Classics of British Literature

Course No. 2400
Professor John Sutherland, Ph.D.
University College London; California Institute of Technology
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Course No. 2400
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Course Overview

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.

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48 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Anglo-Saxon Roots—Pessimism and Comradeship
    What is English literature? We begin with Anglo-Saxon oral literature, including an in-depth look at Beowulf, the 6th-century foundational text that barely survived the Dark Ages in which it was born. x
  • 2
    Chaucer—Social Diversity
    Writing in a language still evolving after the Norman conquest, Geoffrey Chaucer took full advantage of the literate audience available for The Canterbury Tales and its groundbreaking depth of observation and diversity of character. x
  • 3
    Chaucer—A Man of Unusual Cultivation
    A remarkable life as soldier, businessman, scholar, government official, and far-ranging traveler gave Chaucer a deep knowledge of people, on display here in some of the most memorable tales from his most famous work. x
  • 4
    Spenser—The Faerie Queene
    See how literature can articulate the values that unite a society, nowhere exemplified as well as in Spenser's The Faerie Queene, whose knightly heroes embody the moral virtues of England. x
  • 5
    Early Drama—Low Comedy and Religion
    Drama's modern form evolved from the so-called mystery or miracle plays staged by guilds, which communicated biblical stories to the masses. These works helped make literature available to a broad populace in spite of widespread illiteracy. x
  • 6
    Marlowe—Controversy and Danger
    Our discussion of Christopher Marlow—murdered at 29 in what was likely an act of political intrigue—focuses on his masterpiece, Dr. Faustus. In this and three other tragedies, Marlowe probed the theme of man's vaulting ambition and left us a treasure of dramatic innovations. x
  • 7
    Shakespeare the Man—The Road to the Globe
    By the age of 30, Shakespeare had risen to the top of London's theatrical world as both playwright and actor. This lecture turns to a history, a comedy, and a Roman play drawn from his early works such as Richard III, The Taming of the Shrew, and Titus Andronicus. x
  • 8
    Shakespeare—The Mature Years
    Shakespeare retired while still in his 50s, at the height of his career, but not before his maturity yielded the finest of his many masterpieces. We explore several, including four great tragedies: Macbeth, King Lear, Hamlet, and Othello. x
  • 9
    Shakespeare's Rivals—Jonson and Webster
    Great writers happen in company, more so than chance would predict. We look at two who took on the difficult task of following Shakespeare—one writing comedies and the other tragedies. Their work marks the end of a great period for English theater. x
  • 10
    The King James Bible—English Most Elegant
    The King James Bible of 1611 is the most read work in English literature history, and it owes its greatest debt to William Tyndale. His work on an English translation a century earlier and falling out with Henry VIII led to his own execution. x
  • 11
    The Metaphysicals—Conceptual Daring
    Many modern readers and scholars consider the work of John Donne and the other so-called "metaphysical" poets to be the highest achievement in English verse. In their day their work circulated in manuscript form, and only among an educated elite. x
  • 12
    Paradise Lost—A New Language for Poetry
    What novelties did Milton employ in creating a work meant "to justify the ways of God to men"? In examining one of literature's enduring masterpieces, we see that the invention of a new language was only one of many innovations of this blind poet. x
  • 13
    Turmoil Makes for Good Literature
    Literature both contributed to and reflected England's turmoil in the mid-17th-century overthrow of the monarchy and the subsequent restoration. We see how these roles are illuminated in Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan and John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress. x
  • 14
    The Augustans—Order, Decorum, and Wit
    As a prosperous England became a leader in European commerce, science, and diplomacy, writers such as Alexander Pope and John Dryden sought to emulate the cultural achievements of Augustan Rome, including its love of wit and satire. x
  • 15
    Swift—Anger and Satire
    In two works by the first great Irish writer—the Tory pamphlet A Modest Proposal and the fable Gulliver's Travels—we see how Jonathan Swift's simple, satiric prose masks a seething anger with the English court, the Crown, the scientific community, and even mankind. x
  • 16
    Johnson—Bringing Order to the Language
    Few writers have ever had as much of an authority over their subject matter as the luminary known as "Dr. Johnson." In focusing on his great dictionary project, we see how he established an enduring foundation for the English language and its literature. x
  • 17
    Defoe—Crusoe and the Rise of Capitalism
