“Exit, pursued by a bear.”
– William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale (Act III, Scene 3)
This month, our genre focus will be a little different than in past months. Instead of focusing on a particular style or subject matter (for example, horror or memoirs), we’ll be focusing on works from a particular region, namely the United Kingdom. British Literature, or Brit Lit, is prose, poetry, and plays produced by authors from the UK, as well as the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, and encompasses writings from the Anglo-Saxon and Late Roman periods (around 500 AD) through present day.
During the Old English and Late Medieval period (c. 500-1500 AD), oral tradition was very strong in British/English culture and many works of literature were written to be performed for audiences who may not be able to read. Epic poems were also very popular during this time, and many such poems have survived the centuries. One of the most famous Old English epic poems, Beowulf, is still popular today as evidenced by current movies and graphic novels. Following the Norman Conquest of 1066, literary trends from continental Europe started being introduced into British literature. During this period, writers such as Geoffrey of Monmouth began chronicling and spreading tales of British history and motifs to a larger audience. Among these tales were the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343-1400), best known for The Canterbury Tales, is widely considered the greatest poet of the Middle Ages.
The Renaissance Period (c. 1485-1660) brought Italian literary influences to British literature, and it was during this time that sonnets and blank verse became popular. Arguably, the most famous author to come out of this period was poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616), whose works are still considered among the most significant ever written.
The 18th century led to more changes in literature and poetry to include a recurrence of inspiration from earlier Roman times. Some influential writers during this period include Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Henry Fielding and Samuel Johnson. The late 18th century brought about the roots of Romanticism, which would carry over into the early 19th century. This period produced the “sentimental novel” which was intended to evoke the reader’s compassion, sympathy, and tenderness. Some famous sentimental novels are Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield and Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Other types of novels developed during this period were the “novel of manners” and the “gothic novel” which had a strong influence on authors such as Jane Austen (1775-1817). Austen’s books, such as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, satirized the earlier “sentimental novels” and served as part of the transition to 19th century realism.
During the Victorian Era (1832-1900), the novel became the most popular literary genre, and women played a large part of that, both as authors and as readers. The 19th century also brought about a multitude of excellent authors, to include Charles Dickens, the Brontë sisters, Anthony Trollope, George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), Thomas Hardy and H.G. Wells. In addition, many famous poets were also writing in the UK during that period such as Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
The 20th and 21st century have continued to provide a host of British authors and poets: D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, W.B. Yeats, Neil Gaiman, JK Rowling, Zadie Smith, David Mitchell and many more. Brit Lit today is a broad and varied genre. Why not stop into the library to check out some classic or current Brit Lit?