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The giants of literature

Words: Jonathan McIntosh 

 

Britain and Ireland are home to many literary legends who’ve penned people, plots, and prose that have captured readers’ hearts and minds for centuries. But knowing which chapter to choose from such a treasure trove of texts can be daunting. So, whether you’re searching for your next novel or are looking to add some classics to your to-read list, we’ve rounded up the works of some of our most celebrated writers to inspire your next page-turner.     

Jane Austen  

1775-1817 

For a woman to write in the 18th and early 19th century, let alone use her writing to explore women’s issues, was unheard of, which is why Jane Austen published her first work, Sense and Sensibility, anonymously in 1811. From then on, she grew to become the English language’s first major female novelist.  

Austen’s tales explore the romantic lives of the English middle and upper classes via her famous biting sense of irony. Emma, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion were all incredibly successful, but Austen ranked Pride and Prejudice as her favourite novel – branding it her “darling child”. 

Sadly, Austen gained more fame in death than when she was alive. Regardless, she’s one of English literature’s most influential women and paved the way for generations of female writers. 

George Orwell 

1903-1950 

The Indian-born, England-based author and journalist, Eric Arthur Blair, adopted his pen name shortly before the publication of his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London in 1933. 

Orwell is renowned for his social justice, totalitarianism opposition and democratic socialism – qualities likely intensified through serving as a police officer with Burma’s Imperial Police from 1936-37, his stint in Spain’s Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification in 1938, and in his role creating propaganda for the BBC throughout 1941-1943. 

He is most famous for his 1945 satirical allegorical novella, Animal Farm, and his 1949 dystopian novel about totalitarian states, Nineteen Eighty-Four, which together have sold more copies than any two books by another 20th-century author. His 1938 book, Homage to Catalonia, charting his experiences as a volunteer in the Republican Army during the Spanish Civil War, is also widely acclaimed.  

Today, Orwell’s criticism of authoritarian governments lives on in the neologism ‘Orwellian’, an adjective used to describe oppressive or manipulative behaviours – practices he stood steadfastly against. 

Virginia Woolf 

1882-1941 

This pioneer of Modernist literature is regarded as one of the most important writers of the 20th century.  

Mrs Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927) showcase the stream-of-consciousness storytelling style which Woolf pioneered. This rejected the traditional narrative form in favour of non-linear prose, which reflected the inner workings of her characters’ minds. 

In A Room of One’s Own (1929) Woolf argued for the need for women to achieve economic and intellectual freedom to guarantee social equality. She also explored gender, sexuality and gender politics in Orlando (1928), suggesting gender roles are unnecessarily forced on us by society.  

Woolf battled mental illness throughout her life and died by suicide after finishing her final novel, Between the Acts, which was published posthumously in 1941. 

E.M. Forster 

1879-1970 

Forster’s most famous works, Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), A Room with a View (1908), Howard’s End (1910) and A Passage to India (1924) explore the forms of repression that Edwardian England instilled in its society. 

This theme of repressing oneself to conform with societal expectation resonates with Forster’s lifelong conflict with his own position as a gay man within Edwardian society.  

It was only after his death that much of Forster’s unseen literature was discovered.  

This led to publication of Maurice and The Life to Come, two seminal works which explore Forster’s thoughts on queer sexuality in a stifling society.  

It’s thought that Forster likely decided to hide his gay literature from public judgement following Oscar Wilde’s hostile treatment and conviction in 1895 for homosexual acts. 

James Joyce 

1882-1941 

The Irish writer was one of the 20th century’s most distinctive authors whose writing style challenged literary conventions.   

Joyce wrote the short story collection Dubliners in 1914, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in 1916, Ulysses in 1922 and Finnegans Wake in 1939. He also published his poetry collections, Chamber Music and Pomes Penyeach, in 1907 and 1927 respectively. 

Joyce was extremely experimental. He used interior monologue, a characteristic Modernist form, and drew complex symbolic parallels from mythology and history to create his unique language of invented words, puns and illusions.  

These flourishes are especially apparent in Ulysses, which was serialised in America and England before being published as a complete book in 1922 (though banned in America between 1922 and 1933). 

William Shakespeare 

1564-1616 

No discussion about the UK’s most prolific authors could be complete without mentioning William Shakespeare – the best-selling British writer of all time.   

The Stratford-upon-Avon-born playwright, poet and actor is regarded as the greatest writer in the English language. In fact, the bard is responsible for coining 1,700 everyday words and phrases that we still use in today’s English lexicon – including words like alligator, fashionable and kissing! 

Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet rank among Shakespeare’s most famous plays, while others such as Cymbeline, Coriolanus and All’s Well That Ends Well are revered as underrated gems. But don’t just take our word for it. Delve into Shakespearean dramas yourself to discover your own favourite.   

Literature opens our minds to new perspectives and ideas that we might not experience in our everyday lives. The writers we’ve spotlighted show this power of literature in abundance. But our selection is only a drop in the ocean in the sea of fantastic tales just waiting to be read. We hope this list inspires you to get lost in these inspiring worlds that the literary greats have gifted us.

 

Bookspiration 

‘Best of’ lists may be subjective but they can introduce you to works that otherwise pass you by. This list of 176 of the greatest books written in the English language is the perfect inspiration for choosing your next read.  

Celebrate LGBT+ History Month 

February is LGBT+ History Month in the UK, making it the perfect time to learn about the issues affecting the LGBTQIA+ community. From Booker-winning novels to autobiographies, explore Pan MacMillan’s essential LGBTQIA+ reading list. 