    We can date the emergence of the novel almost precisely with the publication of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe in 1719. More than just a great novel that reflects the emerging economic ideas of its time, it created a genre that inspires greatness and innovation to this day. x
  • 18
    Behn—Emancipation in the Restoration
    In introducing a woman whose work is the equal of any male writer of the Restoration period, we focus on her masterwork, Oroonoko, the powerful tale of an African prince enslaved and ultimately killed by whites in a colony off the coast of South America. x
  • 19
    The Golden Age of Fiction
    Many factors brought about the rise of the novel in the 18th century—including a new mass literacy, urbanization, and technological advances in printing. These forces helped bring us the work of Laurence Sterne, which anticipated much of what we now call Postmodernism, the sentimental romance of Samuel Richardson, and the realism of Henry Fielding. x
  • 20
    Gibbon—Window into 18th-Century England
    In examining The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, we see how the enduring literary quality of Gibbon's work gives us a window into 18th-century England as it was becoming an imperial power in its own right. x
  • 21
    Equiano—The Inhumanity of Slavery
    Professor Sutherland introduces us to the first major black author, who was a slave from age 11 until his early 20s. His works are as important to British literary history as the slave narratives of Frederick Douglass and others are to American literary history. x
  • 22
    Women Poets—The Minor Voice
    This lecture takes up the unique voices of several women who wrote private lyric poetry, including Queen Elizabeth I, Anne Bradstreet, Margaret Cavendish, Katherine Philips, and Anne Finch. Their work expresses the consciousness and experience of women in this characteristic form. x
  • 23
    Wollstonecraft—"First of a New Genus"
    We examine the life of a remarkable, largely self-educated woman who determined at age 28 to chart new territory for a female author. Her great work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, still speaks loudly to us across the centuries. x
  • 24
    Blake—Mythic Universes and Poetry
    William Blake created an entirely new method of poetry—a method that requires us to learn his highly individual way of thinking in order to understand the ferociously authoritative voice that dares the reader to disagree. x
  • 25
    Scott and Burns—The Voices of Scotland
    Sir Walter Scott initially gained fame as a lyric poet before achieving immortality through historical novels such as Waverley. Robert Burns found the identity of Scotland in its common people and their songs, transmuting their ballads into poetry. x
  • 26
    Lyrical Ballads—Collaborative Creation
    The era from 1770 to 1830 was one of widespread revolution not only in politics, but also in literature. William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge were an unlikely pairing in this Romantic revival, but their Lyrical Ballads overthrew the poetic diction of the Augustan establishment and took poetry in new directions. x
  • 27
    Mad, Bad Byron
    We look at both Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and Don Juan, the best-known poems of an artist whose scandalous reputation and development of the world-weary misanthropic "Byronic" hero should not obscure a talent for wit that equaled that of the Augustans. x
  • 28
    Keats—Literary Gold
    The poetic career of John Keats spanned only five years, but he earned immortality. His explorations of beauty, self-destruction, and other mysteries belied the prejudices of upper-crust critics unwilling to forgive his working-class "Cockney" origins. x
  • 29
    Frankenstein—A Gothic Masterpiece
    It may be difficult to imagine Frankenstein as the product of an 18-year-old mind. But with Mary Wollstonecraft for a mother, William Godwin for a father, and Percy Shelley for a lover and husband, Mary Shelley was, perhaps, genetically and environmentally destined for literary greatness. x
  • 30
    Miss Austen and Mrs. Radcliffe
    Jane Austen, who viewed the novel as a source of moral authority, would have seen her contemporary Ann Radcliffe's bestselling gothic fiction as a corruption and prostitution of literature. Nonetheless, she read and even relished the fiction of her great opposite. x
  • 31
    Pride and Prejudice—Moral Fiction
    Pride and Prejudice explores the questions surrounding the marriage decision in a country where the law made women profoundly vulnerable. Like much of Austen's fiction, the novel does not protest against England's laws so much as it examines their implications in the domestic arena. x
  • 32
    Dickens—Writer with a Mission
    Having captured his public with the comic novel The Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens resolved to use fiction as an instrument for social reform in an age of injustice—a resolution made clear by the novel explored in this lecture, Oliver Twist. x
  • 33
    The 1840s—Growth of the Realistic Novel
