Dictionaries often define “English literature” simply as literature written in the English language.
From ancient civilizations to the modern era, works of literature have given us insight into the issues and trends prevailing at that time. Literature also provides escape from the ‘grim realities’ of life. The higher type of literature helps the reader to escape from trivial reality into significant reality.
Related: Oldest story in the world
Who is the king of English literature?
Poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616). Generations of readers regard him as the greatest writer in the English language and one of the world’s greatest dramatists.
Who wrote the first English novel?
Author Ian Watt, and many others for that matter, credit Daniel Defoe as being the author of the first English novel. Watt credits him for The first novel, published in 1719 (Lee).
A Brief History of English Literature
The history of English Literature starts with the Germanic tradition of Anglo-Saxon settlers. The traditions were around 5th to 11th century AD. The first long narrative poems in the history of English Literature were Beowulf and Widsith. These two were highly narrative poems of this early period of the history of English Literature. Linguists consider Beowulf the first English Epic poem. Some of the other famous works from the Old English Literature include: Genesis, Exodus, The Wanderer, Wife’s lament, Husband’s message, and The battle of Maldon. Earlier, to understand the temperament of readers, writers would make use of alteration rather than a rhyming scheme. Moreover, some of the famous writers of old English literature were Cynewulf and Caedmon.
What are the periods of English Literature?
Old English Literature (c. 450–1066)
Oral tradition was very strong in early English culture and most literary works were written to be performed. Epic poems were very popular, and some, including Beowulf, have survived to the present day. Beowulf is the most famous work in Old English. It has achieved national epic status in England, despite being set in Scandinavia. The only surviving manuscript is the Nowell Codex, the second of two manuscripts comprising the bound volume Cotton MS Vitellius A XV. Scholars debate the precise date, but most estimates place it close to the year 1000. Linguists date, Beowulf, the conventional title, and its composition between the 8th and the early 11th century.
Middle English literature (1066–1500)
Poet Geoffrey Chaucer was born circa 1340 in London, England. In 1357 he became a public servant to Countess Elizabeth of Ulster. And he continued in that capacity with the British court throughout his lifetime. The Canterbury Tales became his best known and most acclaimed work. He died in 1400 and was the first to be buried in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner. Ever since the end of the 14th century, readers have deemed Chaucer the “father of English poetry,”. As well as a model of writing English poets would attempt to imitate thereafter. “He was one of the first poets of his day to write exclusively in English. His contemporary John Gower, for example, wrote in Latin, French, and English.
English Renaissance (1500–1660)
In 1609, a collection of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets was printed. Curiously, Shakespeare addressed these to one “Mr. W.H.”. The most probable explanation of the identity of “W.H.” is that he was William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. Other people mentioned in the sonnets are a girl, a rival poet, and a dark-eyed beauty. Shakespeare’s two long poems, Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece are notable.
Restoration Age (1660–1700) also known as Neoclassical Period:
With the collapse of the Puritan Government the people sprang up activities they had long suppressed. The Restoration encouraged levity in rules that often resulted in immoral and indecent plays. It was George Etheredge who introduced Comedy of Manners. His famous plays are She Would if She Could, The Man of Mode and Love in a Tub.
The political and economic atmosphere at the time heavily influenced this period, with many writers finding inspiration from the French Revolution. There was a lot of social change during this period.
John Dryden popularized heroic couplets in his dramas. Aurengaxebe, The Rival Ladies, The Conquest of Granada, Don Sebastian etc. are some of his famous plays. His dramatic masterpiece is All for Love. Dryden polished the plot of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra in his All for Love. Dryden is the greatest literary figure of the Restoration.
Birth of American Literature:
William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy: or, The Triumph of Nature was published 226 years ago today, in 1789. Scholars consider it to be the first American novel. Though you won’t find it on many (any?) short lists for the Great American Novel.
Washington Irving (1783-1859) has often been called “the Father of American Literature.” Literary academics think of him as the first American writer to make his living primarily through his creative work. But that’s not all, he is the first American acclaimed by the English literary establishment as worthy of recognition.
Edgar Allan Poe was an American writer, poet, editor, and literary critic. He is best known for his poetry and short stories, particularly his tales of mystery and the macabre. Academics regard him as a central figure of Romanticism in the United States, and of American literature.
