A History of English Literature

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Clarence Mangan, would be shouldered out by English worthies, not to mention the
native literature of Saunders Lewis, Sorley Maclean and a great many writers in Irish
Gaelic. Only one of the above-mentioned writers gets a mention in this book. There
has been a New Penguin Book of English Verse(2000), an anthology of poems in ‘the
language common to these islands’. But a comprehensive history, from medieval
times onward, of the poetry, fiction and drama of four countries would not work.
The historical relationship between England, Britain, Ireland and the United
Kingdom is not well understood even in the United Kingdom. Outside it, the differ-
ence between England and Britain is generally ignored. As an Englishman who
taught in Scottish universities for 33 years, I found that many Scots do not want
Burns or Scott to appear in a history of English Literature.
So this book addresses literature written in English by the English. It also consid-
ers writers who lived much in England, such as James ‘Rule Britannia’ Thompson,
Oliver Goldsmith, R. L. Stevenson, Oscar Wilde, J. M. Barrie, G. B. Shaw and Muriel
Spark. Also included are a few who lived mostly out of England but who contributed
in a big way to the English literary tradition, or had a major effect on it, most notably
Walter Scott, whose historical fiction changed the English novel. These borderline
cases include Swift, Maria Edgeworth, Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney.
Generally, however, writing by non-Brits is (again with regret) excluded, for reasons
of focus, coherence and space, from the main text.
Britain is a geographical term. The largest of the British Isles was called Great
because it was larger than Brittany, the western peninsula of Gaul. Great Britain
became a political entity from 1603 onwards. Geographically, Britain does not
include Ireland, though she interfered with its politics for centuries. Constitutionally,
Ireland was part of a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland from 1801 to
1922.Ir ish writer s, unless born in Northern Ireland, have not been British subjects
since 1922.Scotland,having shared a crown with England since 1603, became part
of the United Kingdom of Great Britain by the Union of 1707. Wales has been ruled
by England since the Middle Ages. An effect of this complex history is that the inhab-
itants of all these countries are often seen as British – especially outside the United
Kingdom. ‘British’ comes to mind easily, if sometimes erroneously, because ‘United
Kingdom’is a name without an adjectival form: ‘United Kingdomish’ has never
caught on.Irish writers thus vaguely ‘British’ (and thus part of English literature)
include Congreve, Swift, Berkeley, Sterne, Goldsmith, Burke, Edgeworth, Shaw, Wilde
and Yeats, Irish-English persons who lived in England for all or part of their lives.
Many Irishmen have been UK subjects, James Joyce, for example, who kept up his
British passport until the day he died. Samuel Beckett, asked by a French journalist if
he was English, replied ‘Au contraire’. Born near Dublin in 1906, when Ireland was
ruled from Westminster, Beckett was thus a citizen of the United Kingdom of Great
Britain and Ireland. As his influence revolutionized English drama, he is in. So is the
man who has long been the most popular living poet in English, Seamus Heaney,
born in Northern Ireland, and educated at Queen’s University, Belfast, though his
passport is now green. Geographical facts and the curious vagaries of history affect
the eligibility of writers to be considered in this book.
A literary history is about writing and writers. What is readin England has
recently become more international, but a history of English Literature should not
fo r this reason change its policy at the last minute. The talented Indian novelist
Vikram Seth is much appreciated in England, and the titles of his novels appear in a
marginal box in the final chapter of this book. If having an English readership is a


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