Note: I’ve taken a bit of break on these posts because they take a bit longer than a normal post and I’ve been busy on other projects. A normal post is maybe a half hour of writing and another half hour of re-writing. If I feel like proofreading it, then maybe another fifteen minutes. These Essential Knowledge posts require a little more thought and they require me finding the relevant links. The demands on my time meant a short hiatus, but I’ll try to get back to doing one every two weeks at the minimum.
We left off the literature portion of this series at the Romantic period. I’ve never been a big fan of this period in English literature. I think I can make the case that William Blake is history’s greatest monster. There are some writers worth knowing about and some works that a modern reader can enjoy. Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan, especially for Rush fans, are easy reading and the sort of thing an educated man can sprinkle into a conversation to impress the ladies down at the rest home.
The Romantics were big into poetry so the big names are mostly poets. If you feel you must, then pick an anthology and sample the names that seem familiar, like Lord Byron, Wordsworth and Keats. These things are a matter of taste and maybe you are the sort that enjoys this type of literature. My view on literature is that you should aim to be a specialist on what you enjoy, but a generalist on everything else. That means having some anthologies around to poke through when you are looking for something to read.
There is some good stuff in the Romantic period. Jane Austen is not terrible and you should read at least one of her novels. Pride and Prejudice would be my recommendation, but you can download her complete works for a dollar, so take your pick. Robinson Crusoe by Defoe is a good read. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding is not bad. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the most famous work from this period. My favorite from this era is Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. It’s a fun read, even if you hate Romantics.
The Victorian¹ period is an embarrassment of riches, in terms of English literature. This was also when Americans really started to contribute to the English canon. Even better, the great talents of the era tended toward prose, so you don’t have to suffer through a lot of poetry. The big names on the poetry side are Browning, Carlyle, Wordsworth, Swinburne and Tennyson, but the way to go is with a decent anthology. Of course, you can just read your kids, or grandkids, Jabberwocky and leave it at that.
The prose side of the house is where things get fun. This was a prolific period in English prose and some of the giants of our culture wrote in this era. For the ladies, and the men with a desire to get in touch with their feminine side, you have the Bronte sisters. Jane Eyre is considered one of the top-20 novels of all time, but I’ve always been partial to Wuthering Heights. You can get the collected works of the Bronte sisters for a song. If you still need that feminine touch, then read Middlemarch by George Elliot.
Now the good stuff. I don’t think you can be a literate man without having read Charles Dickens. The Pickwick Papers is great, even if you are not comfortable reading hard fiction. Oliver Twist, David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities are also on the list of must read books. You can get all of Dickens for a buck on kindle. The same is true of the collected works of Lewis Carroll. Alice in Wonderland is a great read even if you have seen all of the Hollywood treatments.
I think Oscar Wilde is an overrated degenerate, but The Picture of Dorian Gray is a great book. It’s also a great movie, as long as you stick with the 1945 version. This period was not just the great flowering of the novel. The short story was mastered in this era. The two names most associated with the development of the form are O. Henry and W. Somerset Maugham. I’m more of a fan of the latter, than the former, but that’s a matter of taste. As an aside, I’ve always thought the short story is the perfect format for modern audiences.
This is also the age when fantasy literature and science fiction came into existence as serious literary forms. Dracula is a great book, even if you have seen a million movie versions of it. You should get the complete works of Robert Louis Stevenson so you can read Treasure Island and Jekyll and Hyde, if you did not read them as kids. I recently re-read Treasure Island and it still works for me. Then, of course, is H. G. Wells. I’ve read Time Machine half a dozen times in my life and it just gets better each time.
The trouble with the Victorian era is it is big and not everyone agrees on the exact start and end points. This is especially true of the late Victorians and the American writers that were influenced by their English cousins, but had their own style. I’m going to cover American literature in a separate post so that makes the cutoff a little easier. Even so, there’s a lot of summers at the beach worth of reading just in that 60 year span. It’s fair to say that it was the peak of the English Empire and probably the peak of English culture.
¹I’m lumping some eras together here for the sake of brevity. Read “Victorian” as “post-Romantic up to the 20th century.”