Victorian Age (1837–1901)
Within this time frame, lots of poets and writers started writing. They created their own identity with their writing, which led to the birth of a national American identity. Edmund Clarence Stedman was one of the chief representatives of the American literature.
Jane Austen 1775-1817 is one of the greatest novelists of nineteenth century English literature. Her first novel Pride and Prejudice (1813) deals with the life of middle class people. The style is smooth and charming. Her second novel Sense and Sensibility followed the same general lines of Pride and Prejudice. Northanger Abbey, Emma, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion are some of the other famous works. Jane Austen constructs her plots skillfully. Seh develops her characters with minuteness and accuracy.
Realism and Naturalism (1870 to 1910)
This literature was created in a post Civil War United States. Major authors include Louisa May Alcott, James Laurence Dunbar, Stephen Craine, Mark Twain, and Edith Wharton.
The English literary establishment considers Charles Dickens (1812-1870) as one of the most famous realistic authors. Dickens has contributed some evergreen characters to English literature. He was a busy successful novelist during his lifetime. The Pickwick Papers and Sketches by Boz are two early novels. Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby , David Copperfield, Hard Times, A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations are some of the most famous novels of Charles Dickens. No English novelists excel Dickens in the multiplicity of his characters and situations. He creates a whole world people for the readers. He sketched both lower and middle class people in London.
Modernist writers proclaimed a new “subject matter” for literature. They also felt that their new way of looking at life required a new form, a new way of writing. Writers of this period tend to pursue more experimental and usually more highly individualistic forms of writing.
The main characteristics of modern literature include Individualism, experimentation, symbolism, absurdity, and formalism.
What are the main topics in English Literature?
- Gender roles. How are the roles of men and women portrayed in the novel?
- Comparisons between genres. How does each genre tell its story?
- Historical background.
- Comparisons between two characters.
- Comparisons between two novels.
- Allusions within the novel.
20 Classic Books for English Literature Students to Read
This selection of classics is pretty much mandatory reading for English Lit students.
1. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’”
Published in 1925, The Great Gatsby has long been considered a classic novel to read. It often ranks among the top pieces of fiction of all time.
The tale follows Jay Gatsby, a man who lives his life in chasing for his one desire: to be reunited with his one true love, Daisy Buchanan. A love he lost five years before we meet him at the start of the novel. Capturing a cross-section of American society at the time, Fitzgerald’s novel explores themes around class, gender, and unsurprisingly, of triumph and tragedy. The novel calls for discussions and learning more about the decline of the 1920s, prohibition, and other social issues of the time. As well as dissecting how Fitzgerald cleverly uses recurring symbols to best reflect the characters’ thoughts and feelings around these contexts.
Related: The Great Gatsby
2. The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde
“Experience is merely the name men gave to their mistakes.”
Set in London in the late 19th Century, The Picture of Dorian Gray is an important examination of class, perspective, and the purpose of art. Above all, it was a noticeable talking point for society at the time.
The Picture of Dorian Gray offers so many interesting points of discussion, including the superficial nature of societies and the negative consequences that influence can have. As such, it’s quite rightly earned itself recognition as one of the must-read books for English Literature students.
3. Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë
“If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger.”
It would be impossible not to include Wuthering Heights on a list of must-read books for English Literature students. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising if you have already studied or at least heard of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, as it’s a popular text selected for those studying English Literature at high school level.
The story is one of love and revenge, which revolves around those who live in the desolate farmhouse, named ‘Wuthering Heights.’ Mainly, it centers around Heathcliff, an orphan boy, and Catherine, who are both raised at the property. We follow the pair over the years, including some traumatic events within the family which prompt Heathcliff to act vengefully towards those who destroyed his and Catherine’s young romance.
4. 1984, by George Orwell
“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”
No matter who you ask, 1984 will always rank as one of the best books for English Literature students to read during their studies. Exploring themes of totalitarianism, dictatorship, and mass media control, it offers plenty of interesting themes for discussion and debate. Published in 1949 this dystopian novel follows the life of Winston Smith – a low-ranking member of ‘the Party,’ a new societal group overlooked by the ruler ‘Big Brother.’
In this classic, we learn that ‘Big Brother’ controls every aspect of people’s lives. From choosing what its residents read, speak, say and do, cameras circulate everywhere to monitor the residents’ every action. The language ‘Newspeak’ is created in an attempt to completely eliminate any possibility of political rebellion, with ‘Thoughtcrimes’ created as a way to stop people even thinking about things which are considered rebellious.
5. Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens
“Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape.”
As one of the greatest coming-of-age stories ever told, Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations had to be the one novel of his included on our list of classic books to read, thanks to its wit, carefully crafted language, and unique tales.
The story follows the tale of Pip, an orphan who learns a valuable lesson in life after a sudden change in wealth is granted to him from a secret benefactor. However, what follows is a tale of learning and understanding our morals.
6. The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini
“Not a word passes between us, not because we have nothing to say, but because we don’t have to say anything.”
Written in 2003, The Kite Runner is a stellar example of postcolonial literature. This important novella explores the devastating legacy which is left behind after the effects of an empire. Told from the perspective of a young Afghan boy named Amir, we begin in the year 1985, when twelve-year-old Amir is trying to win the local kite-fighting tournament with his friend Hassan.
7. Emma, by Jane Austen
“Nobody, who has not been in the interior of a family, can say what the difficulties of any individual of that family may be.”
For those who have never read a Jane Austen novel before, Emma is the perfect start – a funny, romantic, and easy-to-read novel. Set in the early 19th Century, the novel centers on Emma Woodhouse, a precocious young woman whose misplaced confidence in her ability to matchmake others leads to several romantic misadventures of her own.
8. The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien
*“The board is set, the pieces are moving. We come to it at last, the great battle of our time.” *
Having studied at Exeter College in Oxford, J. R. R. Tolkien was one of the original members of “The Inklings,” a notable group of budding writers, including C. S. Lewis, who met for conversation, drinks, and readings from their works-in-progress. Taking inspiration from his almighty circle of companions, his works have gone on to earn him international fame and have had him considered one of the greatest writers ever.
In particular, his collection of books, The Lord of the Rings are his best-known collection of work. Not read the series? Then you must have almost certainly seen or at least heard about the epic three-part movie adaptation of the original books written by Tolkien. However, as great as movies are, they’re often never as well-received as the original book.
In the novels we follow the protagonist and Hobbit, Frodo, who has to undertake a terrifying and dangerous mission to the Dark Land of Mordor to destroy the powerful ‘One Ring’ – a weapon so powerful it can corrupt everyone who comes under its power. As simple as the plot may sound, you’ll find yourself lost in the magnificent details of the 1137 page trilogy, with quirky characters, intricately-detailed worlds, and rich backstories immersing you in this truly fantastical world that Tolkien has created. It’s a must-read for anyone wanting to understand how to master the craft of writing, including those interested in pursuing Creative Writing themselves in the future.
9. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
Set in the 1930s in the small and sleepy town of Maycomb, Alabama, To Kill a Mockingbird is narrated by Scout Finch, a six-year-old tomboy who lives with her ten-year-old brother, Jem, her father Atticus – who is a lawyer in the local community.
Exploring complex themes such as civil rights and racism in the segregated southern United States in the early 20th Century, we follow a case Atticus is working on, who is striving to prove the innocence of a black man who has been unjustly accused of a crime he hasn’t committed. Through the eyes of Scout, we also explore traditional roles of class and gender, and how these affect judgement in our daily lives.
10. The Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger
“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.”
This coming-of-age tale is a classic book to read, and one which has featured on many UK GCSE and A-Level syllabi. Written by J.D. Salinger in 1950, the novel – which is set in the same decade – follows the life of Holden Caulfield, who we don’t learn much about other than that he is undergoing some mental health treatment in a hospital, which we are quickly shied away from as he recounts a previous tale.
The events Holden narrates are about his sixteen-year-old-self, after recently being expelled from Pencey Prep, a private school in the USA for fighting with his roommate, Stradlater.
Illustrating the emotional turbulence of ‘growing up,’ Holden chooses to spend two days exploring in New York before he returns home to his parents and admits to his expulsion. During this time, he meets and interacts with people of all different backgrounds; teachers, nuns, an old girlfriend, and even his sister along the way. The story ends with Holden about to return home. He leaves the story here, as he doesn’t want to recount how he got ‘sick.’ Instead, we end with Holden’s optimistic outlook at the prospect of starting a new school in the autumn and looking at future prospects.