    The 1840s saw a phenomenal growth in the realistic novel's popularity. We explore four from this period—Dickens's Dombey and Son, Mrs. Gaskell's Mary Barton, Disraeli's Sybil, and Thackeray's Vanity Fair. Each asked hard questions about the direction in which England was headed. x
  • 34
    Wuthering Heights—Emily's Masterwork
    The 19th century saw the emergence of women novelists, with Charlotte and Emily Brontë joining Jane Austen in achieving dominance. This lecture explores Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, a romance narrative built on a sophisticated framework and showcasing characters of psychological complexity. x
  • 35
    Jane Eyre and the Other Brontë
    Charlotte was the only Brontë sister to live long enough to compile a body of work. Jane Eyre—whose heroine navigates a male-dominated world through intelligence, morality, and spirit—contains many Feminist elements and was the most popular novel of the period. x
  • 36
    Voices of Victorian Poetry
    The Victorians revered poetry. We look at three revered voices: Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Their work, a bridge from high Romanticism to Modernism, paved the way for the poetic achievements of the 20th century. x
  • 37
    Eliot—Fiction and Moral Reflection
    The woman who wrote as George Eliot was more than the leading female intellectual of her time. Her novel Middlemarch is a vast canvas of ambiguities, taking Realism to its fullest extent and, in asking how society and individuals can be made better, demanding much from readers. x
  • 38
    Hardy—Life at Its Worst
    Thomas Hardy never shrank from his belief that "the way to the better" demands a "full look at the worst." Jude the Obscure reflects his pain over the demise of English prosperity and his Wessex birthplace, and is the most autobiographical and pessimistic of his novels. x
  • 39
    The British Bestseller—An Overview
    Though often neglected as "literature," popular fiction can endure as well as those works recognized as classics. This lecture covers popular fiction by Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes and H. G. Wells, a pioneer of science fiction. x
  • 40
    Heart of Darkness—Heart of the Empire?
    Although the interpretation and reputation of Conrad's Heart of Darkness, a devastating look at the colonial enterprise in Africa, have changed more than once since it was written, the novel continues to force an examination of the truths and prejudices held in our own hearts. x
  • 41
    Wilde—Celebrity Author
    Oscar Wilde was perhaps the first celebrity author. Although he does not rank with such writers as Shakespeare, Milton, or Byron, his witticisms, aesthete's guise, and persecution have become enshrined in our memories and help sustain his position in the canon of English literature. x
  • 42
    Shaw and Pygmalion
    Although the Dublin-born playwright George Bernard Shaw was radically antiestablishment in his espousal of Socialism, feminism, and evolution, he was revered by the English and wildly successful. This lecture looks at Pygmalion, Shaw's satire on language and the class system in English society. x
  • 43
    Joyce and Yeats—Giants of Irish Literature
    In the second of two lectures featuring the Irish voice, we look at the lives and work of James Joyce and W. B. Yeats, two giants who rejected Victorianism and pioneered new forms and themes for the writers who followed. x
  • 44
    Great War, Great Poetry
    The carnage of World War I produced a flood of great poetry in England: bitter, angry, haunting, and beautiful. We look at several poets who found the inspiration for art amid the horror, including Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, Isaac Rosenberg, and Robert Graves. x
  • 45
    Bloomsbury and the Bloomsberries
    The Bloomsbury Group was a civilized set of writers, thinkers, artists, and political theorists who helped reshape English society, culture, and literature in the aftermath of World War I. We focus on its two most prominent literary members, Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster. x
  • 46
    20th-Century English Poetry—Two Traditions
    The two broad 20th-century streams of English poetry are the traditional, with Thomas Hardy at its headwaters, and the Modernist, steered by T. S. Eliot. In addition to poetry by these masters—including Eliot's "The Waste Land"—we'll also look at work by W. H. Auden, Philip Larkin, and Seamus Heaney. x
  • 47
    British Fiction from James to Rushdie
    Quality fiction has expanded remarkably since the Victorian novel. This lecture looks at the genre's changing role in the 20th and 21st centuries, introducing a broad range of writers that includes Henry James, D. H. Lawrence, George Orwell, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and Salman Rushdie. x
  • 48
    New Theatre, New Literary Worlds
    We conclude with a look at the vital changes in British drama since the early 20th century, focusing primarily on the geniuses of anger and absurdity—Samuel Beckett, John Osborne, and Harold Pinter—and closing with the greatest theatrical wit since Ben Jonson: Tom Stoppard. x

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Your professor

John Sutherland

About Your Professor

John Sutherland, Ph.D.
