5 Books That Changed Britain And Why They Had The Impact They Did
No one can deny that books have power.
Looking at new book technologies shows us that much. We can look at what ensued when codices (what we would think of as a proper ‘book’) replaced scrolls as the primary means of conveying text. Though there’s a chicken-and-egg effect about what was cause and what was consequence as they happened nearly in parallel, one such change is arguably the rise of a small group of religious believers to become the largest faith on the planet: Christianity. Similarly, we can look at the huge social changes caused by the invention of the printing press, or the advent of mass literacy.
Looking at the books that changed the world is a huge question and one that demands more scope than a 2,000 word article. We’re going to take a look at the books that changed Britain, who wrote them, why they had the impact they did, and their enduring legacies today.
1. The Origin of Species – Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin wrote in 1859 that he saw “no good reasons why the views given in this volume should shock the religious views of anyone.” Yet he clearly did envisage at least some of the consequences of the world-changing publication of The Origin of Species, as he took twenty years to complete the book, though his theory had been outlined by 1838.
The Origin of Species was the book that introduced the theory of evolution to the world: the idea that the species that exist today came to be adapted to the environments in which they live through the process of natural selection. Random variants between different members of a species led to the better-adapted surviving and passing on their traits to their offspring, and the worse-adapted dying without reproducing and their traits being lost. We’ve had more than 150 years to get used to the idea, Darwin’s face appears on all Bank of England £10 notes, and still it’s controversial.
It was hotly attacked and just as hotly defended in its own time. When Bishop Wilberforce spoke out against it, Thomas Henry Huxley wrote the following remarkable sentence:
“Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science as strangled snakes beside that of Heracles, and history records that wherever science and dogmatism have been fairly opposed, the latter has been forced to retire from the lists, bleeding and crushed, if not annihilated; scotched if not slain.”
As the quote suggests, traditional religion and science were already somewhat in opposition when Darwin’s book was published, and church attendance rates were already in decline.,
Despite the controversy caused amongst the British public, The Origin of Species was and remains a landmark in British science.
2. Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens
It’s hard to choose which of Dickens’ books was most influential. There’s a strong argument to be made, for instance, for A Christmas Carol, which invented a great deal of what we now think of as timeless Christmas traditions. However, A Christmas Carol was written in a hurry as a crowd-pleaser, and is therefore perhaps not the best example of Dickens’ work as a social reformer as well as a writer.
Better examples include Bleak House, in which Dickens was sharply critical of the unfairness of the contemporary legal system, and Oliver Twist, where Dickens used his writing to protest against the treatment of poor children in workhouses. At a time when there was a general belief that people were inherently good or inherently sinful and their natures could not be changed (a belief that many people still hold today), the eponymous Oliver demonstrates that a child from the best of families (as Oliver is ultimately revealed to be) can through no fault of his own end up suffering in a workhouse and turning to a life of crime.
The Victorians drew a division between the deserving and undeserving poor – another concept that, though no longer so explicitly articulated, also stays with us today. The deserving poor were virtuous, hard-working, obeyed the law, lived in poverty through no fault of their own and so were seen as worthy recipients of charity. The undeserving poor, by contrast, were poor because of their own vices, whether that was because they were lazy or had spent their money unwisely. They were incurable; charity was wasted on them. And anyone who committed a crime was naturally in the undeserving category.
Oliver Twist turns this on its head by showing a boy who is a criminal, but who is almost angelic in his goodness – demonstrating that the division between the deserving and undeserving poor was perhaps not so clear-cut. The book may have had a role in the softening of Victorian laws towards the poor and it certainly remains the case that while we might still classify people into the categories of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’, we no longer do this with children.
3. The King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer
Turned the world upside down. The powers that be. No peace for the wicked. For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory. Love her, comfort her, honour, and keep her, in sickness and in health. The words of the Book of Common Prayer, published in 1549, and the King James Bible, published in 1611, have become so deeply woven into the English language and the rituals of British life that it seems odd to remember that someone wrote them, that their words did not spring into being of their own accord.
The Book of Common Prayer was written after the English Reformation by Thomas Cranmer, to fill the need for church services in English. The King James Bible was similarly written to fill the post-Reformation need for a well-written English translation of the Bible that was suitable for contemporary theological and political needs. Both were written in order to be accessible to the common man and reflected the vernacular of the time.
