Books for Studying History of English Literature

Literature in itself is different from the history of English literature. One can study the literature produced in various genre leisurely. However, no one really bothers to study the history of English literature other than the students and their teachers. Whosoever studies the history, must look for, at least once, the good books on history of literature. Students are often wrestling with the thoughts on which one to buy and which one to ignore. I have received many requests to recommend some good books and today I will be doing the same. If you are into academics, you need to be serious and once you are serious, you are seriously in need of good books which will explain to you the history of English literature in a simple way. Once you have the basic idea of how the history progresses and how it takes turns, you will need various perspectives on various ages of the English literature. Once you are settled with a multitude of thoughts on different ages, you will surely want to know if there are more advanced books there. Fortunately, there are many of them! So guys, now we will start the discourse on books for studying history of English literature.


History of English Literature books

Graduation books vs post-graduation books?

Well, there is no conflict like this! Good books are simply for every level. The books you might have read during your graduation will surely be helpful even if you advance in your academic pursuit. So, please keep any such thoughts out of your mind that books might not be suitable for post-graduation or graduation.

List of the books:

1. A Critical History of English Literature by David Daiches: This book comes in two volumes. The first volume contains chapters from the beginning of English Literature to John Milton and the second volume comprises of the chapters from the Restoration to the present day. The best thing about this book is the comprehensive description of the various ages in the history of English literature. The description serves as the backdrop to make the readers understand ‘what resulted in what’ sort of things. Then, another thing that you will like about the book is its style. The chapters encompass all the popular and lesser-known figures producing a specific genre of literature in a particular age. For example – Victorian Prose: John Henry Newman to William Morris, The Victorian Poets, The Victorian Novel etc. About the content of the book, there is no need to say anything! The book is just marvellous! David Daiches, the Scottish literary historian and critic, has left no grounds untouched. His opinions on literary figures are very useful for the students and teachers alike. The Indian students, who care for UGC NET examination, must go through these two volumes at least once.

2. History of English Literature by Edward Albert: Less is known about the author of this book but the book is very important for the students who want to understand the history (based on timeline) of English literature. The author has divided this book into fourteen chapters and the names of them are based on the popular literary figure of the age. Moreover, the inclusion of a ‘time chart’ at the beginning of the chapter is very useful to have an overview of the age. The content of the book is rather short but succinct! You can easily understand the life and works of an author in the language the author has used in this useful book. I will recommend it to those who want to have a quick overview of the history of English literature, very quickly. Edward Albert will not disappoint you!

3. A Short History of English Literature by Harry Blamires: I don’t know whether students are generally aware of this book or not. Believe me, this book is really useful! Harry Blamires, who served as the head of the English Department at King Alfreds College, has done a wonderful job in writing this book. He has divided the book into twenty-two chapters and each chapter, from the first, ‘The fourteenth century’ to the last, ‘The twentieth century novel’ is truly wonderfully produced. The citations from the works of eminent literary figures and the discourse, which clarifies and scans, are all very well done. For example, the information about life and works of Dickens, the central Victorian Novelist, has been packed in the pages 357-62. A reader will have adequate information as well as understanding about Dickens after reading the pages. Blamires’ language is simple yet witty and his arguments are informative and enriching at the same time. He very well understands which berry to eat and which to throw back! If you can find this book, do find and study.

4. A History of English Literature by Robert Huntington Fletcher: This book might seem odd at the very first sight. However, this book is very useful for those who just want an overview of the English literature history. The author has chosen to divide the English literature history into nine different periods (only up to Victorian age). What you might find interesting as well as useful is Fletcher’s idea of pointers and summaries. He has also included, at the end of the book, the assignments for study as well as the list of important editions on some of the important literary figures. In just around 300 pages, Fletcher has given the very much comprehensive document discussing the history of English literature! I will highly recommend this book to all those who are just taking up English literature as their graduation study.

5. A History of English Literature by Michael Joseph Alexander: Published by the palgrave foundations, this is a highly commendable book on the history of English literature! Michael Alexander, widely known for his modern verse translation of Beowulf, has written this book with a very interesting introduction, an introduction like which we rarely find in the books. He has divided the book into fourteen sections, including a ‘postscript on the current’. This is the only book I find which discusses the English literature of the modern period so vividly and largely. For the twentieth century English literature, we have four units in this book and each of them covers a wide range. This book will prove very very and very much useful to the students (Indians mostly) who have to study the modern period in English literature. The six pages of the ‘postscript’ are packed with quality content and useful information on the ‘current’ in English literature. The author has discussed briefly about contemporary poetry, contemporary novel and postmodernism.

(Note: The books below are rather scholarly editions on history of English literature. With information, these books will also enrich the readers with the first hand opinions of the authors on the major events in English literature history, major literary personalities and the various aspects. These books will also be useful for any kind of research work in the field of English literature.)

6. History of English Literature by Legouis and Cazamian: This is undoubtedly the most versatile book on the history of English literature that I have read! Read from any page or begin any chapter, you will be surprised or rather delighted to read the elaborated language and the things being discussed. Praised by many and loved by most of the academicians, Legouis and Cazamian’s History of English Literature stands apart from the rest in the league. I will highly recommend this book to the students (because most of the academicians already have it in their library) but only on one condition that they have already gone through another book (preferably, one of the books mentioned above) before they take it up. This book will enhance their understanding of different ages in the English literature history as well as strengthen their approach to view the literary works.

7. The Pelican Guide to English Literature, edited by Boris Ford: This series comes in seven different volumes. The volumes are:

i. The Age of Chaucer
ii. The Age of Shakespeare
iii. From Donne to Marvel
iv. From Dryden to Johnson
v. From Blake to Byron
vi. From Dickens to Hardy
vii. The Modern Age

The book, in fact, is in the form of various essays compiled and edited by Boris Ford, a noted critic who was born in British India. Recommended to me by Dr. Swarna Prabhat, head, Department of English at Nalanda College, I recommend this series to all the students who want scholarly material on different ages of English literature.

8. A Short History of English Literature by Ifor Evans: Benjamin Ifor Evans was rather a cryptic literary historian who perhaps loved to talk in a much sophisticated language full of his personal opinions. He has divided his book into sections – poetry, drama, novel and prose. He does not only give you an account of what happened in the ‘making of history of English literature’ but also gives you his opinion on what might have instigated ‘what actually happened’. For example, I will quote Lord Ifor Evan’s words from page number 96:
“Tennyson and Browning were to restore to poetry something of a higher function, though Tennyson was charged with sometimes having one eye on the audience and, after he was made Laureate, with having both eyes on the Queen.”

Whatever! I will still recommend this book to the students and their teachers as well. Ifor Evans was a scholar and also decorated one of the most reputed posts in the higher education. His work is worth reading and very useful too.

So, friends, this is my list of good books on the history of English literature that I will recommend to everyone. However, I have surely left out some books which others might think being useful and informative too. Indeed, there might be many others! Nevertheless, out of almost twenty different books on English literature history that I have in my library, I have decided to enlist some and exclude some. Readers may give their opinions on my list and suggest what might be included and what might be excluded! Thank you for your time!