Did you make a new year’s resolution to read more? With our idiot’s guide to British literature, we can steer you in the right direction. WORDS: Alison grinter
The Victorian novel
During Queen Vicky’s reign (1837-1901), the novel knocked poetry off its perch as the leading form of literature, known for its realistic portrayal of social life.
Given that the industrial revolution was in full swing, this meant stories about ragged children forced up chimneys or destitute young women having to marry some rich, paunchy idiot so their families wouldn’t starve.
OK, so they weren’t cheery stories, but at least they drew attention to the social injustices of the day.
But it wasn’t all urban gloom and doom.
In Yorkshire the Brontë sisters were churning out tales of forbidden love and betrayal, and George Eliot (actually a woman who wanted to be taken seriously as a novelist) was working on her masterpiece Middlemarch.
For a taster try: Oliver by Charles Dickens (warning: there’s no singing in the book!); Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë; Tess Of The D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy.
British literature started to get a bit “ooh-er, missus” with the publication in 1960 of DH Lawrence’s controversial Lady Chatterley’s Lover (written in 1928).
The book’s publisher Penguin was prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act but acquitted, opening the floodgates for all manner of dirty filth.
In 1997 Arundhati Roy’s Booker prize-winning The God Of Small Things earned her an obscenity trial in her native India for the book’s sex scenes between a Christian woman and a Hindu servant.
On a slightly different note, in 1988 Salman Rushdie garnered a fatwa for The Satanic Verses, which sent him into hiding for 10 years.
For a taster try: Filth by Irvine Welsh; Porno by Irvine Welsh; in fact anything by Irvine Welsh.
The bodice ripper
You won’t find romance novels listed in The Oxford Companion To English Literature.
Oh, no — they’re not considered to be “real” literature.
Even so, the bodice ripper remains a staple on British bookshelves.
Though UK publisher Mills & Boons led the way, Catherine Cookson perfected the genre with her gentle, well-crafted romantic novels.
Hugely popular, Cookson was, until very recently, the most borrowed author from Britain’s libraries of all time.
Jilly Cooper has since taken up the baton with her racy “bonkbusters”, featuring horsey types shagging each other’s spouses. Classy.
For a taster try: The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous by Jilly Cooper; The Tinker’s Girl by Catherine Cookson.
The historical novel
These books take the basic facts of a historical figure’s life and create a whole fictional narrative around them.
Of course this is great for the author because they can take an already ripping yarn (like Anne Boleyn and her sister vying for Henry VIII’s affections) and go to town with it (like suggesting Anne really slept with her brother — ew! — as Philippa Gregory did in The Other Boleyn Girl).
Even better, the rights of these books get bought by Hollywood and made into costume dramas starring hunky actors who bear no physical resemblance to the real-life person (like Eric Bana as Fatty VIII, come on!)
For a taster try: Georgiana, Duchess Of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman; The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir.
The Jane Austen novel
As the original chick-lit author, Ms Austen deserves a category all her own.
Generally speaking her books are morality tales that end happily when the beautiful, virtuous, quick-witted heroine marries the rich, moody stud muffin with an enormous private income (ie one he inherited from Mummy and Daddy).
The nasty, bad-mannered, snooty people get their comeuppance and the plain, nice girls end up having to marry the dull yet well-hung vicar.
Oops, I meant well-read.
For a taster try: Mansfield Park, Sense And Sensibility, Emma and Bridget Jones’s Diary. Yes, it was actually written by Helen Fielding but is really just a modern, sluttier version of Pride And Prejudice. Or rent Clueless on DVD to see Alicia Silverstone recreate Austen’s titular Emma as a vapid Valley Girl.
The detective novel
Charles Dickens is credited with creating the first literary detective — Inspector Bucket — in his 1852 novel Bleak House.
Thankfully, Arthur Conan Doyle came along a few years later with his much more catchily named hero, Sherlock Holmes.
Using his brilliant powers of deduction and the odd snort of cocaine, Holmes was able to unravel even the most complicated of crimes.
Holmes’ adventures paved the way for Agatha Christie’s elaborate “whodunnits”, featuring the eccentric talents of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, exotic locations and lashings of Christie’s macabre sense of humour.
It was certainly a winning formula, making her the best-selling author of all time with two billion copies sold.
For a taster try: The Hound Of The Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle; Murder On The Orient Express by Agatha Christie; or see Christie’s play The Mousetrap, the West End’s longest-running show.
Without doubt, the Big Daddy of modern fantasy fiction is JRR Tolkein.
His tales of lords, rings and hobbits captured the imagination of geeks all over the world, while the celluloid versions of these books finally put New Zealand on the global map.
JK Rowling, meanwhile, made gazillions of pounds off the back of a bespectacled boy called Harry.
Now there’s a fantasy most of us would like to come true.
For a taster try: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe by CS Lewis; Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.