Arguably they were both written rather too well. Along with the list of phrases (many of them now cliches), they’ve both remained in use for hundreds of years, so that the up-to-date, contemporary language in which they were written has become archaic. Its poetry is now not that it is fresh and modern, but that it is seeped in traditional, to the point, at times, of being hard to understand. When the Lord’s Prayer was included in the Book of Common Prayer, God was addressed not formally as “you”, but informally as “thou”, as you would refer to a friend – as in “hallowed be thy name.” But now that “thou” has fallen entirely out of use, “for thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory” sounds much grander than the Common Worship equivalent, “For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours” – which is entirely contrary to the intention of the text when it was written all those hundreds of years ago.
4. Counter-Attack and Other Poems, and All Quiet on the Western Front
We’re currently in the second year of the centenary of the First World War, a time for reflection on the war, its effects and how we remember it. But a handful of thinkpieces aside, the way we think about the First World War is clear enough: it achieved nothing, it was a colossal waste of life, both sides suffered and neither was in the right. As public opinion goes, arguably only the Second World War is viewed so consistently.
At the time of the First World War, most wars in living memory had been fought a long way away, and by professional soldiers. When the First World War came around, not only had war on that scale never happened before, but those who fought in it were new to war in general. The social class that suffered the highest percentage of casualties was highly educated (17% of officers were killed, in comparison with 12% of ordinary soldiers), and they recorded their experiences in prose and especially poetry.
One such poet from England was Siegfried Sassoon, who in 1914 was desperate to join up and fight for his country, who won the Military Cross in 1916 for “conspicuous gallantry” and who in 1918 published Counter-Attack and Other Poems, which was harshly and uncompromisingly critical of the war and the waste of life it led to. Sassoon’s anti-war poetry, alongside that of his friend Wilfred Owen, has come to define the attitude to the First World War even of many people who have never read it.
Less biting but no less powerful is Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, first published in German in 1928 as Im Westen nichts Neues and then translated into English and published in 1929. It was a bestseller, a great deal of its interest deriving from the fact that it showed how the German experience of the First World War was a whole lot like the British one: muddy trenches, terrible food, unsympathetic generals and that same feeling of a senseless waste of life. That we think of the First World War as a pointless waste is partly down to poets such as Sassoon and Owen; that we recognise that it was a pointless waste on both sides should be attributed considerably to Remarque.
5. The Lord of the Rings
The Lord of the Rings, by Oxford professor JRR Tolkien, has sold around 150 million copies worldwide; its reach is undeniable. Its impact on the British psyche is harder to define. Tolkien’s hobbits are small, unassuming creatures who when they go out into the world manage to fight and defeat evil far stronger than themselves through their resourcefulness and, above all, their bravery. Tolkien denied that the story was an allegory for the Second World War, but the parallels are clear. When the Ninth Doctor in a 2005 episode of Doctor Who described the Second World War as “the German war machine […] rolling up the map of Europe. Country after country, falling like dominoes. Nothing can stop it, nothing. Until one tiny, damp little island says “No. No, not here.” A mouse in front of a lion,” he makes the British sound very hobbit-like indeed. There are plenty more stereotypically British traits that hobbits have, too: their small, cosy houses, for instance, their desire for comfort over beauty, or their love of gardening.
To anyone from any of the approximately 180 countries around the world that have been invaded by Britain at some point in their history, this view of the British as unassuming underdogs might seem bizarre. But nonetheless, it’s an idea that’s stuck. Tolkien’s Shire, where the hobbits live, has fed back into images of traditional Englishness. John Major’s famous speech that “Fifty years on from now, Britain will still be the country of long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers” sounds like it could be a description of the Shire.
Tolkien’s fiction was also highly influential in creating the standard image of a fantasy medieval world, and our popular culture image of the real medieval world sometimes looks suspiciously close to Middle-earth without the orcs and elves. Tolkien’s creations echo and reinforce our image of ourselves, no matter how strange that image, on analysis, might seem.
While Cranmer, Dickens and Sassoon were deliberately using their writing to pursue social change, Darwin was simply explaining his scientific theory, Remarque was writing his own emotional reaction to war and Tolkien was exploring linguistics. All the same, their writings in their own different ways all shaped what Britain is today.
Which books do you think changed Britain? Let us know in the comments!
Image credits: Typewriter, giant tortoise, King James bible, Oliver Twist, poppy field, hobbit house, ring.