English Literature: A very short introduction

by Jonathan Bate (Oxford University Press, 2010): 180pp, £4.99 (pbk), ISBN 978 0 19 956926 7.

Reviewed by Christine Lindop

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This was my first experience of a 'Very Short Introduction' – paradoxical, really, since of all the subjects in the huge list of titles at the front, it's one I know a bit about. But I was curious to know how such an enormous topic could be tackled in such a small space.

How to begin this daunting venture? Interestingly, the author begins with children's literature, suggesting that early encounters with Peter Rabbit, Winnie the Pooh or the Gruffalo are our starting point on the journey through English literature. A parallel between the opening of The Gruffalo and Dante's Hell alerts the reader to the idea that this discussion will range both widely and creatively.

Close focus to grand sweep and back again

Poetry, drama, novels, the history of English literature – the book goes at a brisk pace for the most part, though I found that a rather detailed discussion of a scene from King Lear slowed things down somewhat and was possibly out of place in such a broad view.

However, with that exception the author moves very skilfully from close focus to grand sweep and back again, carrying the reader along with him.

Many Englands

Other interesting points are raised and discussed, too. What is English literature – literature written in English? literature written by the English? or by the British? How do the many Englands find their place in English literature, from the rural England of Defoe or Cobbett, to the industrial vortexes of Dickens or the ordered country life of Jane Austen?

The contributions of the 'migrants, refugees, and former colonial subjects' to the great wealth of English literature are not overlooked either.

Insights and opinions

I was impressed by the scope of this book, ranging as it does from the Roman invasion to practically the present day, with Carol Ann Duffy's 2009 poem 'Last Post' introducing a thoughtful discussion of war poetry. In all, I think its title sums up very well what it does, and I think even the most learned reader would find insights and opinions here that are stimulating.

But now I'm back to the list at the front of the book – maybe it's time for a 'VSI' to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Or the Marquis de Sade. Or – heaven help us – the Meaning of Life (not the film, presumably) …

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