‘A’ Level: Love through the Ages

Reading for Meaning, Love through the Ages (Unit 3)
Guidelines on how to tackle this exam: with specific reference to the AQA June 2012 paper: Text C ‘The Rector’s Daughter’ by Flora Macdonald Mayor and Text D Byron’s poem ‘When We Two Parted’.  Both are reproduced at the bottom of the page.


You have: 2 hours 30 minutes total.

For each question: Spend around 30 minutes reading, underlining, writing occasional one word annotations, thinking and planning.  This is essential.  It enables quality introductions, clear development and coherent writing’

In the preparation stage, you are aiming to find the most effective aspects of both language and structure use.

In the planning stage, you move on to identify some key comparisons/contasts which become ‘overviews’; see ‘First paragraph’, below, for more on this.

You are now left with 45 minutes writing time.  This is more than enough.  Quality of understanding and depth of analysis are better than mere quantity.

The Question: Here is Question 2 from the June 2012 paper:

Read the two extracts (Item C and Item D) carefully, bearing in mind that they were written at different times by different writers and are open to different interpretations.

 Write a comparison of the ways in which the separation of lovers and its consequences are presented in these two extracts.

 In your answer you should consider the ways in which Mayor (in Item C) and Byron (in Item D) use form, structure and language to present their thoughts and ideas. You should make relevant references to your wider reading, ensuring that you include references to both poetry and prose.

More Important Advice:

  • In your essay’s first paragraph, you must directly address the question by briefly comparing the items and offering some overview.
  • A comparative approach should be adopted throughout; this will also help development of argument.
  • Be evaluative: i.e. address ‘relatives’ e..g. you might say, ”When we see her wallowing in her melodramatic repeated despair that a house without children ‘has nothing, is nothing’, we feel that perhaps her father was right to ‘fear a scene’ even though the omniscient author claims that she has ‘grown out of that stage’.
  • Always link your analysis, wider reading and context to how the authors create meaning.  Always think ‘So what?‘ e.g.: so what if it’s a metaphor?; so what if women were expected to look after their parents?; so what if the poet does not answer his own question ‘why wert thou so dear?’

First paragraph Overview:

This your opportunity to orientate your reader to the essay’s structure.  Your 30 minute prepration will have led you to identify some key similarities and differences between the texts.  Just as in GCSE work, you need to have key points: two,or three should be enough – perhaps four!  In this particular question, you might have these points:

Loss is expressed in terms of death;

Feelings about the end of a relationship are not shared;

Feelings are explored, in light of the past.

Both describe helpless loss – or one does and the other doesn’t (my view of the Byron poem).

The Second and subsequent paragraphs

Once you have started a section with a clear area of discussion, move on to your analysis of language and structure.  Do not separate work on language from structure.

Do not separate context and wider reading into their own paragraphs.  This ruins the natural development of your argument.  Instead, bring them in as and when they are relevant to your analysis; use them to deepen your understanding of meaning.  (The ‘So what?’ question.)

The conclusion:

Do not simply repeat what you have already written.  This is your opportunity to be evaluative and explain what you have realised by doing the essay.  The conclusion should be the culmination of your personal response.  You can even use ‘I’ in this last paragraph (but nowhere else!)

ALWAYS Deal with tone

You cannot identify meaning without considering tone: is the writer being ironic, satirical, bitter, reserved etc etc.?  For instance, in the Byron poem, you might think that the persona is bereft and that he has been (and will continue to be) grieving for his lost love.  Alternatively, there is just cause for thinking that he is seething with anger: he is mortified for having had a relationship with someone so unworthy: she has ‘light’ fame; he is bemused as to why she ‘wert so dear’; and he does not grieve for his loss but grieves that she could forget him!  Which is it?  It depends on how you read the tone!

Wider Reading:

The main purpose of the wider reading is to make links which elucidate the unseens.  Select them carefully for aptness.

You must know some textual detail so that you can be flexible and precise when choosing references and quotations; use specific detail/aspect of the unseen to bring in your wider reading, which itself should be specific.  Briefly give some explanation to make the reference understandable; actively compare or contrast the wider reading with the unseens; you might even start a paragraph with a wider reading example.

In this essay, you could raise Jane’s reactions/feelings on learning that Rochester is already married (Jane Eyre) and/or the effects of Catherine’s death on Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights).   Keats’s ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ and ‘Quiet House’ by Charlotte Mew are excellent comparative poems for the Byron.


Refer to context in a way that arises from your exploration of textual detail: in other words wait for an opportunity to bring it in.  For instance, in Mayor’s Text C, when you are writing about the ‘baseless hopes’ of having children, you might raise the context of the First World War having killed so many men that a large number of young women became spinsters; this context makes the daughter’s loss of a future husband all the more significant and devastating.    When the chance arises elsewhere in the essay, you might also consider the reticence and repression of women, or the Victorian sensibility that places duty to parents above one’s own happiness.  With regard to Byron, you might comment that the Romantics valued spontaneous feeling over reason and that this is (in my view anyway) an ironic take because the feeling is one of detestation.

Always note the effect of the context on our reception of the text.  (Again, this is the ‘So what?’ factor!)

The issue of context appears in the question rubric as ‘written at different times’.   You have to know a bit about social, cutural and historical elements in key periods, such as The Age of Reason, the Victorian era, Shakespearean times etc.