University College London; California Institute of Technology
Dr. John Sutherland is the Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus of Modern English Literature at University College London and Visiting Professor of Literature at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). He earned his B.A. and M.A. from Leicester University and his Ph.D. from Edinburgh University. Professor Sutherland taught at Edinburgh University and University College London, the site of England's longest-standing...
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Classics of British Literature is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 50.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A stimulating review A concise, gracefully presented course with relevant historical references. Presented in a thoughtful, stimulating and non-intimidating style. I thoroughly enjoyed this presentation.
Date published: 2018-04-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Teacher is excellent, easy to understand. This is just what I was looking for. It's even more comprehensive than I had expected. The teacher is easy to understand and is very good at explaining the subject matter. I would like to see more from him.
Date published: 2018-04-09
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Readings When I use these courses, I want to read the books discussed. Problem is the suggested readings lists are too inclusive: that is, I want to read a book or a play and have it discussed; not be presented with a reading list of several books that may be of interest. If I read all the books suggested for each lecture, I would be ready for my comprehensive exam in British literature -- not my objective. I take these courses for recreational and interest purposes, not to become an expert.
Date published: 2018-04-09
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Very much a survey but a good one Good survey. Don't expect in-depth discussion of any particular work, which the title implies. It's an overview of 1,200 years of literature. Rather than detailed discussion of particular works, Sutherland gives relevant biographical background of the author he's discussing (if known) and zeroes in on a few lines, a scene, or some other aspect that illustrates not only the work and author but also the era the work was produced in. Many great works and authors get barely a mention (I did miss Trollope), but I liked the approach.
Date published: 2018-04-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from dense with data He provides social, political, and literary background to bring alive the time periods and the writers. Even his metaphors are grounded in the time of the literature he discusses. He provides comparative analyses of writers with throw-away comments that prove his academic depth. Other literary presentations I've purchased are narrowly focused compared to Sutherland. I wish there were more programs by him.
Date published: 2018-02-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Classics of British Literature You’d think that Prof. Sutherland was an historian, judging from the masterful historical and biographical sketches he provides for his authors; or perhaps a linguist when you hear him read excerpts in wide ranging dialects—but you decide that he uses history and language to open major works of British authors to you in 48 engrossing lectures. Dig in anywhere to follow up and you will appreciate Prof. Sutherland’s insights even more.
Date published: 2018-02-03
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting Overview This is an interesting course, though I would only recommend it to fans of literature. I will confess that I enjoyed the first 2/3 of the course more than the last 1/3. The first 2/3 covered many of the classics, from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Austin. The professor gave good insights and expanded my appreciation of these "greats." The last part of the course focused on more recent literature that I personally find less enjoyable, though I freely admit that is a personal taste and I do not fault the professor for including it. The professor has a clear and organized style that I appreciate.
Date published: 2017-10-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Eloquent & Insightful Exam of British Literature Thank you Professor Sutherland for your dazzling grand tour of the meaning and importance of classic and popular British literature that you frame so wonderfully with all the necessary and relevant history and politics. I could not imagine a better course on literature , nor a wiser, more knowledgeable and more insightful lecturer on this vast subject. Your superb eloquence, amazing facility at turning phrases, infectious wit, utter exuberance and consistent capacities for pithiness, succinctness and focus make for a highly memorable learning experience. Brilliant!
Date published: 2017-07-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very interesting! I always hated English literature. This course changed my mind. Very easy to listen to the lectures and the professor truly loves what he does.. so much so that I have purchased a number of works mentioned in the lectures and now am thoroughly enjoying English authors thanks to the insights he had shared . Great course!
Date published: 2017-04-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating and Interesting I am almost always happy with the Great Courses. I have loved British Literature from my high school days. This course exceeded my expectations.
