As we continue our top 10 series of the best of British, we turn our gaze to the British writers who make up our great literary landscape
1. William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Celebrating the 450th anniversary of his birth this year, William Shakespeare – also known as the Bard – is the most famous of British writers. The playwright is still commemorated for having coined nearly 1,700 of the words and phrases we still use today. He began as a playwright and as an actor in London although he is as known for his birthplace of Stratford-upon-Avon where many of his plays are still performed. Shakespeare died in 1616 leaving most of his estate to his daughter Susanna. The only mention of his wife, Anne Hathaway, in his last will and testament was to leave her his “second best bed”.
2. Jane Austen (1775-1817)
Writing about women in her time was not the ‘done thing’ so it comes as no surprise to hear that the name we know so well today, Jane Austen, published her novels anonymously. Her books deal with the lives of the upper and middle classes in England. Sense and Sensibility came first, but all her books were a resounding success – Emma, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion – while Pride and Prejudice was famously described by Austen as her ‘darling child’ and remains a national favourite.
3. Charles Dickens (1812-1870)
From A Christmas Carol to Oliver Twist, it is difficult not to recognise one of Charles Dickens’ iconic tales. The Victorian writer is quintessential of his time. He dealt with the struggles of contemporary life with unforgettable characters. Dickens was also a lover of theatre – both writing and performing – and performed for Queen Victoria in 1851.
4. Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855)
The eldest of the Brontë sisters, Charlotte outlived both her sisters and their successes. Jane Eyre, her most famous novel, created an enduring image of the wild moors of Yorkshire and introduced her criticism of society’s treatment of women. She did not actively seek to defy the roles set for women at the time, as others like George Sand did, but used her words in a modest feminist stand against the times.
5. George Eliot (1819-1880)
Hiding behind her pen name, George Eliot, Mary Ann Evans wanted to be taken seriously as a novelist at a time when women’s writing was often associated with romantic novels. She met her partner George Henry Lewes through her literary circle in London. As he was married, their relationship was shunned by friends and family but they lived together despite the scandal. Her most famous novel, Middlemarch helped her to gain social acceptance through her psychological insights.
6. CS Lewis (1898-1963)
Born in Northern Ireland, Lewis studied at Oxford University. After serving as a soldier in WW1, he settled into life as a professor first at Oxford and then Cambridge university. Although renowned for his children’s fantasy tales, he also wrote profusely on religion and theology. However, his first book in his Chronicles of Narnia series, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, released in 1950, remains one of the most beloved of his published works.
7. George Orwell (1903-1950)
Born Eric Arthur Blair, Orwell adopted his pen name shortly before his first book in 1933 called Down and Out in Paris and London. By the time he published his first big novel, Animal Farm in 1945, he was an established, and indeed prolific, journalist. He had dealt with British colonies, unemployed miners, civil wars and communism in his work – all of which had a profound impact on his writing. Animal Farm shows his anti-Stalin beliefs through a political, farmyard fable. Several years later Nineteen Eighty-Four came out and secured his longevity as an author.
8. Ian Fleming (1908-1964)
The writer of the Bond novels created a winning framework for the world of spy literature. However, he did not begin to create and develop the Bond character until the age of 43. After a successful career working in newspapers, as a broker and in Naval Intelligence – where his creative genius may well have been sparked – he settled in his house in Jamaica where Bond was born. After writing Casino Royale, the first adventure of James Bond, he continued to publish 13 more titles, which have been played out in iconic blockbuster hits since. Diverging from the adult scene just once, he wrote the story of the flying car, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for his only son Caspar.
9. Roald Dahl (1916-1990)
British novelist, Roald Dahl, has straddled both the adult short story and the children’s story genre. Many believe his first book to be James and the Giant Peach, but it was in fact a picture book called The Gremlins, which was adapted from the script for the potential, but unrealised, Walt Disney film. He did not publish another children’s book until he was a father and decided to concentrate on his short stories for adults, which he later continued alongside his prolific books. Dahl created many wonderful characters such as the BFG, the Twits and Willy Wonka in his children’s books and wrote in a magical ‘whizz-popping’ language that still enthrals readers.
10. J K Rowling (1965-present)
Famed the world over for her series about the teenage wizard, Harry Potter, J K Rowling has seen the youth market turn upside down in a magical style. It may be less well known that she used the initial J instead of her name Joanne as her publisher suggested she may be more successful to an audience of young boys if her gender was disguised. She adopted the initial K from her paternal grandmother, Kathleen. After an award-winning series which was turned into films that have been among some of the highest grossing films in the UK. Rowling now publishes books for adults under the pen name Robert Galbraith.
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