6 novels that captured life in Britain
As a BBC Two series marks the 300th birthday of the English language novel, we ask six leading authors and academics to pick the works of fiction they feel have best captured life in Britain and its empire since 1719
The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling
by Henry Fielding (1749)
Chosen by Joseph Crawford
Henry Fielding began his career as a playwright, who became famous for his political satires on the government of Sir Robert Walpole. His plays so enraged the authorities that they passed a Licensing Act in 1737, banning the performance of any drama that had not been approved by the Lord Chamberlain. Knowing that permission would never be granted for any of his works to be performed, Fielding abandoned the stage and began writing novels instead, becoming one of the earliest and greatest authors of comic prose fiction in English. Tom Jones (1749) is Fielding’s masterpiece: a comic epic that describes how its outcast hero wanders across England against the backdrop of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, seeking to discover his true identity and to be reunited with his true love, while having various bawdy and farcical adventures along the way.
Fielding wrote Tom Jones during the so-called ‘age of reason’, and much of the novel’s comedy stems from its exploration of how fiction could be written about this demystified, rational age, for which classical epic and medieval romance seemed equally inappropriate. It mocks and delights in the muddle and silliness of ordinary life, which it depicted with a level of frankness that William Makepeace Thackeray thought was still unequalled a century later. Its intellectual boisterousness is very much of a piece with the erudite and scandalous era in which it was written, and yet even today it remains a very funny, perfectly plotted and deeply satisfying comic novel.
● The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia by Samuel Johnson (1759)
● The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne (1759–67)
Joseph Crawford is senior lecturer in English literature at the University of Exeter
Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life
by Elizabeth Gaskell (1848)
Chosen by Rosalind Crone
England of the 1830s and 1840s was in the grip of a social crisis. Industrialisation combined with rapid urbanisation had led to a decline in living standards, widening the gap between rich and poor, and fuelling discontent. Concern for the plight of the poor and a fear of revolution led to the rise of the ‘industrial novel’, in which authors used vivid portrayals of factory work and urban slums to expose middle-class and upper-class readers to the true ‘condition of England’.
Foremost in this genre was Mary Barton. Its author, Elizabeth Gaskell, wife of a Unitarian minister based in a Manchester slum, was witness to the growing wealth of employers and daily suffering of their employees. In Mary Barton, the character John Barton is drawn into a trade unionist plot to murder Harry Carson, son of a mill owner. Meanwhile Barton’s daughter, Mary, rejects her working-class lover Jem Wilson in favour of Harry, who offers her the prospect of a comfortable life. When Jem is accused of Harry’s murder, Mary fights to prove Jem’s innocence without exposing her father.
The eventual resolution of the incident reveals Gaskell’s belief that the solution to Britain’s social crisis lay not in working-class political organisation, nor even in regulatory legislation, but in the cultivation of sympathetic relationships between employers and employees. Written at Chartism’s height, Mary Barton provided a powerful, digestible defence of liberal capitalism that still resonates today.
● The Warden by Anthony Trollope (1855)
● Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy (1874)
Rosalind Crone is senior lecturer in history at the Open University
by Rudyard Kipling (1901)
Chosen by Yasmin Khan
Rudyard Kipling is often scorned by modern readers for being too gung-ho and imperialistic. He was undoubtedly a committed imperialist, and some of his stories and poems are deeply anachronistic in their attitudes to race, and their overt promotion of the white man’s civilising mission. Kim, however, is a masterpiece, and gives a unique window on the British imperial world in northern India at the turn of the century. Kimball ‘Kim’ O'Hara himself is a complex and intriguing character, and the novel belies any simplistic reading.
Kim offers a unique window on the British imperial world in northern India at the turn of the century
Part spy-tale, part children’s fiction, set against the backdrop of the Great Game – a diplomatic conflict between Britain and Russia over central Asia – it tells the story of an Irish orphan boy, Kim, who lives on the streets of Lahore. This is the city where Kipling himself spent his early childhood, and where his father taught at an art school. Through Kim’s eyes we experience the sights and smells of the bazaars, streets and shrines of northern India, from the plains to the Himalayas, as he travels around trying to scratch out a living. We meet a motley collection of Indian characters, from a Tibetan Lama to a Bengali spy.
Kim is trying to fit in, too poor and Irish to be accepted by snooty British imperial society, and too white and nominally Christian to find a real place with his Indian friends. His quest is a spiritual and emotional one, as he attempts to reconcile his different identities. The book is (perhaps unintentionally) revealing about the anxieties of the colonisers themselves.
● Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1899)
● A Passage to India by EM Forster (1924)
Yasmin Khan is associate professor of history at the University of Oxford. Her books include The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan (Yale, 2007)
Mr Britling Sees it Through
by HG Wells (1916)
Chosen by Mark Bostridge
HG Wells’s Mr Britling Sees it Through has a fair claim to be the most significant British novel about the home front to appear during the First World War. Certainly it was the most popular.
Published in September 1916, it immediately struck a chord with the public, running through 13 editions within its first year, while earning widespread critical acclaim. Thomas Hardy considered it the war book that “gives just what we thought and felt at the time”.
Superficially the novel, opening in the summer of 1914, reads like Wells’s own thinly veiled autobiography. Through the eyes of Mr Direck, a US visitor to an Essex village, we first see Mr Britling and his household. Like Wells, Britling is a celebrity author who has a mistress, Mrs Harrowdean, based on Wells’s liaison with Rebecca West. Like Wells, Britling grapples with the idea that the war that breaks out in August may be the war to end wars.
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However, the mood of the book changes as Britling hears rumours of the war’s atrocities and experiences loss at first hand. His enthusiasm and sense of idealism falter. Disillusioned, he realises that this is a war like any other, “a wearisome thrusting against a pressure of evils”.
Britling’s son Hugh is killed in the trenches. In the final chapter, Britling attempts to make sense of his death, but words fail him and he breaks off in despair. Nevertheless, Wells leaves his readers with a message of hope: democracy must be perfected, and the “adventurers” who have betrayed mankind “into this morass of hate and blood” must be condemned.
● Non-Combatants and Others by Rose Macaulay (1916)
● The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca Westnbsp
Mark Bostridge is a writer and critic. His books include The Fateful Year: England 1914 (Viking, 2014)
by Evelyn Waugh (1945)
Chosen by James Holland
Although only part of Evelyn Waugh’s novel is set during the Second World War, it was written between December 1943 and June 1944, while the author was recovering from a parachute accident. Waugh served in the army during the conflict, including a stint with the Commandos, with whom he saw action at the battle of Crete in 1941.
Despite his reputation as a brilliant comic novelist, Brideshead is a wistful and rather mournful piece, narrated by Charles Ryder, an artist. One night during the war, Ryder arrives at a new army camp, only to discover that he has come to the grounds of a country house he knows very well: Brideshead, the home of the aristocratic Flyte family. This prompts him to reflect on his relationship with the family – first with Sebastian, the eccentric and tragic son; then Sebastian’s sister Julia, with whom Charles had an intense affair in the years leading up to the war.
Brideshead has been my favourite book since I first read it as a teenager – one that includes a brilliant depiction of Britain’s wartime army, in which civilian conscripts forced into the strict parameters of army life make for awkward and ill-fitting bedfellows.
● Put Out More Flags by Evelyn Waugh (1942)
● Caught by Henry Green (1943)
James Holland’s latest book is Normandy ‘44: D-Day and the Battle for France (Bantam, 2019)
by Alexander Baron (1963)
Chosen by Clair Wills
Alexander Baron was well known in the 1950s for his trilogy of novels based on his experiences during the Second World War. But his masterpiece, The Lowlife, is a different kind of book. The narrator has left the Jewish East End of his childhood for a somewhat more respectable lodging in the leafier parts of Stoke Newington. Harryboy Boas lives in one room at the top of a house, alongside an ageing white spinster, an English family, a West Indian couple, and his Jewish landlord in the basement.
The Lowlife was written around the time of the Profumo affair and the related scandal over Rachmanism, the trend of tenant exploitation named after the landlord Peter Rachman. Both Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies had been in relationships with Rachman and lived in one of his properties. Harryboy is a hopeless, inverse shadow of Rachman: he is friendly with a high-class call girl, Marcia, but she employs him, rather than the other way around, to collect money from the immigrant tenants of her string of slum houses.
It is a very funny book, but carries an ethical charge. Baron celebrates the new communities built through Commonwealth immigration by reminding us how the aftermath of the Holocaust played out in postwar London. Harryboy insists on staying a ‘lowlife’, living hand-to-mouth by gambling on the dogs, and one strand of the novel links his habit of self-sabotage to survivor guilt.
In lovingly recollecting a Yiddish-speaking past, Baron implies that, unless we cherish racial and ethnic difference, none of our communities will survive.
● Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes (1959)
● The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark (1963)
Clair Wills’s most recent book is Lovers and Strangers: An Immigrant History of Post-War Britain (Penguin, 2018)
WATCH: The Novels That Shaped Our World will air on BBC Two soon.