Throughout history, British artists – from Shakespeare to John Lennon – have left a cultural impact that spans the globe. In no category is this impact more meaningful than in the world of literature. British writers have helped to shape not only the history of literature but the very idea of western civilization. The values, perceptions, and apprehensions of the modern world are tied to the works of great writers like Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, and George Orwell.
If you want to indulge yourself in some truly British culture, or simply want to explore some of the world’s greatest literary works, take a look at our list of the best British novels of all time.
Middlemarch – George Eliot
Rated by critics as the most significant work of British literature, Eliot’s Middlemarch is a quintessential epic of British realism and a cornerstone of feminist literature. It’s also a deeply emotional tour de force, exploring the challenges and tribulations faced by a strong woman in provincial England.
Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe
Love it or hate it, Defoe’s classic tale of adventure and isolation set a standard for literary works. Some even argue that is the first incarnation of the modern novel as we understand it today. Its impact as a British classic and cultural icon is incontrovertible.
To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf
To be frank, any of Woolf’s major works could easily have taken up this slot on our list. I choose To the Lighthouse for its intensely subjective reimaging of the hero narrative – one that marks, and perhaps even precludes, Britain’s transition into a more evolved cultural consciousness.
Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
Conrad himself was a British-Polish author, but his most studied work remains, thematically if nothing else, a uniquely British story. As a product of the British colonial machine himself, Conrad’s unique style of realism contributed to bringing British literature out of the days of colonialism and into the Modern.
1984 – George Orwell
Orwell’s oeuvre still works as a stern reminder that Britain is not, and has never been, immune to the political extremism that defined global politics during his time. Nineteen eighty-four is particularly effective at ‘bringing home’ international issues in a painfully imminent tale of genre-bending imagination.
Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathon Swift
Swift was born into an Anglo-Irish family, giving him a unique perspective on the problems of British rule. Written only seven years after Robinson Crusoe, his deeply satirical take on the traditional traveler’s tale still stands up today as a masterpiece of cultural criticism. At its heart, though, Gulliver’s Travels remains a story of fantasy and adventure, and which one is not to be missed.
Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
It’s incredibly difficult to choose which Dickens novel should stand out as emblematic of his accomplishments. So for this entry, I was forced to turn to the BBC Culture list of Best British Novels, which ranks Great Expectations as number four in the greatest works of British literature ever written. Phrases like “the quintessential English novel” and “greatest English novelist of all time” are thrown around casually, though with no lack of conviction. If you read nobody else, read Dickens.
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