Daniel Defoe, Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain.
(Penguin). Classic travelogue, opening a window onto Britain in the 1720s.
Daphne du Maurier, Vanishing Cornwall.
(Penguin). Good overall account of Cornwall from an author who lived most of her life there.
Richard Ingrams (ed), England - An Anthology.
(UK Fontana). Excellent, offbeat selection of writings, ranging from the celebratory to the caustic.
H. V. Morton, In Search of England.
(o/p). Snapshots of English life in the 1920s.
Samuel Pepys, The Diary of Samuel Pepys (Penguin); The Illustrated Pepys
(Unwin/University of California). Pepys kept a voluminous diary from 1660 until 1669, recording the fall of the Commonwealth, the Restoration, the Great Plague and the Great Fire, as well as describing the daily life of the nation's capital. The unabridged version is published in eleven weighty tomes; Penguin's version is abridged; Unwin's is made up of just the choicest extracts.
J. B. Priestley, English Journey.
(o/p). Account of Bradford-born author's travels around England in the 1930s.
Jonathan Raban, Coasting.
(Picador/Penguin). Trip around the coast of England, with the occasional trip ashore in order to make supercilious remarks about the locals.
Paul Theroux, The Kingdom by the Sea.
(Penguin/G.K. Hall). Thoroughly bad-tempered critique of a depressed and drizzly nation.
Gilbert White, Natural History of Selborne.
(Penguin). Masterpiece of nature writing, observing the seasons in a Hampshire village.
Dorothy Wordsworth, Journals.
(OUP). Engaging diaries of Willy's sister, with whom he shared Dove Cottage in the Lake District.
Venerable Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
(Penguin). First-ever English history, written in seventh-century Northumbria.
Asa Briggs, Social History of England.
(Penguin). Immensely accessible overview of English life from Roman times to the 1980s.
Friedrich Engels, The Conditions of the Working Class in England.
(Penguin). Portrait of life in England's hellish industrial towns, written in 1844 when Engels was only 24.
Mark Girouard, Life in the English Country House.
(Penguin). Fascinating documentation of day-to-day existence with the landed gentry; packed with the sort of facts that get left out by tour guides.
Stuart Hall, Martin Jacques and others, The Politics of Thatcherism.
(Lawrence & Wishart/Humanities). A collection of essays on the impact of Thatcherism by leading left-wing academics of the 1980s.
F. E. Halliday, Concise History of England.
(Thames & Hudson). Whistle-stop tour, enlivened by good illustrations, photos and maps.
Christopher Hill, The English Revolution.(Lawrence & Wishart/Int. Spec. Bks); The World Turned Upside-Down.(Penguin). Britain's foremost Marxist historian, Hill is without doubt the most interesting writer on the Civil War and Commonwealth period.
W. G. Hoskins, The Making of the English Landscape .
(Penguin). Absorbing account of the changing English countryside from pre-Roman times to the present day.
Arthur Marwick, British Society since 1945.
(Penguin). Fairly readable social history, taking you up to the late 1980s.
George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier; Down and Out in Paris and London (both Penguin). Wigan Pier depicts the effects of the Great Depression on the industrial communities of Lancashire and Yorkshire; Down and Out is Orwell's tramp's-eye view of the world, written with first-hand experience - the London section is particularly harrowing.
Sheila Rowbotham, Hidden from History .
(Pluto/Westview). An uncompromising account of the last 300 years of women's oppression in Britain.
W. A. Speck, A Concise History of Britain.
(Cambridge University Press). Straightforward political history from 1707 to 1975.
A. J. P. Taylor, English History 1914-45.
(UK Oxford University Press). Thought-provoking survey from Britain's finest populist historian.
E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class .
(Penguin). A seminal text - essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the fabric of British society.
G. M. Trevelyan, English Social History.
(Penguin). A "history of people with the politics left out" in Trevelyan's own words - liberal social history from Chaucer to 1901.
Ben Weinreb and Christopher Hibbert, The London Encyclopaedia .