Date published: 2017-02-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful course, but...... The challenge facing Professor Sutherland when reviewing and analysing the whole of British literature is immense. Yet the good professor sets about his task with gusto and passion reflecting a breadth and depth of knowledge built up over many years. The course offers a wonderful insight into many works that I have been familiar with but never read. It would be easy to find fault with the professor's selection of 'classics' but he does an excellent job in distilling the many great works. One caveat, however, is that the viewer has to be prepared to accept the professor's mildly irritating idiosyncratic presentational style - the affected (?) stammering at the start of many sentences, the ubiquitous 'now' and 'as it were', the use of 'England' when 'Britain' is more appropriate, his obsession with the sexuality of certain writers and their characters, the digressions and asides which add nothing, and the deprecating political correctness. The professor's style is far from smooth. For all that I recommend this course to anyone wishing to further their knowledge of the broad spectrum of British literature. And I look forward to my own next challenge of watching the equivalent course on American classics.
Date published: 2016-08-20
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A competent introduction to the subject With acknowledgements to some of the more critical reviews above regarding items of fact. Twenty-four hours of lecture material is insufficient to do complete justice to a topic as large as that of English/British literature, but as an introductory survey this should satisfy the casually interested student. Professor Sutherland has a pleasant, understated enthusiasm for his subject and exhibits good familiarity with all the works and authors he covers. Things begin to get a bit more difficult once we pass the midpoint of the 19th century as notable works and authors begin to accumulate far more rapidly than they had in the several preceding centuries. So inevitably there are going to be omissions. I would have liked to hear a few minutes given over to Lewis Carroll in the lecture on "bestsellers" from the turn of the 20th century. Listening to the penultimate lecture on 20th century British fiction I think most people would be shocked by Sutherland's complete neglect of J. R. R. Tolkien--not even a passing mention, but he takes time for a "do-over" on Joseph Conrad, whom he had covered in an earlier lecture. And he had time to talk about H. G. Wells and J. G. Ballard, so this oversight can't be explained by a personal aversion to imaginative fiction. On the whole, the course helped fill an educational hole for me. I look forward to the companion course on American literature.
Date published: 2016-07-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Grand Tour of England through Books This is a wonderful course, which introduces the cornerstones of British literature in a way that is accessible to all the centers, be they English majors or inquisitive readers. I am using this course to further my knowledge of British literature for my high school British literature class. I enjoy the different perspectives provided by the instructor on each literary selection, which I intend to share with my students next year. I highly recommend the purchase of this course you are an educator in the field of English literature.
Date published: 2016-06-02
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Appreciative, not analytical This course was a delight to listen to. I loved the professor's gentle, erudite enthusiasm for just about all the works he focused on. I learned quite a lot about the background of some favorite authors and others I knew little about. The course emphasized the historical aspect of the works more than their literary qualities. For each author, we heard just a little about style, technique and that author's special mastery. For this reason I am not sure I would consider this a college-level course, however enjoyable and informative. I was especially taken aback that while he effused about Jane Austen (not one of my favorite authors), he never explained what made her "great." My favorite sections included his perspectives on Chaucer, the King James Bible, Gibbon, Queen Elizabeth I's poetry (who knew?) and John Keats. It was also refreshing to have him go beyond the proverbial "dead white males" - especially considering that The Teaching Company itself offers pitifully few courses taught by women. I would definitely take another course from this professor, despite my reservations.
Date published: 2016-01-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Utterly Captivating and Illuminating I have long loved English Literature though I formally studied the subject only until aged 16. I informally engaged with it in my twenties and thirties. So it was a delight to have the opportunity to listen to Professor Sutherland take us through the sweep of British Literature from its origins with Beowulf all the way to the likes of Iris Murdoch and Beckett within drama. Professor Sutherland's style is engaging and he mixes profound erudition with understated humour and every lecture was frankly captivating. I especially enjoyed his highlighting of the under represented voice (whether in terms of gender or race) in the history of English Literature. The lectures on Behn, Wolstencroft and Equiano were each a tour de force. I would love for there to be a further course from this Professor perhaps covering Romantic poetry or modern drama and I would absolutely purchase it. A true 5 star course and it inspired me to re-read many of the classics covered or watch them performed on the stage.
