A year of opportunity for classic literature

By Helen Trayler, Managing Director, Wordsworth Editions

This is a banner year for literature. Obviously, for us, every year is a banner year for literature. Literature is what we do. But this year, with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and the beginning of the Brontë 200 celebrations, the media spotlight is being shone more brightly than ever on the classics.

The opportunity is there for all of us, in publishing, in retail, in schools and in the media, to highlight not just the quality of our heritage but also its ongoing worth in the modern world.

To back up the ‘relevance’ argument, there has also been an abundance of literary adaptations and references on TV and the big screen that have struck a populist chord. Last year’s War and Peace was a ratings triumph for the BBC, Dickensian found a new way of tapping into the world of one of our greatest ever story-tellers (he would surely have started, like Dickensian writer Tony Jordan did, on the staff at Eastenders had he emerged today) whilst the one-off ‘old-school’ Sherlock episode The Abominable Bride was one of the most acclaimed shows over Christmas.

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The classics have also permeated the news agenda. Much was made of Mr Darcy’s shirt (as worn by Colin Firth in the revered 1995 TV adaptation of Pride and Prejudice) being flown out to the US to go on display at the Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen and the Cult of Celebrity exhibition in Washington. Whilst, slightly more seriously, the British library’s highlighting of the last surviving scrap of handwritten Shakespeare script (from the play ‘Thomas Moore’ by contemporary Anthony Munday, with contributions from the bard and others) on its Discovering Literature website drew plenty of comment on its relevance to the current refugee crisis.

Later in the year, Shakespeare will be seen in a very different light, played by David Mitchell in a six-part comedy series, The Upstart Crow, written by Ben Elton (we can only pray it’s more Blackadder than The Wright Way).

Serious or frivolous, educational or entertaining, sometimes all at the same time, the classics have rarely been so centre stage. And for us, that marks a wonderful opportunity, especially when underpinned by sensible government policy and joined-up thinking.

A nod to more grassroots activity came late last year, with schools minister Nick Gibb calling for publishers such as ourselves to make classic books available to schools at reduced prices. Happy to help! In fact, Wordsworth already provides the widest range of classics at the lowest prices, but we still responded by cutting the cost for all our titles to just £1.50 for the education sector.

We also, however, believe that gestures such as this, significant as they are, need to be buttressed by investment in school and public libraries, currently under threat from councils up and down the UK, as councils themselves are strangled by cuts from central government.

In times of austerity, arts slips down the agenda. But the importance of books, of reading and our unrivalled legacy of treasures cannot be overstated.

Anniversaries, TV shows, movies, documentaries and even little old publishers with good intentions and limited funds can draw people’s attention to the wealth of truly classic literature available in individual slices for less than a cup of coffee, but it takes a co-ordinated and sustained effort, based on nothing more or less than a belief in the inherent worth, to individuals, to society and, especially, to children and young people, of great books and of the power of reading.

For more information, visit www.wordsworth-editions.com