(Macmillan/St Martin). More than 1000 pages of concisely presented and well-illustrated information on London past and present - the most fascinating single book on the capital
Richard Bisgrove, The National Trust Book of the English Garden.
(UK Penguin). Excellent socio-cultural-botanical history, making the best introduction to the subject.
Robin Glasscock, Historic Landscapes of Britain from the Air .
(Cambridge University Press). Beautiful black-and-white aerial photos illustrate this geographical overview of Britain from Roman times to the aftermath of the Blitz.
Robert Harbison, Shell Guide to English Parish Churches.
(UK Deutsch). Refreshingly opinionated and lushly illustrated survey of some of England's finest buildings.
Andrew Hayes, Archaeology of the British Isles.
(UK Batsford). Useful introductory history from Stone Age caves to early medieval settlements.
Michael Jenner, The Architectural Heritage of Britain and Ireland .
(UK Michael Joseph). Straightforward illustrated A-Z of terms and styles.
François Matarasso, The English Castle.
(UK Blandford). Excellent on the social background and the structural evolution of England's 1700 medieval castles.
Nikolaus Pevsner, The Englishness of English Art.
(Penguin). Wide-ranging romp through English art concentrating on Hogarth, Reynolds, Blake and Constable, including a section on the Perpendicular style and landscape gardening.
Pevsner and others, The Buildings of England .
(Penguin). Magisterial series, at least one volume per county, covering just about every inhabitable structure in the country. This project was initially a one-man show, but later authors have revised Pevsner's text, inserting newer buildings but generally respecting the founder's personal tone.
T. W. Potter and Catherine Johns, Roman Britain .
(British Museum/University of California). Generously illustrated account of Roman occupation written by the British Museums's own curators.
Alec Clifton Taylor, The Pattern of English Building.
(UK Faber). Photo-packed, enthusiastic discussion of English domestic architecture, with a chapter covering each type of material used.
David Watson, English Architecture.
(Thames & Hudson). From pre-Conquest to Brutalism with black and white photos.
Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey; Persuasion (both Penguin). The early Northanger Abbey is a parody of the Gothic novel and also a satirical portrait of Bath's spa society, also featured prominently in Persuasion, her late masterpiece.
James Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson.
(Penguin). England's most famous man of letters has his engagingly low-life Scottish biographer, thirty years his junior, to thank for the longevity of his reputation.
Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights.
(Penguin). The ultimate bodice-ripper, complete with volcanic passions, craggy landscapes, ghostly presences and gloomy Calvinist villagers.
Charlotte Brontë Jane Eyre.
(Penguin). Not so many bodices ripped, though still plenty of Clavinism in this quietly feminist story of a much put-upon governess.
R. D. Blackmore, Lorna Doone.
(Penguin). Blackmore's swashbuckling, melodramatic romance, set on Exmoor, has done more for West Country tourism than anything else since.
John Bunyan, Pilgrim's Progress.
(Penguin). Simple, allegorical tale of hero Christian's struggle to achieve salvation; a staple read for the masses until the onset of agnosticism this century.
Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh.
(Penguin). Popular Edwardian novel debunking orthodox Victorian pieties, partly set in Nottinghamshire.
Geoffrey Chaucer, Canterbury Tales.
(Penguin). Fourteenth-century collection of bawdy verse tales told during a pilgrimage to Becket's shrine at Canterbury, translated into modern English blank verse.
Daniel Defoe, Journal of a Plague Year.
(Penguin). An account of the Great Plague seen through the eyes of an East End saddler, written some sixty years after the event.
Charles Dickens, Bleak House; David Copperfield; Little Dorritt; Oliver Twist; Hard Times (all Penguin). Many of Dickens' novels are set in London, including Bleak House, Oliver Twist and Little Dorritt, which contain some of his most trenchant pieces of social analysis - Hard Times, however, is set in a Lancashire mill town, while David Copperfield draws on Dickens' own unhappy experiences as a boy, with much of the action taking place in Kent and Norfolk.
