Few nations offer a literary legacy as impressive as that of Great Britain.
For more than 1,500 years, the literature of this tiny island has taught, nurtured, thrilled, outraged, and humbled readers both inside and outside its borders. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, Swift, Conrad, Wilde—the roster of British writers who have made a lasting impact on literature is remarkable. More importantly, Britain's writers have long challenged readers with new ways of understanding an ever-changing world.
The 48 fascinating lectures in Classics of British Literature provide you with a rare opportunity to step beyond the surface of Britain's grand literary masterpieces and experience the times and conditions they came from and the diverse issues with which their writers grappled.
British-born Professor John Sutherland, the Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus of Modern English at University College London and Visiting Professor of Literature at the California Institute of Technology, has spent a lifetime exploring these rich works. The unique insights he shares into how and why these works succeed as both literature and documents of Britain's social and political history can forever alter the way you experience a novel, poem, or play.
Explore the Soul of Great Britain
Even though the term "English literature" is familiar to most of us, when we stop to think of what exactly we mean by it, the answer is anything but simple. English literature is not the same thing as literature written in English; rather, English literature embodies the essence of Great Britain: its history, its challenges, its politics, its culture, and its impressions of the outside world.
"Literature is embedded in the nation, as the heart is embedded in the body," notes Professor Sutherland. "[British literature] is, in a very real sense, the United Kingdom ... in its most revealing aspect: its inner self, its soul."
Great literature also affords non-Britons a connection with the past, with cultures and schools of thought that might appear distant to us in our 21st-century world. Indeed, the shared cultural heritage between Britain and the United States makes understanding these works more important than ever; at the same time that Classics of British Literature reveals new perspectives on the development of Britain, it demonstrates that many of these issues and themes are relevant to everyone.
Britain's Literary Mosaic
More than just a survey course, Classics of British Literature shows you how Britain's cultural landscape acted upon its literature—and how, in turn, literature affected the cultural landscape. Professor Sutherland takes a historical approach to the wealth of works explored in these lectures, grounding them in specific contexts and, oftentimes, connecting them with one another.
While it is vital that we appreciate the universal and transcendent quality of literature, according to Professor Sutherland, we also need to appreciate "as fully as one can, the conditions that gave birth to these works of literature; to reinsert them, that is, back into history."
The end result is not a laundry list of famous works but instead a mosaic of Britain's history as revealed through the individual threads of its most revered literary masterpieces. Throughout the course, you discover how each work is linked to others that have come before it—whether building on its predecessors' work or casting it aside to challenge readers and audiences with new ways of understanding a changing world. For example:
- The King James Bible of 1611 paved the way for succeeding literature, including an entire generation of dramatists whose success depended on an understanding of the spoken word by a largely illiterate audience. The language of the King James Bible, read aloud in church weekly, became the English language familiar to an entire population.
- Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter, set in Sierra Leone during World War II, echoes themes about the British colonization of Africa cemented almost 50 years earlier in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.
- James Joyce's highly experimental fiction—including Ulysses and Finnegans Wake—shocked the British literary establishment of the early 20th century. By opposing conventional thinking and morality, he helped create a new climate for future writers.
A Valuable Record of Societal Change
As you unpack almost 2,000 years' worth of exciting literature, you witness how many of these classics provide a valuable record of Britain's societal conflict and tension. As Britain evolved over the centuries, literature took a more active role in depicting its society's problems. In some instances, it even worked to solve them. You will see how:
- Oliver Twist's restless moving throughout Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist—from the workhouse in Mudfog to the center of London and the rural English countryside—reflected the British population's mass migrations as a result of the Industrial Revolution during the early 19th century.
- George Eliot used the vast narrative canvas of Middlemarch to depict her idea on how to improve society: not by reforming the law through legislation but by people reforming themselves through the abandonment of ardent idealism.
- John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, which exploded onto the London stage in 1956, dealt a fatal blow to centuries of censorial severity by the Lord Chamberlain, who was charged with ensuring that nothing offensive was ever performed on the British stage.
All the great writers that come to mind when you think of British literature are here in Classics of British Literature, along with unique looks at their most popular and powerful works, including Edmund Spenser and his epic poem The Faerie Queene, Daniel Defoe and his shipwreck narrative Robinson Crusoe, and Mary Shelley's gothic novel Frankenstein.
You also enjoy the company of less-familiar voices whose importance we now recognize—like Aphra Behn, the "first loud and clear, wholly independent woman's voice" in literature—and contemporary authors like Salman Rushdie who continue to take literature into new territories.
An Award-Winning Scholar with Wit
It is hard to imagine a professor better suited to teach this course than Professor Sutherland, who has accumulated decades of academic and teaching honors, including the Associated Student Body of Caltech Excellence in Teaching Award and the Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Scholar Award from Caltech.
Professor Sutherland is also a prolific author whose works range from scholarly editions of classic Victorian fiction and articles in academic journals to close examinations of manuscript materials and literary biography.
He is also a man of extraordinary charm and wit. When Professor Sutherland reads aloud, as he does throughout Classics of British LIterature, you revel with him in the many different sounds of the English language, from the Anglo-Saxon of the 7th century to the various class accents representative of today's English speech. His delivery alone conveys a sense of just how much is encompassed by the term "British literature."
Participate in a Rich Conversation
Literature is "a great conversation with our predecessors," says Professor Sutherland in the introduction to the course. "It's the reason why we study it and it's a reason why, even though the makers are long dead ... it lives for us."
With Classics of British Literature, you hold a thought-provoking conversation with the giants of British literary history. It is a conversation that exposes you to some of Britain's most vital and engaging works and gives you a unique lens through which to view its rich history. As you finish the course and find yourself on the threshold of the 21st century, you better understand what it means to be both British and a human being in an increasingly complex world.