The French may have a reputation for making the best wine. The Italians and the Dutch may have been renowned for centuries as the world’s finest artists. Germany may have produced some of history’s greatest composers. But when it comes to words, no-one does it quite like the English. When Johannes Gutenberg invented his printing press in around 1440 he cleared the pathway for an explosion in the phenomenon that would become English literature. But with thousands of books that can deservedly be referred to as ‘classics’, and more ‘modern classics’ rising through the ranks each year, it can be hard to know where to start and even harder to work out how they all fit together.
What follows is my personal list of ten – just ten – works of literature
which together cover the entire span of English literature from some time around the eight century through to the early twentieth century. It is my opinion that if you can read these ten books and a little of their accompanying background then you will be well on your way to having a solid grasp of the scope and richness of the whole body of English literature.
In compiling this list I am greatly indebted to Peter Conrad’s 1985 work ‘The Everyman History of English Literature.’
Beowulf (author unknown) Pre-Christian culture mingles with Christian faith in Beowulf, which was originally composed in Old English some time between the seventh and tenth centuries. Unless you’re a scholar of Old English you’ll be looking for a translation of this epic poem, which tells the story of the fearless warrior Beowulf and his exploits, including his encounter with the fearsome monster Grendel.
The Canterbury Tales (Geoffrey Chaucer) A group of pilgrims meet on the road and pass the time by telling stories. This is the basic framing device of Chaucer’s lengthy 14th century poem, which portrays a broad cross-section of English society at the time, from knights to millers, from the ladylike Prioress to the earthy Wife of Bath. In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer introduced several poetic metres into English for the first time. His Middle English can be hard going, so look for a paraphrase if you’re finding the original language off-putting.
Romeo and Juliet; Hamlet; A Midsummer Night’s Dream (William Shakespeare) With his gift for capturing the nuances of human experience ‘The Bard’ is arguably the best-known of all writers in the English language, and his plays are the best-known of his works, although he was also a poet. The three plays listed here are among his most famous, but take your pick of any that interest you and you’ll soon be experiencing Shakespeare. Written to be performed in a couple of hours, they can be read in a similar amount of time. Originally composed between 1589 and 1613, the English is archaic but recognisable, especially as you become more familiar with it.
Robinson Crusoe (Daniel Defoe) Written in prose rather than verse, to be read in private rather than performed on stage, and portraying fictional events (very loosely based on the experience of a real sailor, Alexander Selkirk) as though they were real, Robinson Crusoe, first published in 1718, is often hailed as the first English-language novel. The characters are crudely sketched, the Christian moral delivered with heavy-handed emphasis, and some of the details excessively detailed, but this nonetheless remains a gripping adventure.
Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen) ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’ Jane Austen wrote what she knew, the constrained life and limited opportunities of a middle- to upper-class woman in 18th century England. Prevented from inheriting their father’s fortune by patriarchal inheritance laws, the Bennet girls must marry, but their adventures (and misadventures) in their efforts to find husbands frequently go awry due to a combination of pride and, yes, prejudice. Fortunately, this is a very English novel so everything works out satisfactorily, with each character meeting a fate in due measure to their virtue (or lack thereof).
Oliver Twist (Charles Dickens) 19th century England was a place where the middle classes lived in comparative comfort whilst untold masses endured lives of misery and hardship, and Charles Dickens used his novels as a means of bringing the suffering of the poor to the attention of the more fortunate. So successful was he that even today the term ‘Dickensian’ is sometimes applied to institutions which seem hell-bent on making the lives of their inmates a misery. Poor Oliver starts out as one such inmate, born in the workhouse and swiftly falling into the hands of thieves and prostitutes. Only his innate virtue and the kindness of others can rescue him from a dire fate but, again, the English desire for a satisfactory ending wins through – although it should be noted that Victorian morality means that the only ‘satisfactory ending’ for a criminal is death, and preferably a gruesome one.
Middlemarch (George Eliot) The pastoral, middle class Victorian England portrayed by Mary Ann Evans (who wrote under the male pseudonym George Eliot) is a very different place from the grim, impoverished cityscapes of Dickens. Middlemarch is slow to get going, but before you know it you’re indulging in seven hundred pages of juicy small-town gossip. Why on Earth would Dorothea marry Casaubon? What was Lydgate thinking (if he was thinking at all)? What is the pious Bulstrode’s deep, dark secret, and why is he so afraid of the mysterious stranger? How will Eliot pull off the expected English satisfactory ending?
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (James Joyce) Okay, I’ll admit, Joyce is Irish, not English, so this one’s a bit of a cheat, but it’s hard not to cheat when faced with the vivacious flow of Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness writing style, so different from the measured tones of our last few writers. Partly autobiographical, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is the coming-of-age story of young Stephen Dedalus, growing up in progressively more difficult circumstances in late 19th– and early 20th century Dublin. First published in 1916, it portrays a world that was in the process of being changed forever and a particular type of faith in God, and humanity, that was already being tested in the crucible of World War One.
Murder on the Orient Express (Agatha Christie) Officially recognised as the bestselling author of all time, Christie first published Murder on the Orient Express, featuring the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, in 1934. If British detective fiction got its start with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes in the late 19th century, then the early 20th century was its heyday. Christie’s murders, like those of her contemporary Dorothy Sayers, are far from the gruesome, blood-soaked spectacles that grace our television screens today. Instead, they are elegant intellectual puzzles, and Poirot is an elegant intellectual whose only computer is his famed ‘little grey cells’. If you don’t already know how this one ends, for heaven’s sake read it before someone dumps a spoiler on you.
The Hobbit (J. R. R. Tolkien) First published in 1937, The Hobbit re-imagines ancient European mythology and medieval quest (Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon and English Language and Literature) to create one of the first modern fantasy novels. A prequel to the much longer Lord of the Rings trilogy it can be enjoyed by older children as well as adults and has recently been adapted into a series of movies by New Zealand’s own Sir Peter Jackson. It’s hard not to identify with the very ordinary, rather timid and sometimes-bumbling Bilbo Baggins as, with the help of the wizard Gandalf, he stumbles through high adventure with an intrepid band of dwarves, facing trolls, elves, dragons, and a horrible giant spider along the way, in order to achieve at last a satisfactory ending.
What about you? If you had to recommend just one classic read, what would it be and why?