George Eliot, Scenes of Clerical Life; Middlemarch; Mill on the Floss (all Penguin). Eliot (real name Mary Evans) wrote mostly about the county of her birth, Warwickshire, setting for the three depressing tales from her fictional début, Scenes of Clerical Life. Middlemarch is a gargantuan portrayal of English provincial life prior to the Reform Act of 1832, while Mill on the Floss is based on her own childhood experiences.
Henry Fielding, Tom Jones.
(Penguin). Mock-epic comic novel detailing the exploits of its lusty orphan-hero, set in Somerset and London.
Elizabeth Gaskell, Sylvia's Lovers; Mary Barton (Penguin). Sylvia's Lovers is set in a Whitby (Monkshaven in the novel) beset by press-gangs, while Mary Barton takes place in Manchester and has strong Chartist undertones.
Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd; The Mayor of Casterbridge; Tess of the d'Urbevilles; Jude the Obscure (all Penguin). Hardy's novels contain some famously evocative descriptions of his native Dorset, but at the time of their publication it was Hardy's defiance of conventional pieties that attracted most attention: Tess, in which the heroine has a baby out of wedlock and commits murder, shocked his contemporaries, while his bleakest novel, the Oxford-set Jude the Obscure, provoked such a violent response that Hardy gave up novel-writing altogether.
Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat.
(Penguin). Light-hearted accident-prone paddle on the River Thames.
Rudyard Kipling, Stalky & Co.
(Oxford University Press). Nine stories about a mischievous trio of schoolboys, drawn from Kipling's experiences of public school in Devon.
Sir Thomas Malory, La Morte d'Arthur.
(Penguin, 2 vols). Fifteenth-century tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, written while the author was in London's Newgate Prison.
Thomas de Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater .
(Penguin). Tripping out with the most famous literary drug-taker after Coleridge - Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas it isn't, but neither is this a simple cautionary tale.
William Shakespeare, Complete Works .
(HarperCollins/Doubleday). The entire output at a bargain price. For individual plays, you can't beat the Arden Shakespeare series (Routledge), each volume containing illuminating notes and good introductory essays.
Lawrence Sterne, Tristram Shandy.
(Penguin). Anarchic, picaresque eighteenth-century ramblings based on life in a small English village, and full of bizarre textual devices - like an all-black page in mourning for one of the characters.
William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair.
(Penguin). A sceptical but compassionate overview of English capitalist society by one of the leading realists of the mid-nineteenth century.
Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers.
(Penguin). The "Barsetshire" novels, of which Barchester Towers is the best known, are set in and around a fictional version of Salisbury. John Major's favourite author.
Izaak Walton, Compleat Angler.
(Oxford University Press). Light-hearted seventeenth-century fishing guide set on London's River Lea, sprinkled with poems and songs, which has gone through more reprints than any other book in the English language.
Peter Ackroyd, English Music.
(Penguin). A typical Ackroyd novel, constructing parallels between interwar London and distant epochs to conjure a kaleidoscopic vision of English culture. His other novels, such as Chatterton, Hawksmoor and The House of Doctor Dee, are variations on his preoccupation with the English psyche's darker depths.
Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim.
(Penguin). Difficult to believe that an establishment figure like Amis was once one of the "Angry Young Men" of the 1950s. Lucky Jim, the novel that made him famous, is hilariously funny in the opinion of many.
Martin Amis, London Fields.
(Penguin). "Ferociously witty, scabrously scatological and balefully satirical" observation of low-life London, or pretentious drivel from literary London's favourite bad boy, depending on your viewpoint.
Arnold Bennett, Anna of the Five Towns; Clayhanger Trilogy (both Penguin). Bennett's first novel, Anna, is the story of a miser's daughter and like the later Clayhanger trilogy is set in the Potteries.
Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent.
(Penguin). Spy story based on the 1906 Anarchist bombing of Greenwich Observatory, exposing the hypocrisies of both the police and Anarchists.
