Arts & Culture

The 7 best British novels of all time

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 also 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 in some truly British culture or explore some of the world’s greatest literary works, look at our list of the best British novels of all time.

Open book on the grass

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 it is the first incarnation of the modern novel as we understand it today. Its impact as a British classic and cultural icon is incontrovertible.

Lady reading an old book

To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf

Frankly, 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 realism style contributed to bringing British literature out of the days of colonialism and into the Modern.

1984 – George Orwell

Orwell’s oeuvre still is 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 traveller’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 one is not to be missed.

Great Expectations – Charles Dickens

Choosing which Dickens novel should stand out as emblematic of his accomplishments is incredibly difficult. 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.

For a truly cultural experience in the UK, join one of our exciting London tours, or if heritage is what you love most, check out our extensive Stonehenge tours.