British literature  

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Title page from Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740) - Samuel Richardson
Title page from Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740) - Samuel Richardson

"This is a study of the English short story of the supernatural. I have neglected the immense quantity of American and continental weird fiction."--The Supernatural in Fiction (1952) by Peter Penzoldt

Cover of Sweeney Todd, published by Charles Fox in 48 numbers
Cover of Sweeney Todd, published by Charles Fox in 48 numbers

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British literature is English literature from the United Kingdom and other countries from the Anglosphere, excluding literature of the United States, largely written in the English language. The English novel became a popular form in the 18th century, with Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740). Another very popular form was the Gothic novel (The Castle of Otranto, 1764) which led the way to Frankenstein (1818) and Dracula (1897). Tristram Shandy (1759) deserves mentions as the start of avant-la-lettre postmodern British literature.



The earliest native literature of the territory of the modern United Kingdom was written in the Celtic languages of the isles. The Welsh literary tradition stretches from the 6th century. Irish poetry also represents a more or less unbroken tradition from the 6th century to the present day, with the Ulster Cycle being of particular relevance to Northern Ireland.

Anglo-Saxon literature includes Beowulf, a national epic, but literature in Latin predominated among educated elites. After the Norman Conquest Anglo-Norman literature brought continental influences to the isles.

English literature emerged as a recognisable entity in the late 14th century, with the rise and spread of the London dialect of Middle English. Geoffrey Chaucer is the first great identifiable individual in English literature: his Canterbury Tales remains a popular 14th-century work which readers still enjoy today.

Following the introduction of the printing press into England by William Caxton in 1476, the Elizabethan era saw a great flourishing of literature, especially in the fields of poetry and drama. From this period, poet and playwright William Shakespeare stands out as arguably the most famous writer in the world.

The English novel became a popular form in the 18th century, with Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719), Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740) and Henry Fielding's Tom Jones (1745).

After a period of decline, the poetry of Robert Burns revived interest in vernacular literature, the rhyming weavers of Ulster being especially influenced by literature in Scots from Scotland.

The following two centuries continued a huge outpouring of literary production. In the early 19th century, the Romantic period showed a flowering of poetry comparable with the Renaissance two hundred years earlier, with such poets as William Blake, William Wordsworth, John Keats, and Lord Byron. The Victorian period was the golden age of the realistic English novel, represented by Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters (Charlotte, Emily and Anne), Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy.

World War I gave rise to British war poets and writers such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Rupert Brooke who wrote (often paradoxically), of their expectations of war, and/or their experiences in the trench.

The Celtic Revival stimulated new appreciation of traditional Irish literature, however, with the independence of the Irish Free State, Irish literature came to be seen as more clearly separate from the strains of British literature. The Scottish Renaissance of the early 20th century brought modernism to Scottish literature as well as an interest in new forms in the literatures of Scottish Gaelic and Scots.

The English novel developed in the 20th century into much greater variety and was greatly enriched by immigrant writers. It remains today the dominant English literary form.

Other well-known novelists include Arthur Conan Doyle, D. H. Lawrence, George Orwell, Salman Rushdie, Mary Shelley, J. R. R. Tolkien, Virginia Woolf and J.K. Rowling.

Important poets include Elizabeth Barrett Browning, T. S. Eliot, Ted Hughes, John Milton, Alfred Tennyson, Rudyard Kipling, Alexander Pope, and Dylan Thomas.

Victorian fiction

Genre fiction

Important developments occurred in genre fiction in this era.

Adventure novels were popular, including Sir John Barrow's descriptive 1831 account of the Mutiny on the Bounty. The Lost World literary genre was inspired by real stories of archaeological discoveries by imperial adventurers. Sir Henry Rider Haggard wrote one of the earliest examples, King Solomon's Mines, in 1885. Contemporary European politics and diplomatic manoeuvrings informed Anthony Hope's swashbuckling Ruritanian adventure novels The Prisoner of Zenda (1894). Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–94) also wrote works in this genre, including Kidnapped (1886), an historical novel set in the aftermath of the Jacobite rising of 1745, and Treasure Island (1883), the classic pirate adventure.