Daphne du Maurier, Frenchman's Inn (Longman/Bentley); Jamaica Inn; Rebecca (both Longman/Avon). Nail-biting, swashbuckling romantic novels set in the author's adopted home of Cornwall.
Ford Madox Ford, Parade's End.
(Penguin). Ford's tetralogy, one of the great unread masterpieces of English literature, is an unsurpassed evocation of the passing of old Tory England in the aftermath of World War I.
E. M. Forster, Howard's End.
(Penguin). Bourgeois angst in Hertfordshire and Shropshire; the best book by one the country's best-loved modern novelists.
John Fowles, The Collector; The French Lieutenant's Woman; Daniel Martin (Picador/Dutton). The Collector, Fowles' first, is a psychological thriller in which the heroine is kidnapped by a psychotic pools-winner, the story being told once by each protagonist. The French Lieutenant's Woman, set in Lyme Regis on the Dorset coast, is a tricksy neo-Victorian novel with a famous DIY ending. Daniel Martin is a dense, realistic novel set in postwar Britain.
Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm.
(Penguin). Merciless parody of primitivist rural fiction of the type popularized by the likes of Mary Webb.
William Golding, The Spire.
(Faber/Penguin). Atmospheric novel centred on the building of a cathedral spire, taking place in a thinly disguised medieval Salisbury.
Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That.
(Penguin). Horrific and humorous memoirs of public school and World War I trenches, followed by post-war trauma and life in Wales, Oxford and Egypt.
Graham Greene, Brighton Rock; The Human Factor (Penguin). Two of the best from the prolific Greene: Brighton Rock is an action-packed thriller with heavy Catholic overtones, set in the criminal underworld of a seaside resort; The Human Factor, written some forty years later, probes the underworld of London's spies.
A. E. Housman, The Shropshire Lad.
(Dover). Collection of bucolic and love poems, popular for their lyrical gloom and idealized vision of the English countryside.
D. H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers; The Rainbow; Women in Love; Selected Short Stories (Penguin). Before he got his funny ideas about sex and became all messianic, Lawrence wrote magnificent prose on daily working-class life in Nottinghamshire's pit villages. His early short stories contain some of his finest writing, as does the early Sons and Lovers, a fraught, autobiographical novel. With The Rainbow and Women in Love, his other two major novels, the loopy sub-Nietzschian theorizing slowly gains the upper hand over the fiction.
Laurie Lee, Cider with Rosie.
(Penguin). Reminiscences of adolescent bucolic frolics in the Cotswolds during the 1920s.
Somerset Maugham, Liza of Lambeth (Mandarin/Penguin), Of Human Bondage (Mandarin/Bantam). Maugham rated himself a "second-rater" but these books are packed with vivid local colour: Liza of Lambeth is a depiction of Cockney low-life; Of Human Bondage is set in Whitstable and Canterbury and based on Maugham's own experiences as an orphan.
Tim Pears, In the Place of Fallen Leaves : A Novel
(Black Swann 1994) This wonderful first novel tells the story of life beneath the blazing sun in a small rural village in England during the devastating drought of 1984. The long, absorbing plot unfolds through the eyes of Allison, the youngest child of the Freemantle family. Allison lives with her parents, siblings, and grandparents on the family farm, and as the long, blistering summer passes, she weaves a tale about the lives of past, present, and future members of her family and village. By the end of the narrative and the approach of the first rain in many months, Allison's family has been changed forever, each character undergoing a transformation of sorts, ensuring life will never be the same. Pears' gentle and consistently surprising writing style masterfully evokes the parched summer and brings to life the introspective narrator as well as the other idiosyncratic characters that populate this novel. Winner of the 1994 Hawthornden Prize for Literature. Selected by BOMC as a candidate for the Best First Fiction Award of 1995.
Read also his In a Land of Plenty. (Doubleday, 1997).