Date published: 2015-03-15
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Makes Me Want to Read! I love to read and had read some of these authors and wanted to learn more about literature as a result of some of the other courses I've purchased. What did I learn from this course? 1. I really enjoyed learning about each author. Understanding who the author was often lends so much more meaning to what they wrote. 2. I learned a lot about the history of the U.K. This was an unexpected bonus learned via the biographies of the authors. Learning about the class distinctions, the changing tastes, etc., was fascinating. 3. I was introduced to many works I'd never heard of and will have to track down. A Modest Proposal is definitely on my reading list! I thought Sutherland did an excellent job of reading excerpts, modifying his voice to allow different characters to be readily identified. Overall, he did a very nice job presenting each work, the author, and the context in which the work was written. I was also impressed by how many female authors he included as the female contributions are so often overlooked. On the downside, the last 5 lectures weren't as interesting to me. Maybe I'm just not ready for some of these modern works. There wasn't a lot of deep analysis. It was more of here's an author, here's their life, here's one or a few of their works with some excerpts, and here are some observations. And that's why I enjoyed the course so much - it's very good as a high-level introduction to a large number of authors and their works while illustrating how English Literature has changed over the past thousand plus years. If that's what you want as well, then this will be a good course for you.
Date published: 2015-02-02
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Very good, not great. Ambitious and broad. Dr. Sutherland quite charming, and knowledgable. Perhaps tries too hard to be politically correct. "Jane Austin on a parr with Chaucer and Shakespeare"; Really! Lacks depth in many places, but understandable considering scope of work. Recommended, but I can't cough up that last star.
Date published: 2014-03-03
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Why so short? The classics of American literature course has 84 lectures, but the classics of British literature only has 48 lectures. If anything, it should be the opposite. The British have produced many many times the quantity of literature that America has, yet this course is half as long as the classics of American literature.
Date published: 2014-03-03
Date published: 2013-10-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An Excellent Introductory Survey AUDIO If you want an interesting and highly informative survey of the classics of British literature (including poetry and drama, as well as novels and the King James Bible), this is definitely the one for you. Professor Sutherland is an engaging lecturer who not only treats each classic in turn but also weaves in pertinent historical and cultural context and detail to explain the development of British literature over hundreds of years. The course is best appreciated by taking it from the beginning and working through succeeding lectures, but selecting those in which you have the most interest works well, too (though note there are a couple you might not know, as I found). The lectures are easy to follow, perfect accompaniments for driving and walking. Professor Sutherland’s delivery is clear and personal, tinged with a British accent. Some of his observations may be off-putting, but overwhelmingly they seem to me fair-minded and insightful. I have been prompted to read the classic works treated (or re-read them with a greater appreciation) as well as learn more about the authors included by Professor Sutherland. Good arguments can be made for who/what he has left out. Keep in mind, also, that this is a survey/introduction, so do not expect definitive treatments, though on the whole these are quite good. More in-depth lectures on selected works of classic British literature are available from such other TC professors as Arnold Weinstein and Timothy Spurgin. I wish the Teaching Company would offer an in depth course by Professor Sutherland on a more focused topic or group of authors.
Date published: 2013-10-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Insightful Views without Ideology Prof. Sutherland does a superb job of giving deep and useful readings of his list of great works by great writers. He not only puts their writings in historical and literary context, he also deals with their subject matter in an insightful way. I enjoyed his treatment of works I hadn't read; but the better I knew the work, the more I valued his take on them. Even where I've actually taught courses myself on a writer, I found his reading to bring fresh ideas to the discussion. He is aware of modern concerns, but instead of forcing older works through the procrustean bed of post-modern terminology, he examines them in their own terms, in their own time. This is a complete course in British literature, and will provide an excellent starting point for the beginner as well as a valuable refresher for degree-holding literati. And Sutherland is a charming teacher whose occasional personal comments are always welcome.
