About this Recording
NA422112 - KEENLYSIDE, P.: History of English Literature (The) (Unabridged)

Perry Keenlyside

Perry Keenlyside

The History of

English Literature


This is, inevitably, a very brief survey of English literature, and I had better say at once something about the limitations I have imposed upon myself.


I begin in 1375 or so because Anglo-Saxon writing, however fine, is in a

language which is pretty well unreadable except by those who have studied it; the first flowering of genius in something approaching modern English comes in the second half of the fourteenth century. You will not find here much mention of Irish, Scottish or Welsh writing: to do these literatures justice, each would require its own history, although I have of necessity mentioned such influential figures as Joyce and Yeats in Irish literature, or Dylan Thomas in Welsh. Were this to be a history of literature in English, I would obviously have had to include American and post-colonial writers (Eliot and James are present because they took British citizenship). Dramatists are treated briefly because the history of drama is a subject in itself [See Naxos AudioBooks’ The History of Theatre by David Timson]. The major exception to this rule is Shakespeare, because it seems to me that he belongs almost as much to literary culture—and, indeed, culture at large—as he does to drama in particular.


Every literary enthusiast will have his or her favorite authors and texts, and I am well aware that some listeners will be disappointed, even outraged, by the omission of one or more of those favorites. I can only apologize, and confess that I have inevitably been influenced by my own particular loves, however hard I have striven to achieve balance. It would not take Sherlock Holmes (or indeed any great literary detective) to discover that Hardy, Chaucer, Austen and Larkin (to name but a few) are close to my heart… Perhaps I should also say here that literature, for me, has a great deal more to do with pleasure than with moral earnestness or the arrangement of authors in order of merit: if reading isn’t enjoyable—and even profoundly disturbing works like King Lear are, in a sense, enjoyable—then it is probably a pointless activity. If literature does modify life and how we live it, it can surely only do so through the medium of pleasurable appreciation.


I have tried to convey here something of the texts – and contexts – of the major writers in the English literary canon, quoting enough to give a flavor of each author and attempting to show a little of how they represent or express the age in which they lived. Many of us (myself included) find it helpful to be reminded who was alive and writing at a certain time, and who were his or her contemporaries: the very speed of this survey may provide a clearer overview of changes and developments through the centuries.


A history like this inevitably begs the question: what is literature, and how does it differ from other kinds of writing? It is impossible to provide a satisfactory short answer, but here goes…Literature is writing which is born of a consciously artistic intent to create something, which not only expresses a perceived truth about the human condition, but also tries to do so in a manner, which is aesthetically satisfying and productive of pleasure. Pamphlets, most journalism, this audiobook, etc., do not therefore qualify… And what (I hear you cry) are the distinguishing features of English literature, specifically? No space to do justice to this question, either, but perhaps it has something to do with its ability to range between the sublime and the everyday, the infinite and the particular: English literature that is overtly political or philosophical is rarely entirely successful—unlike, say, the French, the English have little taste for large abstract theories, and prefer to build from the ground upwards—from the quotidian to the universal. George Eliot, through the character of Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch, expresses this tendency to perfection: the novel has a wide emotional, historical and intellectual scope, and yet its effects are repeatedly achieved through a particular and beautifully-rendered moment—the moment, perhaps, when Mrs. Bulstrode comes quietly in to forgive her disgraced husband, or when Mr. Casaubon’s repulsive coldness melts briefly as he sees and is touched by the youthful ardor and vulnerability of his watching wife.


The ‘plight’ of literature, or of the novel, or the poem, is often discussed nowadays, mainly because of the impact of other media and forms of

entertainment: the very fact that this is an audiobook is revealing. Yet

more books than ever before are being bought—if not always read—and there will, I believe, always be a hunger for imaginative writing which enlarges the mind or spirit, which gives a sense of shape or meaning to the complicated business of being alive. I hope that this history may make a small contribution to encouraging that process.


Notes by Perry Kennlyside




Lullaby by W. H. Auden

Used by permission of Curtis Brown Ltd. © 1940 W.H. Auden, renewed. All rights reserved.


Pilate’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy

by kind permission of Picador, an imprint of Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

John Betjeman’s The Metropolitan Railway: Baker Street Station Buffet

by permission of Desmond Elliott, Administrator of the Estate of Sir John Betjeman


Coming by Philip Larkin,

by kind permission of Marvell Press.


About the Author


Perry Keenlyside was born in 1950. Educated at Charterhouse and Trinity Hall, Cambridge, he has taught English at independent schools since 1973. Apart from literature, his special interests include music—in his youth he was a competent amateur oboist – anything to do with English history, and France. He is also a devoted fan of Liverpool Football Club. Other Naxos titles written or edited by Perry Keenlyside include The Life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Poets of the Great War and Realms of Gold: The Letters and Poems of John Keats.

About the Readers

DEREK JACOBI is one of Britain’s leading actors having made his mark on stage, film and television - and notably as an audiobook reader. His extensive theatrical credits include numerous appearances from London’s West End to Broadway. He is particularly known for the roles of I Claudius and Brother Caedfael, both of which he has recorded audiobook versions of.


JOHN SHRAPNEL was born in Birmingham and brought up in Manchester. He joined the National Theatre (under Laurence Olivier) playing many classical roles including Banquo and Orsino. With the Royal Shakespeare Company he has appeared in classical Greek theater as well as numerous Shakespearean plays. His television work varies from Stoppard’s Professional Foul and Vanity Fair to Inspector Morse and Hornblower. Films include Nicholas and Alexandra, One Hundred and One Dalmatians and the role of Gaius in Gladiator.


JONATHAN KEEBLE’s theater work includes leading roles at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, Coventry, Liverpool, Exeter, Lancaster and West Yorkshire Playhouse. Television includes People Like Us, The Two Of Us and Deptford Grafitti. Jonathan has featured in over 250 radio plays for the BBC and was a member of the Radio Drama Company.


TERESA GALLAGHER has performed in many leading roles in both plays and musicals across Great Britain, London’s West End, and Off Broadway. In addition, she is a well-known voice to listeners of BBC Radio Drama. Her work on film includes The Misadventures of Margaret and Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy.


ANTON LESSER is one of Britain’s leading classical actors. He has played many of the principal Shakespearean roles for the Royal Shakespeare Company, including Petruchio, Romeo and Richard III. Appearances in major television drama productions include

The Cherry Orchard, Troilus and Cressida, The Mill on the Floss

and The Politician’s Wife.


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