11. His Dark Materials, by Philip Pullman
“It was a place of brilliant sunlight, never undappled. Shafts of lemon-gold brilliance lanced down to the forest floor between bars and pools of brown-green shade; and the light was never still, never constant, because drifting mist would often float among the treetops, filtering all the sunlight to a pearly sheen and brushing every pine cone with moisture that glistened when the mist lifted. Sometimes the wetness in the clouds condensed into tiny drops half mist and half rain, which floated downward rather than fell, making a soft rustling patter among the millions of needles.”
Philip Pullman’s trilogy named His Dark Materials is a compilation of three classic novels, inspired by the beautiful city of Oxford. Written in the late 1990s, Pullman’s novels are a fantasy fiction collection, which follows the adventures of Lyra, a young woman who has been brought up in ‘Jordan College.’ During her time here, we learn that her mysterious college is undertaking lots of research into a new particle named Dust, while a secret organization in the area seems to be kidnapping local children – there are lots of questions for the reader to journey along with.
The plot elevates further throughout the trilogy and explores complex ideas on theology, physics, and philosophy. It’s deeply intricate and filled with exquisite details and side-stories to keep you inspired – making it one of the best books for English Literature students to read, analyze, and enjoy falling deeply into discussion about.
12. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
“Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.”
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a tale almost everybody knows – thanks to films, media, and all the derivations from Halloween. But not many students have ever read the original text, unless it’s featured on their English Literature syllabus.
The Mother of Horror, Mary Shelley was 19 when she first penned Frankenstein – the first science fiction and horror novel which intertwined societal rejection and the evolving scientific methods of ‘playing God’.
For those who aren’t familiar with the plot, Frankenstein tells the story of gifted scientist Victor Frankenstein, who succeeds in bringing to life a being of his own creation. However, what he ends up creating isn’t the perfect specimen he once imagined, but instead a hideous creature that is rejected by both Victor and the wider society in which he exists.
Fans of science fiction will appreciate the novel for its inspiring themes and future-forward perspective for the time (it was written in 1817), while students with an eye for critical detail will enjoy diving into Shelley’s important points for discussion; Shelley was writing at a time of great industrial change, and this Gothic novel explores a myriad of themes including humanity, robotics, and life and death.
13. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
“If he needs a million acres to make him feel rich, seems to me he needs it ’cause he feels awful poor inside hisself, and if he’s poor in hisself, there ain’t no million acres gonna make him feel rich, an’ maybe he’s disappointed that nothin’ he can do ‘ll make him feel rich.”
The plot follows the life of Tom Joad and his family, who are forced from their family farm in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl during America’s Great Depression years. Along with thousands of others in their community, the family set out in search of job opportunities, land, and hope for a brighter, more prosperous future.
As a story filled with hardship, worry, and determination, Steinbeck explores many interesting themes around humanity; of unity and love, as well as the need for collaboration across communities during difficult times. The universal shift from an emphasis on “I” to “we” teaches readers an important lesson on what it means to preserve selflessness, even in times when we may be most in need.
14. To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf
“It was odd, she thought, how if one was alone, one leaned to inanimate things; trees, streams, flowers; felt they expressed one; felt they became one; felt they knew one, in a sense were one; felt an irrational tenderness thus (she looked at that long steady light) as for oneself.”
Vivid, impressionistic, and a novel which requires a lot of concentration, To the Lighthouse is a must-read book for English Literature students who want to explore the art of those who go against the ‘rules’ of writing.
The overarching plot follows the Ramsay family, who have spent each summer in their holiday home in Scotland. Expecting summers to follow this trajectory of years to come, the integrity of the family is suddenly changed as WWI looms on them. The novel is deeply introspective, using memory and reminiscence to depict much of the plot, while giving it a deeply intimate feel for the reader.
15. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll
“It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”*
Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a timeless children’s classic, and a must-read for any English Literature student. At over 150 years old, the tale has truly stood the test of time, and become a much-loved staple of British literature.
For those unfamiliar with the title, the charming tale of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland begins on an ordinary summer afternoon, when Alice tumbles down a hole and begins an extraordinary adventure. What follows is a strange world with even stranger characters.
The novel is inspired by Alice Liddell, who was the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church in Oxford in the 1860s. It was here that Carroll both studied and worked as a mathematician in Oxford, where he spent much of his life dedicated to research and teaching. His passion for sharing and adapting theory for students can be traced in the novel, where numbers and complex riddles dominate much of the complexity of the text.
16. Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
“Roger gathered a handful of stones and began to throw them. Yet there was a space round Henry, perhaps six yards in diameter, into which he dare not throw. Here, invisible yet strong, was the taboo of the old life. Round the squatting child was the protection of parents and school and policemen and the law.”
Dating back to 1954, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies tells the story of a group of schoolboys from Britain who wind up stranded on an uninhabited island after their evacuation from their war-torn hometown goes wrong.
During the course of the book, we watch the boys establish themselves as a group and as residents on the island; we see roles be delegated amongst them; we watch them learn how to forage; how to hunt; how to defend themselves, and overcome their fears. Ultimately, we watch these young boys learn the most basic elements of adulthood (in a rather historic sense) and the demands that come with this newfound responsibility.
For anyone with an interest in philosophy, psychology and sociology, it will open up plenty of interesting discussions. Especially when examined against the context of when it was written – shortly after the Second World War.
17. Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson
“For thirty years,” he said, “I’ve sailed the seas and seen good and bad, better and worse, fair weather and foul, provisions running out, knives going, and what not. Well, now I tell you, I never seen good come o’ goodness yet. Him as strikes first is my fancy; dead men don’t bite; them’s my views—amen, so be it.”
One of the oldest books on our list is Treasure Island, an 1881 tale written by Robert Louis Stevenson. It is set in the days of sailing ships and active pirate expeditions. The story follows the adventures of Jim Hawkins and his search for the buried treasure of an evil old pirate, Captain Flint.
It’s definitely a story that explores the satisfaction of desires, and, indeed, the motivation of greed. Everyone wants the treasure, and it’s a tale of whose desires can out-play the others in a conquest for wealth.
Related: William Shakespeare Idioms
18. Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh
“If you asked me now who I am, the only answer I could give with any certainty would be my name. For the rest: my loves, my hates, down even to my deepest desires, I can no longer say whether these emotions are my own, or stolen from those I once so desperately wished to be.”
Set between the First and Second World War, Brideshead Revisited is a tragicomedy set at the University of Oxford which explores themes of classism, wealth, and happiness.
The book tells the story of Charles Ryder – a history graduate at Hertford College – who meets the aristocratic Sebastian Flyte. Ryder becomes fascinated by Flyte and his family’s freedoms and privileges – which undoubtedly leads to certain challenges.
It’s a great early twentieth century novel for fans of that period, capturing a quintessentially British Oxford from back in the day. It is also an interesting insight into the class system which ruled over the country for many years.
19. The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame
“All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.”
Despite being primarily aimed at younger children, The Wind in the Willows rightfully earns itself a place on our list of classic literature recommendations for students.
Published in 1908, Kenneth Grahame found motivation to write the book when he retired from his position as secretary of the Bank of England and moved to Berkshire, where had lived as a child.
Spending much of his time relaxing by the River Thames, doing much as the characters in his book do – “simply messing about in boats,” he took his newfound freedom to expand on the animal bedtime stories he used to tell his son Alastair and transform them into a finished manuscript.
The Wind in the Willows shares the adventures of several animal friends and neighbors in the English countryside – primarily Mole, Rat, Badger, and Toad. Although each of them are animals with their own distinctive habits and behaviors, they converse, philosophize and behave like humans with one another – even driving their own cars and eating sit-down meals – their resemblance to the human profile is quite uncanny.
20. Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott
“I’ll try and be what he loves to call me, ‘a little woman,’ and not be rough and wild; but do my duty here instead of wanting to be somewhere else.”
Finally, for English Literature students looking for classic books to read Little Women is a must for your list. Not only is it a great book in itself, but it’s also a coming-of-age novel for four sisters on the path from childhood to adulthood. Something we’re sure will strike a chord with many readers.
Alcott took inspiration for the book from her own life. She loosely based the characters on the lives of herself and her three sisters, making it a semi-autobiographical read. This authenticity is perhaps what led the release of the book to have such success when first published, with Alcott immediately requested to write a part two, named Good Wives.
It may seem to some a simple story; four young women’s development through adolescence, centered around societal obligations and personal growth. But the character tropes, small plot developments and beautiful written prose make it a popular read for many today. Especially thanks to the recent film re-vamp starring A-List celebrities including Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan, and Timothée Chalamet.