Date of Publication: 06 September 2021
Throughout the canon of greats, British authors have always topped the echelons, having created some of the very best literature of all-time.
From Romantic literature to modernist waves of feminism, crime thrillers and even spell-binding magic – those who have gone on to earn themselves the titles of “classic authors” have well and truly broken the traditional realms of creative writing, using it as a platform to express their very deepest beliefs, emotion and fantasy.
But if you’re new to British literature, with so many great writers available, where do you start on your journey of some of the very best reads?
Below, you’ll discover our list of 15 classic authors to read in your lifetime. Each of them are masters of the literary craft, who have gone on to challenge beliefs, the norms of society and invented worlds, characters and lines which still resonate with us today.
1. Sir Thomas More (1478 – 1535)
“It is only natural, of course, that each man should think his own opinions best: the crow loves his fledgling, and the ape his cub.”
First on our list of classic British authors is Sir Thomas More, also known by the Catholic community as Saint Thomas More. An English lawyer, judge, philosopher, statesman, Renaissance humanist and of course – author – he was most famous not for his writing, but for having served King Henry VIII as Lord High Chancellor of England.
With that being said, he did produce a much celebrated book Utopia, published in 1516. Describing the political system of the imaginary island state titled by the same name, with much of his writing resembling that of the peaceful life in the monasteries.
However, Thomas More’s life was sadly short-lived after opposing King Henry VIII’s separation from the Catholic Church, refusing to acknowledge him as the Supreme Head of the Church of England and the annulment of his marriage to wife, Catherine of Aragon. And so, in 1535, after refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy, he was convicted of treason and beheaded.
2. Jane Austen (1775 – 1817)
“A person who can write a long letter with ease, cannot write ill.”
In 1811, a hit novel named Sense and Sensibility was published anonymously “by a Lady.” It was later discovered that that lady was actually a female author, Jane Austen – one of the first major female novelists in British literature. Famed for her works best known for describing the romantic lives of middle class society, Austen’s work contradicted others of the time, using wit and cynicism to describe ordinary people in their ordinary lives.
Austen had a striking theme in all her novels, something which was controversial for the time; promoting the idea that women should marry for love, rather than the traditional view of marrying for financial security. This is a sentiment which is echoed not only in Sense and Sensibility, but amongst her other famous novels, Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Persuasion. As such, her wildly ground-breaking views of the time still resonate with us today, making her stories ultimately timeless.
3. Mary Shelley (1797 – 1851)
“Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of the void but out of chaos.”
Another pioneering female writer and one of the classic authors to read is Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, possibly most famous for the Gothic novel Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus, which is considered to be one of the earliest examples of science fiction.
The tale was inspired by Shelley’s very own sense of isolation. After the loss of her mother and half-sister, Shelley married the rather controversial poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley. On a cold winter’s night in 1816, the couple, who were being hosted by the poet Lord Byron in his holiday home in Switzerland, both agreed to write a horror story. And so, at the age of just 19, Shelley manifested the ground-breaking creation that was Frankenstein.
Aside from this major work, Shelley was also a keen contributor to her husband’s work, editing and promoting Percy Shelley’s poetry, which was considered rather radical for his time, thanks to his advanced political and social commentaries of the time.
4. Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870)
“Prowling about the rooms, sitting down, getting up, stirring the fire, looking out the window, teasing my hair, sitting down to write, writing nothing, writing something and tearing it up…”
Next on our list of some of the most famous authors in English Literature is 19th Century storyteller, Charles Dickens. Remembered for using his platform to reveal the truths behind the disreputable side of the Victorian period, his work focused on the hypocrisy and discrimination of the British class system, diminishing almost all forms of progress.
His most famed works include Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, and A Christmas Carol, where Dickens would often depict the troubles and social injustices of the working class people during the Victorian era with a strong comedic tongue – bearing a stark contrast against the problems his very work describes. Living in London himself at the time, his stories are also peppered with all the intricate details of the city: its winding streets, intriguing corners and cosy inns, giving the rawness and authenticity to help support his character tropes. If anything, you should read them for the detail!
5. Charlotte Brontë (1816 – 1855)
“You can write nothing of value unless you give yourself wholly to the the theme — and when you so give yourself — you lose appetite and sleep — it cannot be helped —”
Another addition to our list of must-read Victorian authors is Charlotte Brontë, who is most recognised for her breakthrough novel, Jane Eyre. As the oldest of three sisters who survived into adulthood, much of her ambition to succeed against the social difficulties she faced in her upbringing in poverty can be found within her writing. For example, the tale of Jane Eyre follows the troubled life that a young working class girl faced during her upbringing.
