A brief history of English literature
This study guide is intended for GCE Advanced and Advanced Supplementary (A2 and AS) level students in the UK, who are taking exams or modules in English literature. It should be most useful right at the start of the course, or later as a resource for exercises in revision, and to help you reflect on value judgements in literary criticism. It may also be suitable for university students and the general reader who is interested in the history of literature. This guide reflects a view of literature which is sometimes described as canonical, and sometimes as a Dead White European Male view. That is, I have not especially sought to express my own value judgements but to reflect those which are commonly found in printed guides by judges whose views command more respect than mine. I hope that students who visit this page will take issue with the summary comments here, or discuss them with their peers. But young readers will not thank teachers for leaving them in the dark about established critical opinion or the canon of English literature. (If you doubt that there is a canon, look at the degree course structure for English literature in a selection of our most prestigious universities.) Students who recognize that they have little or no sense of English literary culture have often asked me to suggest texts for them to study - this guide may help them in this process. This is NOT a tutorial, in the sense of a close reading of any text. And it is not very interesting to read from start to finish. I hope, rather, that it will be used as a point of reference or way in to literature for beginners. You will soon see if it is not for you. Back to top
And while I have made a selection from the many authors who deserve study, I have throughout presented them in a chronogical sequence. At the end I consider briefly questions of genre and literary value. I have not attempted to record the achivements of writers in other languages, though these include some of the greatest and most influential writers of all time, such as Dante Alighieri, Leo Tolstoy, Franz Kafka and Bertolt Brecht. Happily, examiners of Advanced level literature have allowed students, in recent years, to study these foreign authors, in translation, in independent extended literary studies. Please use the hyperlinks in the table above to navigate this page. If you have any comments or suggestions to make about this page, please e-mail me by clicking on this link. The typographic conventions of this page are red for emphasis and the names of authors when first mentioned, and when they appear outside of the section which relates to their historic period. Brown type is used in place of italic for titles of works. The screen fonts display in such a way that neither true italic nor bold are very pleasant to read. If you find the text size too small, you can increase it, using the text size item in the view menu of your browser. Back to top
Literary forms such as the novel or lyric poem, or genres, such as the horror-story, have a history. In one sense, they appear because they have not been thought of before, but they also appear, or become popular for other cultural reasons, such as the absence or emergence of literacy. In studying the history of literature (or any kind of art), you are challenged to consider what constitutes a given form,
how it has developed, and
whether it has a future.
The novels of the late Catherine Cookson may have much in common with those of Charlotte Brontë, but is it worth mimicking in the late 20th century, what was ground-breaking in the 1840s? While Brontë examines what is contemporary for her, Miss Cookson invents an imagined past which may be of interest to the cultural historian in studying the present sources of her nostalgia, but not to the student of the period in which her novels are set. Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe is a long work of prose fiction, but critics do not...
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