Date published: 2012-07-25
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good, but somewhat disappointing A major challenge for any lecturer! To cover such a wide-sweeping topic in 48 half-hour talks, it is virtually impossible to please everyone -- as some of the reviews confirm! For me, Dr Sutherland delivered the goods, though he's not a particularly exciting speaker (rather dry in fact). This professor, an Englishman with a mild accent, has a habit of beginning about every seventh sentence with the word "Now". I found this irksome, but after several lectures, I reconciled to it, and was grateful he did not succumb to "Y'know", "er", or "um" as some lecturers do. Kudos to Dr Sutherland for including the King James Bible in this course: it is truly a major achievement in English literature, and the debt owed to William Tyndale was rightly placed. Dr Johnson's magnificent dictionary came in for great praise and attention, too, I was happy to note. Deserved tribute was paid to one of the earliest female writers, Aphra Behn -- perhaps this lecture should have included Delarivier Manley and Eliza Haywood. There is no historical evidence that gives any indication Shakespeare was homosexual or bisexual, so suggesting he may have been "gay" was, I felt, pointless and somewhat ill-intentioned; nor did I appreciate why the lecturer would take a swipe at Keats, remarking disparagingly on his Cockney origins. In fact the meaning of the word Cockney" was in transition in Keats' time. He was a Londoner and not of the upper classes, true; some prejudiced reviewers of his era referred to his being of the "Cockney school". No need to make a big deal of it now. I was shocked to hear Dr Sutherland use the term "quite unique": a professor of British Literature must know that "unique" cannot be qualified. Also, I'm afraid the lecturer shows a surprising lack of familiarity with multi-cultural society in the UK when he says the uber-patriotic song "Rule, Britannia" (James Thomson 1740) is known to every school child in Britain. While Dr Sutherland displays a serious politically-correct attitude overall (lectures recorded in 2008), I balked when he used the term "WELSHED on the money he owed her" (lecture 12). In the UK to "welsh" on something is considered racist terminology against the Welsh people (whether the verb is spelled welsh or welch). In summation, I consider this an adequate and worthwhile course, bearing in mind that it offers only tidbits, excerpts, not deep considerations or analyses of the various authors; it also provides a good outline history paralleling British literature through the centuries.
Date published: 2012-07-24
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Grudgingly recommended; with caveats, lots of 'em Not British, not classic, not lecture, not scrupulously accurate. While Prof. Sutherland is, without doubt, a noted expert in British literature, there are problems with his categorization, lecture style and some of his facts. Please see two other reviewer’s comments under the review-titles "Buyer Beware" and "Shallow…". Some of the selected items by Prof. Sutherland are arguably not British. Seemingly unmentioned by other reviewers also is the professor’s lecture style, best described as stuttering and stammering; to the point where, in several lectures, the first word or words of each and every sentence are repeated four or five times before the good professor finally launches into the sentence with ascending amplitude, only to finish in a whispered or mumbled conclusion. This is not a speech impediment. It is an affected style which has not been corrected by judicious lecture-coaching. This lecture style is more appropriate for a small intimate, symposium -like group, rather than a full-on lecture venue. Now, critiquing this nearly constant aggravation may seem picky but, after 48 lectures of this, I have to say "come on!", "This is your job", "This is what you do for a living". “Please work to improve the most discernible manifestations of your craft!". Additionally, as previously mentioned by other reviewers, some of his facts get muddled as in the case where he impugns Revolutionary War motivations while waxing philosophically of the American Civil War. And, there are points of great digression where Prof. Sutherland chases politically correct, academic jackrabbits across the field to engage in lectures-long discussions of how bad people used to be, how ignorant, how unenlightened and how brutish. There is no key motivation of "The English" throughout history that is not fair game for Prof. Sutherland's retrospective condemnation. They were simply bad people back then, but we are much enlightened today and have found the true way. So, along with some weak analysis on British literature, you get revisionism and political correctness “in extremis”. At the outset Prof. Sutherland takes great pains to differentiate British literature from literature written in English. However, throughout the lectures, as if trying to infuriate an Irish audience, the good professor continues to use the phrase "English Literature" almost exclusively. There are saving graces; the production values of the TTC are of their usual high quality and along the way you are exposed to key personalities, authors and works of British Literature. The best that can be said is that it is a survey course; and you will be "exposed" to the subject matter without the customary and meaningful analyses. If you are absolutely new to British Literature and can think for yourself about the appropriateness and fairness of the professor's opinions and incessant wanderings into categorically unrelated subjects, then, and only then, would I give my grudging recommendation; festooned with caveats of every type.
Date published: 2012-03-13
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Shallow - and NOT because it's an Overview I bought other overviews of literature from the TC and some of them were not only great - they were simply magnificent (for example, Prof. Weinstein's Classics of American Literature or Classic Novels). Prof. Sutherland's lectures provide you with a lot of facts, too many of which are even wrong (please, check the "Buyer Beware" review - this reviewer is correct in correcting Prof. Sutherland's mistakes). Anyway, this course provides you with facts about the books themselves, the writers' lives and gives you the plot of the works discussed. It is not that dissimilar to reading Sparknotes out loud - but the lectures, sadly, go less into depth than Sparknotes do. I know it sounds like an exaggeration, but it is not. To make a long story short, this course does not teach you about - in my opinion (and I am a literature major) - the most important aspect of literature: its possible meanings, its possible revelations, ways it can inspire or move you, what it can tell you about love, death, art and life. Prof. Sutherland does not give us HIS ideas on these works of art, but simply repeats the things you can find in ANY brief introduction or literary encyclopedia (and on his way even gets some of his facts wrong). He sometimes says how much he appreciates a certain work of art, usually without really telling us WHY. Would not recommend this course to anyone - unless you want a poorer version of an Intro to British Literature to listen to on your way to work.