Feminist tropes echo throughout Jane Eyre and Brontë’s other works, using first person narratives to draw an immediacy to the protagonist’s feelings of injustice and unrest. Other notable works of Brontë’s includes Shirley, a tale about industrial unrest and the role of women in society, and Villette, her third novel which follows an independent woman who faces isolation when she moves abroad to teach in a boarding school.
6. George Eliot (1819-1880)
“The words of genius have a wider meaning than the thought that prompted them.”
Mary Ann Evans, better known by her pen name George Eliot, was one of the leading Victorian writers, focusing her efforts as an English novelist, poet, journalist and translator. At the time, it wasn’t uncommon for women to pen themselves with male names, as it was quite difficult to establish yourself as a successful female writer outside of the stereotypical genre of light-hearted romantic fiction.
Some of her most famous works include the must read The Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner and Adam Bede. The common theme of these works is the attempt to analyse the varying states of the human mind, using these inner workings of the brain to add rich detail and complexity to her plots. This psychological insight and sense of realism is what has made her works go on to resonate with generations of readers – the very idea of understanding individual judgments as reflected by their inner state is something that still dominates much of our literature today.
7. Thomas Hardy (1840 – 1928)
“Beauty lay not in the thing, but in what the thing symbolized.”
Another of the most famous writers in English literature is Thomas Hardy, the renowned poet and novelist. A Victorian realist following in the tradition of his contemporary, George Eliot, he was heavily influenced by the genre of Romanticism, especially with the poetry and works of William Wordsworth.
Perhaps most famous for his powerfully visual novels which concerned themselves with the relentless pursuit of human happiness and destiny, he wrote over a dozen of those, along with collections of short stories, including; Tess of the d’Urbervilles, The Mayor of Casterbridge, and The Return of the Native. His most renowned novel, Jude the Obscure faced an adverse reception from Victorian critics on its publication in 1896, who derided it for its “immoral” treatment of themes such as religion, class, sex, education and marriage.
8. Virginia Woolf (1882 – 1941)
“Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works.”
Adeline Virginia Woolf was an English writer, considered to be one of the most important modernist 20th-Century authors, speaking about a wide range of gender issues – which would have been once frowned upon for a female author of her time. In A Room of One’s Own, she expressed the idea that women need to achieve economic independence to guarantee social equality, while her novel Orlando raised various issues around gender, suggesting traditional gender constructs are imposed by society.
Rejecting these traditional boundaries of womanhood, Woolf was also a pioneer in being the first to use stream of consciousness as a literary device to emphasise the psychological states of her characters, which is especially pronounced in novels such as Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse.
Unsurprisingly, Woolf was a very-well established writer; in total she wrote a total of nine novels, a collection of short stories, two biographies, five volumes of collected essays and reviews, two liberation books, as well as a selection of snippets from her personal diary.
9. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859 – 1930)
“If you want to write good copy, you must be where the things are.”
British writer and medical physician Sir Arthur Conan Doyle also features on our list of classic authors. Best known as being the creator of the enigmatic detective Sherlock Holmes, one of the most famous yet timeless fictional characters of all time.
Yet, the tales of Sherlock Holmes were almost never to be. Rejected three times by publishers, Sherlock Holmes only first appeared in the novel The Study in Scarlet when it was offered as a Christmas giveaway in a magazine. Since then, he has gone on to appear in nine novels and continues to enchant generation after generation, thanks to several stage, TV and film adaptations of the novels.
An excellent storywriter for his time, Conan Doyle wasn’t solely a crime and detective writer, but also dabbled his hand at historical and social romances, as well as journalistic reporting during the First World War. It was his dedication to the creative art which later earned him his knighthood, presented to him by King Edward VII in the 1902 Coronation Honours.
10. Dame Agatha Christie (1890 – 1976)
“Nothing turns out quite in the way that you thought it would when you are sketching out notes for the first chapter, or walking about muttering to yourself and seeing a story unroll.”
Hailed as “the world’s bestselling author of all time,” with over four-billion copies of her work sold worldwide, Dame Agatha Christie was a British crime writer, attributed to a huge collection of work; 66 detective novels, 15 short story collections, and more than 20 stage plays.
