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British Literature

Explore the world of British literature, which concerns English-language written works produced by the inhabitants of the islands comprising the modern-day United Kingdom, including fiction, nonfiction, drama, poetry, and literary criticism. British literature has a rich history that extends back to the seventh century and includes some of the most studied authors and works.

One of the most famous works of early literature from this region is the epic Old English poem Beowulf, written sometime around 975–1025 CE. Other important early works include the stories surrounding the legendary King Arthur, such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (late 14th century) and Le Morte d’Arthur (1485). Geoffrey Chaucer, author of the famous The Canterbury Tales (late 14th century), is considered the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages.

The Elizabethan Age (1558–1603, named for Queen Elizabeth I) is considered the golden age of English drama, led by its most famous figure William Shakespeare and also including the notable writers Christopher Marlowe and Edmund Spenser. In addition to plays, Shakespeare also popularized the English sonnet. During the 17th century, John Donne, John Milton, and Aphra Behn also produced important works of poetry.

Toward the end of this century, the English novel began its ascendance, beginning with John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). In the 18th century, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) were major novels, and Alexander Pope was the preeminent poet. Samuel Johnson is one of the most important authors of nonfiction during this century.

The Industrial Revolution that began in the late 18th century resulted in more people moving to Britain’s overcrowded cities to secure jobs. This proved to be a major influence on British literature, as Romanticism, a movement that focused on the beauty of the rural landscape, produced several poets of note, including William Blake, William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and John Keats. Novelists working in the Romantic tradition include Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott.

Starting in the 19th century, the Victorian period (named for Queen Victoria) rivaled the Romantic period in poetry with Robert Browning; Elizabeth Barrett Browning; Gerard Manley Hopkins; and Alfred, Lord Tennyson all active at this time. Playwrights Oscar Wilde and the comic-opera duo of W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan were prominent on the theater scene. This period also produced several important novelists, including Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë, Thomas Hardy, and George Eliot.

At the start of the 20th century, the two most popular British writers were Rudyard Kipling and H. G. Wells. With the upheaval of World War I (1914–1918), writers began to question the conventional middle-class tastes that dominated the Victorian era, leading to the Modernist movement. Modernist English writers produced more intellectually challenging as well as controversial content. Major novelists include Virginia Woolf, Aldous Huxley, D. H. Lawrence, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, and E. M. Forster, while the poets William Butler Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and Dylan Thomas produced work that challenged conventional forms and styles. Playwright George Bernard Shaw was also of this era.

Scholars debate when modernism transitioned to postmodernism, with some suggesting directly before or after World War II (1939–1945). Postmodernism continued the experimentation of modernism but is otherwise difficult to define. Notable works from the postwar era include George Orwell’s dystopian classics 1984 and Animal Farm and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Starting in the 1980s, postcolonial writers, including Anglo-Indian writer Salman Rushdie and Trinidadian-British novelist V. S. Naipaul, attracted critical and commercial attention.

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British Literature Resources

Gale provides scholarly resources by publishing databasesprimary source archives, and eBooks.


Gale databases offer researchers or teachers access to credible, up-to-date publications for research or teaching. Sources include journals, literary magazines, newspapers, and more.

Primary Source Archives

Gale Primary Sources offers collections that include British literary journals, magazines, and articles that provide researchers with firsthand material.

Nineteenth Century Collections Online: British Theatre, Music, and Literature

This collection includes receipts and archives from the Drury Lane Theatre; Royal Philharmonic Society music manuscripts; and the largely forgotten Wandering Minstrels archive, which opens a rare glimpse into the decades of Gilbert and Sullivan. The archive enables scholars to explore primary sources covering such topics as Victorian popular culture; street literature; social history; music, bloods, and penny dreadfuls; professional acting on the London stage; the Royal Literary Fund; British dramatic works; and many others.

British Literary Manuscripts Online: c. 1660‒1900

The first installment in this series provides intimate glimpses into the lives and works of famous and lesser-known British authors from a significant 200-year literary period. It includes thousands of pages of poems, plays, essays, novels, diaries, journals, correspondence, and other manuscripts from the Restoration through the Victorian era.

British Literary Manuscripts Online: Medieval and Renaissance

The second part of British Literary Manuscripts Online series, British Literary Manuscripts Online: Medieval and Renaissance offers students and researchers unprecedented online access to nearly 400,000 pages of rare manuscripts from the Medieval and Early Modern periods, ca. 1100 to 1660. Researchers and students can explore a rich tapestry of letters, poems, stories, plays, chronicles, religious writings, and commonplace books through searchable online catalog records. Scholars will find important cultural and historical sources, like the 1488 manuscripts of Barbour’s Life and Acts of Robert the Bruce.

Gale eBooks

Gale offers a variety of books covering a wide range of topics, including poetry, fiction, and more. Users can add Gale eBooks to a customized collection and cross-search to pinpoint relevant material. Workflow tools help users easily share, save, and download content. 

  • The Cambridge Companion to British Fiction since 1945, 1st Edition

    The Cambridge Companion to British Fiction since 1945, 1st Edition

    Cambridge University Press | 2015 | ISBN-13: 9781316419953

    This publication, available in book or eBook format, offers a compelling engagement with British fiction from the end of the Second World War to the present day. Since 1945, British literature has served to mirror profound social, geopolitical, and environmental change. Written by a host of leading scholars, in this publication the editors explore the myriad cultural movements and literary genres that have affected the development of postwar British fiction, showing how writers have given voice to matters of racial, regional, and sexual identity. Covering subjects from immigration and ecology to science and globalism, this companion draws on the latest critical innovations to provide insights into the traditions shaping the literary landscape of modern Britain, thus making it an essential resource for students and specialists alike.

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  • The Cambridge Introduction to British Poetry, 1945–2010, 1st Edition

    The Cambridge Introduction to British Poetry, 1945–2010, 1st Edition

    Cambridge University Press | 2015 | ISBN-13: 9781316426739

    This book provides a broad overview of an important body of poetry from England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland from the postwar period through to the 21st century. The editors offer a comprehensive view of the historical context surrounding the poetry and provide in-depth readings of many of the period’s central poets. British poetry after 1945 has been given much less attention than both earlier British and American poetry, as well as postwar American poetry. There are very few single-author studies that present the entirety of the period’s poetry. This book is unique for the comprehensive richness with which it presents the historical and literary historical scene, as well as for its close-up focus on a wide range of major poets and poems.

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  • Critical Essays on British Literature Series: Shakespeare’s Richard III, 1st Edition

    Critical Essays on British Literature Series: Shakespeare’s Richard III, 1st Edition

    Twayne Publishers | 2000 | ISBN-13: 9780783804491

    The full range of literary traditions comes to life in the Twayne Critical Essays Seriespublished by Twayne Publishers. Volume editors have carefully selected critical essays that represent the full spectrum of controversies, trends, and methodologies relating to each author’s work. Essays include writings from the author’s native country and abroad, with interpretations from the time they were writing through the present day. Each publication includes an introduction providing the reader with a lucid overview of criticism from its beginnings, illuminating controversies, evaluating approaches, and sorting out the schools of thought; the most influential reviews and the best reprinted scholarly essays; a section devoted exclusively to reviews and reactions by the subject’s contemporaries; original essays, new translations, and revisions commissioned especially for the series; and previously unpublished materials such as interviews, lost letters, and manuscript fragments. Also included are a bibliography of the subject’s writings and interviews, and a name and subject index.

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  • Critical Survey of Short Fiction: British, Irish, and Commonwealth Writers, 1st Edition

    Critical Survey of Short Fiction: British, Irish, and Commonwealth Writers, 1st Edition

    Salem Press | 2012 | ISBN-13: 9781587658068

    Critical Survey of Short Fiction includes profiles of major short story writers throughout history and the world. British, Irish, and Commonwealth writers covered include Margaret Atwood, Jane Austen, Aldous Huxley, James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, Alice Munro, and Roald Dahl. New writers to this edition are David Malouf, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Anne Enright.

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  • Fact or Phony?: The Fact or Fiction Behind Shakespeare, 1st Edition

    Fact or Phony?: The Fact or Fiction Behind Shakespeare, 1st Edition

    Gareth Stevens Publishing | 2016 | ISBN-13: 9781482442731

    William Shakespeare wrote some of the most famous plays in history, but there is plenty of misinformation about his life and times. This publication dives into those so-called “facts” and discovers what’s real and what’s fiction. Brilliant fact boxes help provide historical context to Shakespeare’s life and works, while “The Bard’s Best Bits” add Shakespeare quotes and phrases we still use in everyday life to this day.

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  • The Victorian World: Facts and Fictions, 1st Edition

    The Victorian World: Facts and Fictions, 1st Edition

    ABC-CLIO | 2018 | ISBN-13: 9781440855917

    While the Victorian era captivates many today, much of what people believe about the Victorian world is actually false. The editors look at nine specific myths about Victorian Britain, explaining how the myths perpetuated and then showing why they are inaccurate. Coverage spans 1830‒1914, from shortly before Victoria’s reign to World War I. The Victorian World: Facts and Fictions is organized in three sections, beginning with social issues, then cultural ones, and ending with politics and war. The social sections pull in the reader by discussing the most common myths about the Victorians—their sexual prudery, strict gender roles, and infamous views of the family—while offering counterpoints to the myths. The cultural section moves into humor, criminal justice issues, and race; and the political section caps the book with discussions of the Industrial Revolution, foreign affairs, and war. Included are a large number of primary source documents showing how the misconceptions became popular, along with evidence for what scholars now believe to be the truths behind the myths.

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