Wilkie Collins' epistolary novel The Moonstone (1868) is generally considered the first detective novel in the English language, and soon after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle began his Sherlock Holmes series about a London-based "consulting detective". Doyle wrote four novels and fifty-six short stories featuring Holmes, from 1880 up to 1907, with a final case in 1914.

H. G. Wells's (1866–1946) writing career began in the 1890s with science fiction novels like The War of the Worlds (1898) which describes an invasion of late Victorian England by Martians, and Wells is, along with Frenchman Jules Verne (1828–1905), as a major figure in the development of the science fiction genre.

The history of the modern fantasy genre is generally said to begin with George MacDonald, the influential author of The Princess and the Goblin and Phantastes (1858). William Morris was a popular English poet who also wrote several fantasy novels during the latter part of the nineteenth century. The vampire genre fiction began with John William Polidori's "The Vampyre" (1819). This short story was inspired by the life of Lord Byron and his poem The Giaour. Irish writer Bram Stoker was the author of seminal horror work Dracula (1897) with the primary antagonist the vampire Count Dracula.

Penny dreadful publications were an alternative to mainstream works, and were aimed at working class adolescents, introducing the infamous Sweeney Todd. The premier ghost story writer of the 19th century was the Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu.


In 1947 Malcolm Lowry published Under the Volcano. George Orwell's satire of totalitarianism, Nineteen Eighty-Four, was published in 1949. An essayist and novelist, Orwell's works are important social and political commentaries of the 20th century. Evelyn Waugh's Second World War trilogy Sword of Honour (1952–61) was published in this period.

Graham Greene's works span the 1930s to the 1980s. He was a convert to Catholicism and his novels explore the ambivalent moral and political issues of the modern world. Other novelists writing in the 1950s and later were: Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time; Nobel Prize laureate Sir William Golding; Anglo-Irish philosopher Dame Iris Murdoch (who was a prolific writer of novels dealing with sexual relationships, morality, and the power of the unconscious); and Scottish novelist Dame Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961). Anthony Burgess is especially remembered for his dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange 1962. Mervyn Peake (1911–68) published his Gothic fantasy Gormenghast trilogy between 1946 and 1959. Angela Carter (1940–1992) was a novelist and journalist, known for her feminist, magical realism, and picaresque works. Writing from the 1960s until the 1980s. [[File:Doris lessing 20060312.jpg|left|thumb|upright|Doris Lessing, Cologne, 2006]]

Sir Salman Rushdie is among a number of post Second World War writers from former British colonies who permanently settled in Britain. Rushdie achieved fame with Midnight's Children (1981). His most controversial novel The Satanic Verses (1989) was inspired in part by the life of Muhammad.

Doris Lessing from Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) published her first novel The Grass is Singing in 1950, after immigrating to England. She initially wrote about her African experiences. Lessing soon became a dominant presence in the English literary scene, publishing frequently, and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007. Sir V. S. Naipaul (1932– ) was another immigrant, born in Trinidad, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Also from the West Indies is George Lamming (1927– ) who wrote In the Castle of My Skin (1953), while from Pakistan came Hanif Kureshi (1954–), a playwright, screenwriter, filmmaker, novelist and short story writer. 2017 Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro (1954– ) was born in Japan, but his parents immigrated to Britain when he was six,<ref>The Oxford Companion to English Literature, p.506.</ref> and he became a British citizen as an adult. Martin Amis (1949) is one of the most prominent British novelists of the end of the 20th, beginning of the 21st century. Pat Barker (1943–) has won many awards for her fiction. English novelist and screenwriter Ian McEwan (1948– ) is a highly regarded writer.

See also

18th century English literature, 19th century English literature, 20th century English literature, Victorian literature

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