The central characters of these works; Hercule Poirot and sidekick Miss Marple feature in much of Christie’s work and have gone on to become household names, thanks to various TV adaptations, films, stage plays and more.
Aside from crime writing, Christie also wrote several romantic novels under the pen name of Mary Westmacott, but it’s her detective thrillers that have gone on to earn her worldwide recognition.
11. J. R. R. Tolkien (1892 – 1973)
“A pen is to me as a beak is to a hen.”
Another classic author to read, and one of the most famous Oxford writers was John Ronald Reul Tolkien – an English writer, poet, philologist and academic, best known as the creator of the high fantasy novels, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
Twice earning himself the position of Professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Oxford, it was here that he found the inspiration for his creations, unveiling a mythical world filled with legends, orcs, elves and trolls – inspired by his love of historic language, as well as his experience serving in the First World War.
Since being published, Tolkien’s narratives have gone on to be some of the most recognised and purchased books of all time, earning themselves as award-winning adaptations for the big screen.
12. George Orwell (1903 – 1950)
“When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.”
British novelist, poet, essayist and literature critic George Orwell – pen name of Eric Arthur Blair – is famed around the world for the creation of two iconic novels 1984 and Animal Farm. Reflective of his pessimism and deeply dissonant views with modern society and civilisation, today, his books are popular options for English Literature students studying Dystopia modules as part of their syllabi.
As well-received as Orwell’s works are today, including being adapted into several TV shows and film adaptations, they didn’t come without huge obstacles. As an allegorical anti-Soviet satire, Animal Farm faced much criticism at the time, especially when presenting two pigs as the central characters. In addition, his negative depictions of totalitarian states in his 1949 novel 1984, were heavily influenced by Hitler’s Nazi-led Germany, again, leading to much concern at the time.
Orwell also features on our list of must-read books to English Literature students. Read it here.
13. Ian Fleming (1908 – 1964)
“I always make it a rule never to look back. Otherwise, I’d ask myself how I could write such piffle and live with myself, day after day.”
Ian Fleming also features on our classic list of authors, famed for creating the well-known and celebrated James Bond spy thriller novels, which have gone on to earn themselves a blockbuster movie franchise. However, it wasn’t until the age of 43 when he actually began to create and develop the character of James Bond.
In fact, it was a successful career in journalism for most of his adulthood, along with experience as a broker and Naval Intelligence officer sparked his creative vision for the character of Bond. The first adventure of his was Casino Royale, which then inspired him to write a further 13 titles about the spy.
Diverging from the world of spy literature just once, Fleming is also hailed for creating the magical tale of the flying car, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for his son Caspar.
14. Roald Dahl (1916 – 1990)
“A writer of fiction lives in fear. Each new day demands new ideas and he can never be sure whether he is going to come up with them or not.”
It would be impossible to create a list of classic British authors without including the king of children’s literature, Roald Dahl. Famed for his ‘whizz-popping’ language and colourful characters, Dahl is the genius behind many of our favourite short stories and wonderful personalities, including the BFG, the Twits, and Matilda.
Outside of children’s literature, Dahl also dabbled in short stories for adults as well as his lesser-known work on screenplays. You may not have ever noticed, but Dahl was responsible for inventing some of the greatest movies of our childhoods; he was the co-writer for the screenplay of the 1968 Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and for the 1971 version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
15. J K Rowling (1965 – present)
“Sometimes the ideas just come to me. Other times I have to sweat and almost bleed to make ideas come. It’s a mysterious process, but I hope I never find out exactly how it works. I like a mystery, as you may have noticed.”
Famous around the world for her series about the teenage wizard Harry Potter, J K Rowling has been a spell-binding contributor to the bookshelves of many children and teenagers across the globe. After having the initial idea while delayed on a train from Manchester to London, Rowling spent 5 years plotting and writing seven books of the series, which she wrote in longhand on mountains of scraps of paper.
In 1993, Rowling completed the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which she completed over the course of several years whilst raising her daughter Jessica and training to become a teacher. In 1997, Bloomsbury accepted the finished version for publication and it went on to become a bestseller.
After an award-winning series of books which have gone on to become some of the highest-grossing films of all time, as well as a magical stage adaptation, Rowling now focuses her time on publishing books for adults under a new pen name, Robert Galbraith.
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