Item C

‘The Rector’s Daughter’ by Flora Macdonald Mayor was published in 1924. It tells the story of Mary Jocelyn, who is the daughter of the rector of Dedmayne, Canon Jocelyn. After many years of loneliness and selfless devotion to her father, Mary thinks that she has found love in a relationship with her father’s friend, Mr. Robert Herbert. Mary’s friend, Dora, encourages her hopes of marriage. Mr. Herbert, however, meets another woman and they become engaged.

Life passed as usual at Dedmayne. Canon Jocelyn was writing his sermon for the Cathedral, so that he was rather particularly immersed in his own thoughts. One evening at dinner Mary sat without saying a word. To-night she felt that if she spoke she would rail. “And he would not care if I railed or if I were dead.”

After dinner she did not go as usual into the drawing-room. She rushed to the nursery. A large yellow moon was shining in. She could see the furniture quite well: the children’s little chairs, nurse’s low chair, the dolls’-house, and her dear rocking-horse—all looking like ghosts. It seemed a room of the dead. She remembered her last visit there, full of baseless hopes that the room might be itself again. Now it and all it contained were in their graves for ever. “And Mother is dead,” she thought, “and Ruth, and old nurse, and the children that used to play here are more dead than the real dead—the boys are quite lost to me, and Father, the father who used to carry me on his shoulder, is deadest of all, for he never, never shows what he used to be.” She cried out: “I am thirty-six, and I may go on fifty years. I take after father’s family; they all drag on to ninety.”

“If there were children,” she thought, “they would make everything happy, including the grown-up people. But a house without children has nothing, and is nothing, and the grown-up people in it are dead, even if they have to wait fifty years to be buried.”

She sat on till she heard the bell ring for prayers.

But her father was not as indifferent as she thought.

After prayers, when he was bidding good-night, he laid his hand on her shoulder and said, “I think we are letting ourselves get too silent. I have been missing your laugh at dinner. Shall we ask Dora to come and cheer us up? No one knows better than I do that I am a dull companion for a young thing like you. She who made it bright for us all is gone.”

She kissed him, hoping that the tears which rushed to her eyes would not fall on his cheek. She could tell him nothing. She had been having toothache, she said. “That has made me stupid. But I will ask Dora. Thank you for suggesting it.” She felt he would think her cold and ungrateful, but for once he understood her. He had observed the growing attachment of his daughter and Mr. Herbert. In old age’s procrastinating way—for old age often thinks there is immeasurable time for important things though hurry for trifles—he had contemplated a possible engagement at some distant date. He grieved for her, but doing as he would be done by, he let fall no word of sympathy. He had some fear of a scene. He remembered her as a schoolgirl, effusive and given to repentant outbursts. After the disastrous fashion of his generation, he would not trouble himself to see that time had passed, and she had grown out of that stage years ago.

She walked to the door. Then she felt she must not miss the chance. She turned back and said, “I don’t mind loneliness, I shouldn’t mind anything if I thought you cared.”

If he had repelled her she would not have been heart-broken, but she could not have helped despising him. At last he let his real feeling out. He said, stammering with the unusual effort, “I do care—I care very much.”

She wanted no more. She said, “Do you, Father? Thank you,” and went upstairs.


Item D

The following poem was written by Lord Byron (1788 – 1824)

When we two parted
In silence and tears,
Half broken-hearted
To sever for years,
Pale grew thy cheek and cold,
Colder thy kiss;
Truly that hour foretold
Sorrow to this.

The dew of the morning
Sank chill on my brow–
It felt like the warning
Of what I feel now.
Thy vows are all broken,
And light is thy fame;
I hear thy name spoken,
And share in its shame.

They name thee before me,
A knell in mine ear;
A shudder come o’er me–
Why wert thou so dear?
They know not I knew thee,
Who knew thee too well–
Long, long shall I rue thee,
Too deeply to tell.

In secret we met–
In silence I grieve,
That thy heart could forget,
Thy spirit deceive.
If I should meet thee
After long years,
How should I greet thee?–
With silence and tears.


Further Reading

Clich here for Patrick Gillespie’s very interesting analysis of Byron’s use of metre and its implications.

Click here for the full version of Charlotte Mew’s ‘Quiet House’.  I have included this link because a short extract of the poem appears as if it were the whole poem, on google search.

Click here for Keat’s poem ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’


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One thought on “‘A’ Level: Love through the Ages

  1. I am very pleased to have heard from Patrick Gillespie who shows considerable insight in the reading of this poem and yet who, by his own account, was a hopeless student! He writes to give hope to all of us poor strugglers:

    Hi, just noticed your link to my blog.

    I just wanted to say that I went to Cranleigh School whilst spending a year in England. I also spent the first two years of my life in London. But more to the point, I did terribly on my A levels and Shakespeare was a complete mystery to me. I just didn’t get Shakespeare and, to be honest, poetry in general. No one had ever really explained poetry to me.

    I was also a terrible essayist. And now look— I’m getting links to my blog from an A Level tutor.

    It just goes to show. Feel free to mention my story to any of your A-Level students. Even if you screw up your A-levels and show no academic promise whatsoever, it’s not a terminal illness. Recovery is possible. 😊

    And I’m a huge Dr. Who fan.



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