Fleshing out the canon's greats

A History of English Literature
November 16, 2001

If I had my way, every student of English would be supplied with a copy of this book. Too many courses focus on the 20th century with the result that the average undergraduate has little understanding of literature as a body of writing that changes but does not improve, to use Michael Alexander's neat formulation.

Such aperçus ensure that this guide is no mere chrono-logy, though you would be hard-pressed to find a better timeline of English literature - it is more like a good companion. I genuinely did not want to be interrupted while reading this delightful book.

Taking his cue from Chaucer's host, Alexander avoids the nod-and-plod approach to literary history, determined his readers will be entertained as well as educated. There is something to be learnt on nearly every page. It was news to me that Lady Mary Wortley Montagu had "coolly advocated" adultery and that Gerard Manley Hopkins disliked his middle name. Such details humanise the study of literature, helping to delay its death by audit.

From Caedmon to Wendy Cope, Alexander sweeps over the landscape of English writing, now in long shot, now in close-up. Although he is a firm believer in the value of literature, he has no narrow understanding of the term and gives generous space to all those who have expanded the resources of the language. Each chapter describes a period and discusses individual writers. There are also glosses of key terms, lists of important dates, diagrams and pictures. Students can dip into it for reference or read it for pleasure. Alexander has provided them not just with an highly absorbing and fact-packed narrative but a passionate defence of literature. For that reason alone it is worth buying.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English, De Montfort University.

A History of English Literature

Author - Michael Alexander
ISBN - 0 333 91397 3 and 67226 7
Publisher - Palgrave
Price - £40.00 and £12.99
Pages - 387

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