Overview The English language today is not confined within the political boundaries of the United Kingdom. As English is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, English literature is now equivalent to Anglophone literature – enriched every minute not only from the United Kingdom but also the United States of America, Canada, India, and other South-Asian countries in the Indian Subcontinent, Australia and New Zealand, the Caribbean, South Africa, and several countries of Central Africa – to just name a few. Also, almost all bestselling books from all other leading languages in the world – Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Japanese, Swahili, all major Indian languages, and all major European languages – are constantly being translated into English. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. English literature, therefore, is a vast subject that ranges from the days of Old English Heroic Poetry (for example Beowulf and The Battle of Maldon), to Geoffrey Chaucer and the English Renaissance, the Elizabethan and the Jacobean periods, to the twenty-first century. The subject is by no measure easy, and a thorough understanding of the temporal division of periods coupled with a basic understanding of the writers and their major works are what one needs to advance in this discipline of learning.
However, choosing the best History of English Literature book can often be a daunting task. There are lots of options to select from. Also, the qualities and the expanses of the books greatly vary. Choosing the right history of English literature book in your freshman year is as important as going for the right dose of medication. If the dose is too light, the disease will not be cured. Similarly, if the book is too basic, you shall have incomplete and insufficient knowledge of the subject. On the other hand, an overdose of medicine can result in serious adverse effects. Likewise, if you go for an extra-detailed book, you will be overwhelmed with information and probably make a mess of everything. It is therefore quintessential that you begin with easier work, and gradually scale up to more detailed books to have a complete and exhaustive understanding of the history of English literature.
Let us now have a look at some of the best books on English literary history. The books are arranged in a particular chronology, starting from the easiest one to the most detailed. If you read these top five books on the history of English literature in this same order, you shall have a complete understanding of the subject. This will definitely help you cover your English Honours syllabus in an extensive manner and do well in the semester examination. Keep reading!
1. A Short History of English Literature, by Ifor Evans The Provost of University College London for nearly a decade and a half, Professor Ifor Evans knew the challenges of teaching the history of English literature to the freshman year like no one else. His expertise in teaching literary history was further reinforced by a year he spent in the Middle-East, providing him with valuable exposures to students whose first language was not English. The result was the prodigal book, A Short History of English Literature. And Sir Evans was astonishingly true to his words: the word 'short' in the title is not at all misguiding. Over decades, his book has remained the best introduction to students of English literary history from a different culture and language environment, and there is no reason why we should not list this book as the first baby step. An advantage of this book is its rich style but a lucid language: a diction suitable from a knight (Sir Evans was knighted in 1955, and created a life peer as Baron Evans of Hungershall in 1967).
2. History of English Literature, by Edward Albert Perhaps the most popular and the most-sold book on the history of English literature, Edward Albert's relatively shorter work provides a newbie student with the first information-rich glance into the subject. While the style of Sir Evans has remained mostly lucid, Albert tried to make his writing compact and concise, in order to accommodate as much information as possible without augmenting the volume beyond the comprehensive limit of a newcomer. It is a book prescribed by most Indian universities, so much so that it can be called the holy scripture of English literary history with which every student must be baptized. And since it is short and rich in information, it is a quick way to revise what you had studied earlier, once the semester examinations knock on your doors.
3. The Short Oxford History of English Literature, by Andrew Sanders A Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Durham, Andrew Sanders is known several works, including The Victorian Historical Novel (1978), Charles Dickens: Resurrectionist (1982), Dickens and the Spirit of the Age (1999) – but it is The Short Oxford History of English Literature (1994) that has given him a worldwide reputation. While the work of Professor Sanders is by no means as short as that of Sir Ifor Evans, it does not transgress the viable limits of comprehension either. Within a considerably short span, Evans has discussed in due detail the development of English literature from the Anglo-Saxon period to the postmodern age. Particularly, his commentary on the socio-cultural aspect helps the student connect the texts to their contexts: unlike several other authors of the history of literature, Sanders has not just mentioned a few writers here and works there, but has painstakingly connected every genre and every text to the background they belonged to. It is by reading the book of Sanders, therefore, new students of English literature start seeing the bigger picture as they can connect the dots, which is difficult to achieve if the study is limited only to the works of Sir Evans and Professor Albert.
4. A History of English Literature, by Arthur Compton-Rickett Although written in a style that can be deemed old-fashioned by some, Compton-Rickett's book is one of my personal favorites for several reasons. Firstly, it offers considerable details, but not as much as the colossal books by Sir Daiches. It is by no means a beginners' book though, and one should approach the book of Compton-Rickett only after familiarizing oneself with the introductory books listed above. Secondly, not only is the book detailed, but it also cites several examples from the works composed in that period concerned, thus helping the student connecting the text and the context. For example, if Compton-Rickett is writing on Charles Dickens and discussing his writing style, he not only makes a statement but also quotes from copious works of Dickens in detail to reinforce his argument and cite examples. Albert has also done that, but not as extensively has Compton-Rickett has done.
5. A Critical History of English Literature, Volumes 1 & 2, by David Daiches
Just as Sir Ifor Evans was true to the title of his book when he named it 'a short history', the work of Scottish academician Sir David Daiches, CBE, is truly 'critical' – so much, that unless one knows the basics well, the details can be quite overwhelming. However, if you have familiarized yourself with the history of English literature already from works of the likes of Albert and Sanders, Daiches can be your go-to place and ready-reference guidebook whenever you need details to enrich your study notes. With an enormous enthusiasm, the bi-volume work guides the reader diligently through a maze of history spanning over twelve hundred years. In fact, the work is more detailed than an average student of the graduation level can digest, and should only be attempted to read if you do not find it overwhelmingly detailed. In fact, if you are not looking for a particularly detailed history of any given age, author, or text, this book should suffice to quench all your thirst for a generalized overview of the history of English literature, as usually required in the freshman year of English Honours or Major.
A bonus list. If you are looking for other good books on the history of English literature, here is a bonus list you can check out: