Dr John Young of Kentucky. Higgins acknowledged Wells Brown as his son and exacted a promise from Dr Young that he would never sell William. However, Young broke his promise and William Wells Brown was sold several times before his eventual escape.

Ironically, Higgins was a descendant of Stephen Hopkins, a passenger on the Mayflower, the English ship that transported the first English Puritans, known today as the Pilgrims, from England to the New World in 1620. Yet this new world of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness did not apply to Wells Brown despite his descent on his father’s side to the first pilgrims.

When he came to the UK, he decided that he would not return to America as laws had been passed (the Fugitive Slave laws) meaning that if he returned it could easily have been returned to his ‘owner’. While in London he published his first novel and famously confronted visiting American slave holders in the grounds of the Crystal Palace. That must have been an electric incident to watch. He became a very popular travel writer, visiting many European capitals and lecturing on abolition throughout his journeys. Yet once he was able to purchase his own freedom he could return and continued to publish many different works up to his death at the age of 70.

I think his life would make a riveting film, filled as it was with so much drama showing how one person can overcome such enormous obstacles to become hugely successful on his own terms.

I have chosen quite a dramatic extract from his novel Clotelle for inclusion on the VLE. However, it is full of drama – each chapter (always short and concise) has something which makes it almost impossible to put down. I certainly had to read it all and while it is certainly not short of what we now call melodrama and is very much of its time because of that, it is all the more insightful because of Wells Brown’s first-hand experience of so much that happens in the novel. As has been the case with so many of the authors I have “discovered” in my search for texts to use on the VLE, I found I had to read it all. It may not be the quickest way to set up an online course, but it is one that has broadened my knowledge of authors I had hitherto been unaware of – not to mention those I have revisited. However, I have been able to engage in one of my favourite pass times (finding new authors and reading them!) so for me it’s a win-win!

You can find Clotelle on Project Gutenberg. I believe that this is an important text not only if you wish to learn more about American history of this period but also if you believe, as I do, that fiction can help change the world.

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