The kindly but mischievous founding editor of the famous Oxford journal Essays in Criticism , F. W. Bateson, once wrote an article on the supposed irrelevance of another learned journal with the question Cui bono? in its title. After perusing the Oxford Chronology of English Literature I am not quite sure just who will benefit from it, but it seems as if having it around will do many people good.
The Chronology could hardly be done better, and the searching tools that its Windows and Mac-compatible CD-Rom version will bring into play will increase its usefulness to researchers.
There are 30,000 titles here, selected from more than 4,000 authors, which cover fiction, poetry, drama and non-fiction. Anthologies from Tottel through Palgrave to Quiller-Couch are included, as are reference works from Dr Johnson's lexicography to Mrs Beeton's cookery.
There are also translations from Machiavelli and Erasmus onwards, and there are female writers ranging from Queen Elizabeth I to Jeanette Winterson.
And it is to the credit of the Chronology that a conscientious attempt has been made to include Scottish, Welsh and Irish authors, together with those from overseas who made their home in Britain or colonial authors mainly handled by British publishing houses.
Indexing, by author and title (comprising volume two), is heroic. The editor has assembled an excellent team of 24 specialist advisers for particular chronological areas, including professors Gillian Rogers, Elaine Hobby, Gordon Campbell, Valentine Cunningham and Kate Flint.
Also, in the preface, an even more distinguished Essays in Criticism editor, Christopher Ricks, offers quirky, effective incitements to further browsing. He reproduces an example of the work of the cartoonist Saul Steinberg and uses his work to poke fun briefly at "po-faced" ideas of aesthetic value inhering exclusively in regular canons as he prepares us for the temporality, and the inclusiveness, to follow.
But there are also slight but unmistakable lamenting notes in this preface for the chronology's compact predecessor, the Annals of English Literature .
Ricks even cites Thomas Hardy's famous refrain: "Ah, no; the years, the years!", as if in deference to silenced Annals d'antan .
We have lost that reassuring sense of relatively grand narratives of cultural progress, or prowess. By contrast with the Annals of English Literature , the Oxford Chronology belongs unequivocally to the new positivism, leaving it to the reader to ascribe the value(s) to its rafts of facts. However, many scholars will find it answers their incidental requirements.
Edward Neill formerly taught English literature at Middlesex University.
The Oxford Chronology of English Literature
Editor - Michael Cox
ISBN - 0 19 860026 7/CD-Rom version 0 19 860521 8
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £150.00/£100.00
Pages - 1,344, 2 vols