English Literature, A Very Short Introduction

I got this small book with a very clear goal: I want it to fill the gaps in my knowledge of English Literature. Why are the classics classics? How to tell if a book is technically good or bad? I wanted a general introduction and a bird’s-eye view of the subject before I dive into each historical era and specific authors and their works. But in the end, I have in my pocket more questions than when I started and realise the gaps are even bigger than I anticipated.

It’s one of the first books I read for my ‘Reading Oxford’ project. (For an explanation on that, see the end of this post here.) Strictly speaking, I can’t remember if English Literature, A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan Bate is actually on the original reading list for the first year Oxford English students. But I thought it too good to miss.

The book is pocket-sized, about 180 pages. I’m very impressed with the size of the book given the scope of the subject (the font size is quite small though). It’s not an easy book – it took me a whole week, reading and re-reading paragraphs and sometimes whole chapters, frowning intensely, a highlighter in hand.

Here’s the table of contents:

  1. Once upon a time
  2. What it is
  3. When it began
  4. The study of English
  5. Periods and movements
  6. Among the English poets
  7. Shakespeare and dramatic literature
  8. Aspects of the English novel
  9. The Englishness of English Literature?

A few people are discussed in greater detail than others. (‘How does the author decide whose life and work gets a paragraph and whose gets five pages?’) If nothing else, this little book piques my interest in many familiar but never-read authors, for example, Rudyard Kipling. I know about the Jungle Book, but to be honest, when did I realise Kipling wrote the Jungle Book? Not that long ago. And I had no idea he wrote other children’s books about English history that C. S. Lewis was clearly fond of, enough so that Lewis named the first Narnia children after one of the place names in Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill. His Kim sounds intriguing and I am always fond of books that are suitable for both young and old.

Another person I was glad to have made acquittance of was Dr Samuel Johnson. I had never heard of him and I doubt any title of his would ring a bell to you. He was one of the pioneers of English criticism. The author certainly sounds very impressed by Dr Johnson: “Johnson single-handedly revived the essay as a literary genre with The Rambler in which he pronounced twice weekly (publication Tuesdays and Saturdays) on books, on politics, on morals, on life.” With my 2020 mind, I understand it as publishing two blog posts every week, freshly written: on ‘October’s Most Anticipated New Releases’ and the winner of the Booker Prizes, on the national and worldwide COVID situation including NHS reports and school agendas, on the abortion cases in the North East of England, and on his travel to the Scottish highlands, and ‘how healthy diet and daily exercise keep you out of the lockdown gloom’. That’s amazing!

But Dr Johnson did more than writing two blog posts per week. He also “single-handedly complied A Dictionary of the English Language” (1755). After that, he published the complete plays of Shakespeare with commentary (1765).

And the author gives one, in my opinion, very high compliment to the man: it seems that his life and work embodied the essence of ‘Englishness’ for a long time even after his lifetime: “the richness of the language, admiration for Shakespeare, a refusal to be bullied and bossed around, a sense of humour and of the ridiculous, good classical actors, a love of gossip and an interest in the quirkiness of individual lives, robust opinions and melancholy realism, the capacity to survive so long as there is access to a cup of tea.” What a marvellous description!

This thing about ‘a cup of tea’ – its comforting effect and healing power have never ceased to amaze me, not just by witness of the number of cups of tea consumed by my colleagues – I really believe they believe that the worst enemies and hardest tasks can be overcome with the aid of a cuppa, and most importantly, CANNOT without one – and also the affection shown to me even when the kettle and tea bags are three floors up. I once watched a documentary about the Battle of Britain and there was an interview with a now old but remarkably sharp-minded Spitfire pilot, young and dashing at the time. His plane was shot down and he crashed into farmland, presumably somewhere on the east coast. He was soon searched out by the locals and taken home, “and they gave me a cup of tea”. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that.

I’m completely off topic. The ‘Englishness’ of England is a fascinating thing. If you’re even remotely interested in English Literature, which is as glorious as the Renaissance paintings in Europe, but in the form of words, read this book.

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