 

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The giants of literature

Words: Jonathan McIntosh 

 

Britain and Ireland are home to many literary legends who’ve penned people, plots, and prose that have captured readers’ hearts and minds for centuries. But knowing which chapter to choose from such a treasure trove of texts can be daunting. So, whether you’re searching for your next novel or are looking to add some classics to your to-read list, we’ve rounded up the works of some of our most celebrated writers to inspire your next page-turner.     

Jane Austen  

1775-1817 

For a woman to write in the 18th and early 19th century, let alone use her writing to explore women’s issues, was unheard of, which is why Jane Austen published her first work, Sense and Sensibility, anonymously in 1811. From then on, she grew to become the English language’s first major female novelist.  

Austen’s tales explore the romantic lives of the English middle and upper classes via her famous biting sense of irony. Emma, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion were all incredibly successful, but Austen ranked Pride and Prejudice as her favourite novel – branding it her “darling child”. 

Sadly, Austen gained more fame in death than when she was alive. Regardless, she’s one of English literature’s most influential women and paved the way for generations of female writers. 

George Orwell 

1903-1950 

The Indian-born, England-based author and journalist, Eric Arthur Blair, adopted his pen name shortly before the publication of his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London in 1933. 

Orwell is renowned for his social justice, totalitarianism opposition and democratic socialism – qualities likely intensified through serving as a police officer with Burma’s Imperial Police from 1936-37, his stint in Spain’s Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification in 1938, and in his role creating propaganda for the BBC throughout 1941-1943. 

He is most famous for his 1945 satirical allegorical novella, Animal Farm, and his 1949 dystopian novel about totalitarian states, Nineteen Eighty-Four, which together have sold more copies than any two books by another 20th-century author. His 1938 book, Homage to Catalonia, charting his experiences as a volunteer in the Republican Army during the Spanish Civil War, is also widely acclaimed.  

Today, Orwell’s criticism of authoritarian governments lives on in the neologism ‘Orwellian’, an adjective used to describe oppressive or manipulative behaviours – practices he stood steadfastly against. 

Virginia Woolf 

1882-1941 

This pioneer of Modernist literature is regarded as one of the most important writers of the 20th century.  

Mrs Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927) showcase the stream-of-consciousness storytelling style which Woolf pioneered. This rejected the traditional narrative form in favour of non-linear prose, which reflected the inner workings of her characters’ minds. 

In A Room of One’s Own (1929) Woolf argued for the need for women to achieve economic and intellectual freedom to guarantee social equality. She also explored gender, sexuality and gender politics in Orlando (1928), suggesting gender roles are unnecessarily forced on us by society.  

Woolf battled mental illness throughout her life and died by suicide after finishing her final novel, Between the Acts, which was published posthumously in 1941. 

E.M. Forster 

1879-1970 

Forster’s most famous works, Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), A Room with a View (1908), Howard’s End (1910) and A Passage to India (1924) explore the forms of repression that Edwardian England instilled in its society. 

This theme of repressing oneself to conform with societal expectation resonates with Forster’s lifelong conflict with his own position as a gay man within Edwardian society.  

It was only after his death that much of Forster’s unseen literature was discovered.  

This led to publication of Maurice and The Life to Come, two seminal works which explore Forster’s thoughts on queer sexuality in a stifling society.  

It’s thought that Forster likely decided to hide his gay literature from public judgement following Oscar Wilde’s hostile treatment and conviction in 1895 for homosexual acts. 

James Joyce 

1882-1941 

The Irish writer was one of the 20th century’s most distinctive authors whose writing style challenged literary conventions.   

Joyce wrote the short story collection Dubliners in 1914, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in 1916, Ulysses in 1922 and Finnegans Wake in 1939. He also published his poetry collections, Chamber Music and Pomes Penyeach, in 1907 and 1927 respectively. 

Joyce was extremely experimental. He used interior monologue, a characteristic Modernist form, and drew complex symbolic parallels from mythology and history to create his unique language of invented words, puns and illusions.  

These flourishes are especially apparent in Ulysses, which was serialised in America and England before being published as a complete book in 1922 (though banned in America between 1922 and 1933). 

William Shakespeare 

1564-1616 

No discussion about the UK’s most prolific authors could be complete without mentioning William Shakespeare – the best-selling British writer of all time.   

The Stratford-upon-Avon-born playwright, poet and actor is regarded as the greatest writer in the English language. In fact, the bard is responsible for coining 1,700 everyday words and phrases that we still use in today’s English lexicon – including words like alligator, fashionable and kissing! 

Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet rank among Shakespeare’s most famous plays, while others such as Cymbeline, Coriolanus and All’s Well That Ends Well are revered as underrated gems. But don’t just take our word for it. Delve into Shakespearean dramas yourself to discover your own favourite.   

Literature opens our minds to new perspectives and ideas that we might not experience in our everyday lives. The writers we’ve spotlighted show this power of literature in abundance. But our selection is only a drop in the ocean in the sea of fantastic tales just waiting to be read. We hope this list inspires you to get lost in these inspiring worlds that the literary greats have gifted us.

 

Bookspiration 

‘Best of’ lists may be subjective but they can introduce you to works that otherwise pass you by. This list of 176 of the greatest books written in the English language is the perfect inspiration for choosing your next read.  

Celebrate LGBT+ History Month 

February is LGBT+ History Month in the UK, making it the perfect time to learn about the issues affecting the LGBTQIA+ community. From Booker-winning novels to autobiographies, explore Pan MacMillan’s essential LGBTQIA+ reading list. 

 

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