This sprawling family saga, which follows a family, its four children, and the fine old house they inhabit from the early 1950s to the present, is rich in small personal or family details and lush description. Charles and Mary Freeman and their children live in a small town in England where Charles' factory supplies most of the local work. The children--James, Simon, Robert, Alice, and their cousins, lovers, and friends--fill these pages, and although we learn a lot about them, the omniscient narrator's voice is oddly detached, especially concerning the women and their lives. James sees the world through his camera lens, and those photographs function as metaphor for freedom, for loneliness, and for family. It takes about 100 pages to get really hooked into the rhythm of this story, which unfolds like a movie until the last 100, when a horrific tragedy abruptly alters lives we have come to care about.
J. B. Priestley, The Good Companions .
(Mandarin/University of Chicago Press). High-spirited, rambling novel on theatrical adventures on the road.
Alan Sillitoe, Saturday Night, Sunday Morning .
(Flamingo/Dutton). Gritty account of factory life in Nottingham in the late1950s.
Iain Sinclair, Down River.
(Paladin/Random). A rambling, fictional journey through contemporary London infinitely more illuminating than Amis' self-indulgent twaddle.
David Storey, This Sporting Life (o/p); Saville (UK Cape). Storey's first novel, This Sporting Life, is a grimly realistic portrayal of a Rugby League player in the north of England. Saville, which won him the Booker Prize, revolves around his favourite themes of mid-life crisis and loss of class identity.
Graham Swift, Waterland.
(Picador/Random). Family saga set in East Anglia's fenlands - excellent on the history and appeal of this superficially drab landscape.
Adam Thorpe, Ulverton.
(Minerva/FS&G). Imaginative re-creation of life in a small town in southwest England over the course of three centuries.
Evelyn Waugh, Sword of Honour Trilogy; Brideshead Revisited (Penguin). The trilogy is essentially a lightweight remake of Ford's Parade's End (see above), albeit laced with some of Waugh's funniest set-pieces. The best-selling Brideshead Revisited is possibly his worst book, rank with snobbery, nostalgia and money-worship.
Virginia Woolf, Orlando; Mrs Dalloway (Virago/Harvest). Woolf's lover, Vita Sackville-West, is the model for the eponym of Orlando, whose life spans four centuries and both genders. Mrs Dalloway, which relates the thoughts of a London society hostess and a shell-shocked war veteran, sees Woolf's "stream of consciousness" style in full flow.
English Mystery Plays.
(Penguin). These simple Christian tales were produced annually in Chester, York, Wakefield and other great English towns, and are often revived even now.
English Poetry 1918-60.
ed. Keith Allott (Penguin). From D. H. Lawrence to Geoffrey Hill, but few surprises and even fewer women.
ed. J. Hayward (Penguin). Overview from Sir Thomas Wyatt to Auden, Spender and MacNiece.
Four English Comedies.
(Methuen). Laugh a minute from Congreve, Jonson, Goldsmith and Sheridan.
Landmarks of Modern British Drama.
(Methuen, 2 vols). The 1960s' volume features plays by Wesker, Osborne, Pinter and Orton; the 70s' volume covers the likes of Ayckbourn, Brenton, Stoppard and Caryl Churchill.
Literature of Renaissance England, ed. Hollander & Kermode (Oxford University Press). Spenser's Faerie Queene, a bit of Marlowe, Shakespeare's Sonnets, Donne, Jonson and Milton.
Medieval English Literature.
ed. Trapp (Oxford University Press). Includes Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Beowolf and extracts from Chaucer.
Modern British Literature.
ed. Hollander & Kermode (Oxford University Press). Weighted towards the classic writers of the earlier part of the century - Hardy, Conrad, Lawrence etc.
The New Poetry.
ed. Hulse, Kennedy & Morley (UK Bloodaxe). Over fifty poets, all born since the last war.
The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century.
ed. Price (Oxford University Press). From Dryden, Swift and Pope to Sterne.
Victorian Prose and Poetry.
ed. Trilling & Bloom (Oxford University Press). Carlyle, Ruskin, Tennyson, Rossetti and Wilde's Ballad of Reading Gaol.