10 Quintessentially English Books Everyone Should Read
Different people have very different ideas of Englishness.
To some, it’s Hugh Grant looking floppy-haired and nervous in Four Weddings and a Funeral. To others, it’s harbouring a bizarre obsession with the weather. It can be defined by what it’s not – it’s not Scottishness and it’s definitely not Frenchness. What exactly that is can be hard to pin down, but it is often best expressed through English writing, whether fiction or nonfiction. In this article, we take a look at some of the books that help to pin down what Englishness really represents.
1. Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen (1811)
For many people, the grand stately homes of the landed gentry are central to Englishness. Think of Pemberley (Pride and Prejudice), Manderley (Rebecca), Brideshead (Brideshead Revisited), Thornfield Hall (Jane Eyre) or, for those who prefer boxed-sets to books, Downton Abbey. When Ireland was in the process of gaining its independence from the British Empire, there was a vogue for the ‘big house novel’, centred around the stately homes of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, which usually burned down at the climax of the novels in which they featured – a piece of symbolism about the rejection of Englishness that doesn’t require further explanation…
The stately home in Sense and Sensibility is Norland, from which the Dashwood family are evicted following the death of Mr Dashwood. Instead, they have to move to Barton Cottage, which has “dark narrow stairs, and a kitchen that smokes”. The stately home in which the Dashwoods should, by rights, have been living, feels particularly vivid for its absence in their lives. Add to that two beautiful but impoverished young women, a young clergyman, and a respected former Army officer, and you have an image of England that has lived on in the national imagination for generations.
2. The Idylls of the King – Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1859)
The myth of King Arthur has been a powerful force in the history of England. He was said to have defended England against Saxon invaders after the Romans left Britain (whilst ‘England’ didn’t exist as a country at that time, it’s worth noting that King Arthur is associated primarily with English locations such as Tintagel and Glastonbury), and would return if the country were under such a threat again. The story of King Arthur has been popular for well over a thousand years, and it was revived once more by the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson in his cycle of twelve narrative poems that formed The Idylls of the King.
The Idylls of the King was written at a time when the concept of the nation-state was coming into being – defined not only by politics and economics but also a sense of a shared culture, to which national myths such as that of Arthur were crucial.
3. Five on a Treasure Island – Enid Blyton (1942)
Enid Blyton’s children’s book series The Famous Five tells the story of four children and their dog on their school holidays, getting caught up in a series of adventures. It’s an idealised vision of southern England: no one is ever in serious danger, there are endless picnics and homemade lemonade, and the landscape is full of historic details such as medieval cottages and secret passageways.
Though the first novel in the series – Five on a Treasure Island – was written during the Second World War, there are no references to current affairs in the novels, the characters never age, and their lives are bizarrely untouched by contemporary technology; for instance, they watch television only once. The tone of the novels was old-fashioned and nostalgic even when they were written, and all the more so when read today. Yet they have proven hugely popular with generations of readers, and when asked what a perfect English childhood ‘should’ be like, most English people will have the echo of The Famous Five in their answer.
4. The Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham (1951)
The novel that made John Wyndham famous, The Day of the Triffids is a science-fiction novel in which a ‘meteor shower’ renders everyone who sees it totally blind, while the triffids, carnivorous moving plants which had previously been farmed, roam wild in a world succumbing to anarchy. In much the same way that writers of Hollywood disaster movies love destroying New York, English writers seem to delight in scenes of an abandoned London and havoc in the picturesque villages of the home counties – both of which also feature in HG Wells’ classic The War of the Worlds (1897).
‘Cosy catastrophe’ is a staple of British science fiction, where disaster may have struck but the plucky English hero still ends up surviving or even saving the world. While the heroes of other nations might survive because they are extraordinary, the heroes of cosy catastrophe novels survive with a grit, determination, and self-deprecating humour that is presented as entirely ordinary.
5. At Bertram’s Hotel – Agatha Christie (1965)
Agatha Christie wrote no fewer than 66 detective novels. She explores Englishness from the outside through her Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot (who frequently exaggerates his foreignness in order to lead people to underestimate him) and from the inside through Miss Marple, an elderly spinster who applies her extensive knowledge of human nature from living in a small village to solving crime. Many of Christie’s novels, particularly those featuring Miss Marple, look at the way that English life changed over the course of the 20th century.
Possibly the best example of this is At Bertram’s Hotel, where the hotel in question is an oasis of prewar luxury in a postwar world. Christie says of the hotel, “Inside, if this was the first time you had visited Bertram’s, you felt, almost with alarm, that you had re-entered a vanished world. Time had gone back. You were in Edwardian England once more.” What follows is several pages of lavish description about the comforts available at Bertram’s, and the setting is integral to the events that unfold.
6. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams (1979)
Few characters are quite so quintessentially English as Arthur Dent, the hero of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He is the last surviving human following the destruction of the Earth, still wearing his dressing gown and trying to muddle through a series of ever-expanding crises. When Arthur is watching a planet being built, Adams describes the following scene: “Arthur blinked at the screens and felt he was missing something important. Suddenly he realized what it was. “Is there any tea on this spaceship?” he asked.” Arthur is the ultimate English everyman, and the way he behaves says a lot about how the English see themselves.
7. Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis – Wendy Cope (1985)
Wendy Cope’s poetry covers a broad swathe of middle-class British life, from poems written to celebrate Radio 4, to protesting the slowness of the Church of England’s progress towards gender equality (“Good Christian men and women, let us raise a joyful shout:/ The C of E is treating us as equals. Just about!/ Sister, fetch the fatted calf, and we`ll prepare a feast:/ You can’t become a bishop but you can become a priest.”)
Her poems frequently make fun of British institutions, for example her ‘All-Purpose Poem for State Occasions’ (“In Dundee and Penzance and Ealing/ We’re imbued with appropriate feeling”). Her references to other well-known English poetry come thick and fast, from rewriting nursery rhymes in the style of William Wordsworth to combining Gilbert and Sullivan with Ted Hughes. Her poetry is often in protest but, in traditional English fashion, the tone is usually quite gentle and she prefers to satirise rather than criticise overtly.
8. House of Cards – Michael Dobbs (1989)
Before House of Cards was a US TV series, it was a British TV series, and before that it was a book. Written by the Conservative politician Michael Dobbs at the end of the Thatcher era, House of Cards tells the story of how a Machiavellian politician, Francis Urquhart (explicitly a member of the Conservative party himself), schemes his way to the top.
House of Cards expresses a different type of Englishness: it’s an uncompromising look into English prejudices and the way of life among the ruling classes. It’s not a very flattering picture of Englishness, but it is one that rings uncomfortably true. It’s also an illustration of the way in which Englishness can differ from Britishness, even though the two terms are often used interchangeably. Francis Urquhart is English; his surname might come from Scotland but his character would be quite different if he were villainous and Scottish, or villainous and Welsh.
9. Notes from a Small Island – Bill Bryson (1995)
The best examinations of a country come from outsiders, and Bill Bryson plays the outsider perfectly in this classic piece of travel writing. His summary of the traits he considers essentially English is as good a precis as you’ll come across anywhere: “Marmite, village fetes, country lanes, people saying ‘mustn’t grumble’ and ‘I’m terribly sorry but’, people apologizing to me when I conk them with a nameless elbow, milk in bottles, beans on toast, haymaking in June, stinging nettles, seaside piers, Ordnance Survey maps, crumpets, hot-water bottles as a necessity, drizzly Sundays”.
The whole book is hilarious and endlessly quotable. Bryson grew up in Iowa, and he explores England with a sense of mixed wonder and bafflement that’s likely to make any reader want to follow in his footsteps immediately. His observations, ranging from the fact that the British indulge themselves in “the shared pretense that Britain is a lonely island in the middle of an empty green sea” to his perfectly articulated explanation of just why Stonehenge is so impressive, are all spot on – and couldn’t have been made by someone native to the country.
10. Eats, Shoots and Leaves – Lynne Truss (2003)
The bestselling book in the UK in 2002, according to Amazon, who ought to know, was What Not To Wear, a style guide based on the BBC TV series. In 2004, it was You Are What You Eat, a diet guide based on the Channel 4 TV series. There’s a theme in the kind of non-fiction that the British reading public like to buy in significant amounts. In 2003, it was Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – but not far behind that was Eats, Shoots and Leaves, which is rather implausibly a book all about punctuation.
The English are only ever self-consciously intellectual. Trying to discuss philosophy with friends sounds like an odd activity – the kind of thing the French would do. But at the same time, this is a nation that loves pub quizzes, crosswords, books of trivia, game shows – and it is to this tradition that Eats, Shoots and Leaves belongs. Its tone is ironic and self-deprecating; the reader is assumed to be someone who is more knowledgeable about English grammar and punctuation than the average person, but also recognises that this trait is something of a flaw – that a sensible person wouldn’t care quite so much about misplaced apostrophes. As the book says, “Part of one’s despair, of course, is that the world cares nothing for the little shocks endured by the sensitive stickler. While we look in horror at a badly punctuated sign, the world carries on around us, blind to our plight.” An entire book dedicated to something that the majority of the world is assumed not to care about: that, too, is very English.
Which books would you recommend as quintessentially English?
Image credits: british coastline; books on shelf; glastonbury abbey; daffodil; enid blyton books; the mousetrap; marvin; st. hilda’s; house of cards; durham castle; spaghetti.