Date published: 2011-08-26
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Competent Coverage of the British Greats Dr. Sutherland has a superb speaking voice: I enjoyed his British accent, and he could vary his accent by region and class. I purchased the audio version, so his voice-skills were important to me. Stylistically, I was a tad annoyed by the professor’s repetitive use of the phrase, ‘as it were.’ In one lecture, I lost count of the ‘as it were’s.’ Overall, I felt Sutherland might have been too sensitive to the dictates of political correctness. Early on, in discussing how Twain’s ‘Huck Finn’ was sometimes banned, he asks us, ‘which party is right -- the banners or the prescribers? It’s hard to say.’ Whoa! Personally, I believe banning free speech and literature in almost every context is an assault on a basic freedom and human right. Sutherland’s emphasis on race and gender also caused the course to lose some balance. His finger-wagging and verbal lashing of Milton was too much for me. It’s obvious that women were discriminated against, and males dominated most of the literature -- but I’m more interested in what makes great literature great, and much less interested in the gender of the writer. These quibbles aside, this is a great course. I found myself downloading Burns, Coleridge, Wordsworth and others to my Kindle. Oh, and I downloaded Jane Austen, too. Highly recommended!
Date published: 2010-11-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Please, Sir - can I have more? This course was definitely worth the investment. There were some writers I knew a bit about, some I (thought) I knew a lot about, and some I hadn't even heard of - Equiano, Behn. It was a brilliant overview and the added context from Professor Sutherland left me wishing I could ask him questions about many other authors and books. Very well presented, great content - and I agree with other reviewers - I wish there was more!
Date published: 2010-10-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from My Favorite I can't emphasize enough how much I have enjoyed this course. While I knew quite a lot about many of the authors and eras John Sutherland discusses, listening to his lovely, charming lectures made hearing the information he dispensed feel fresh and new. I particularly enjoyed the way he outlined the cultural and historical times swirling around all of the authors and their times. I hated coming to the end of this set of lectures and find myself hoping that The Teaching Co. will consider asking Dr. Sutherland to prepare another set which focuses more intently on a particular specialty. The modern poets seemed to be a strength and I would love an in-depth course on the Bloomsbury set. Whatever his particular specialty is, such a course would be an invaluable addition to the literature series. I am going to listen to this set again, soon!
Date published: 2010-08-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding Survey Another home run--oops, guess the Brit's actually play rounders not baseball. Anyway, Sutherland is to be commended for his work on this series. I must admit I found the early lectures, with their historical foundation, were my favorite. Would like a more in depth course comparing/contrasting Shakespeare and Woolf. Hope it comes out soon.
Date published: 2010-05-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful lectures The only negative thing I have to say about this lecture series is that is was not 96 lectures instead of 48. It would be great if Professor Sutherland would go deeper into English Literature with another lecture series.
Date published: 2010-04-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from riveting, tantalizing introduction In a survey course like this, a lecture or two for each figure is woefully inadequate to do justice to the subject matter. Prof. Sutherland's approach is to whet the appetite, to welcome one into the fold and tell stories laden with humility, power, insight, and a dry touch of British humor. The success of the course lurks in the untold elements: I found myself constantly distracted, even frustrated by a desire to read each work as it is introduced, but also drawn to move on to further tales. Equiano was a wonderful surprise to me, as was the poetry of Queen Elizabeth. I'm afraid I was less impressed with Wollstonecraft. The treatment of Austen in context (a revolt against Mrs. Radcliffe's gothic conventions) helps frame her works - while always, always encouraging a student to read further. In terms of presentation: the lectures speak for themselves, and while Professor Sutherland's endearing presentation on DVD does add to the experience, the audio variants would be as rich. Strongly recommended: the course is one you will not soon forget, and for those unable to read each work cited, the class at least offers a tasty morsel.
Date published: 2010-02-02
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