A large chunk of World Literature in English is comprised of British Literature. This Literature broadly refers to works originated in Britain, but it is not limited to works written in English- works in Irish, Gaelic, Celtic and Scottish scripts are also a part of British literature. There is a very fine demarcation between British Literature and English Literature- while the former has been described earlier; the latter pertains to a larger category of works by authors from different nationalities and linguistic backgrounds who choose to express themselves in English. Therefore, American Literature, Australian Literature, Indian English Literature and Canadian Literature are all part of World English Literature. The category also includes authors like Bapsi Sidhwa, Wole Soyinka and Ngugi Wan Thiongo.
Over the years, English has emerged as the lingua franca and English literature of British origin has acquired an important place in literary education and language studies. Especially in countries which were once under Imperial rule, this form of literature is an integral part of the educational curriculum.
The biggest names in the literary world like Shakespeare, William Blake, William Wordsworth, Coleridge, Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, Bernard Shaw, John Milton, Chaucer and many more are all part of the same literary fraternity. The main genres of any literature are novel, short-story, poetry and drama. Just like any other literature, British literature has gone through phases and eras that mark the evolutionary changes in the English language as well as the changes in the social and national context. At every point, authors and poets have responded to their environmental surroundings and personal lives through their works. Right from the first ever piece of English writing which was “Beuwolf”, an epic poem from the 1st century BC, the literary style and subjects have drastically changed through the years. British Literature has come a long way since then. Each period in English Literature has made significant contributions owing to memorable works by timeless authors.
The 16th century was the “Elizabethan period”, also known as the “Shakespearean era” and is by far the most significant period in the field of literature. This is when the sonnet took birth and theatre got a whole new lease of life. The political disturbances found their way in the works of prominent authors and critics. The 17th century marked the Renaissance and poets like Milton and John Donne made their mark by bringing an element of novelty in their poetry. The Restoration period gave us one of the most famous stories of all times- “Gulliver’s Travels” by Jonathan Swift and works by Alexander Pope.
During the “Age of Enlightenment”, science made multifold advances and rationalism, industrialization and logic came to be the order of the day. The late eighteenth and early nineteenth century saw the “Romantic Revolution” and poets like Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelly and Lord Byron shifted the public focus back to nature and spirituality by condemning industrialization, scientific rationale and “too much learning”.
The Victorian Age (1832 - 1901) was another import period as many new authors, especially women came forth with novels which are read with enthusiasm even today. Works by Jane Austen, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Elizabeth Barret Browning and Lewis Carrol depicted the situation of a woman in British society and sometimes made strong feminist statements. The middle class was fast rising and was now as much a part of theatrical audience as the aristocrats. This widened the scope for authors as they began to write for a versatile audience.
The Modern Era broke all traditions and writings became increasingly contemporary and reflective of rebellious thoughts and opinions. The trend deviated towards psycho-analysis and Freudian principles- the evidence of which can be seen in the works of Ezra Pound, William Faulkner, Earnest Hemmingway and Wallace Stevens. Modern day authors continue to keep the rich tradition alive as landmark works by Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and Rudyard Kipling are succeeded by newer award winning works.
British Literature is perhaps the richest bank of literary treasure as it dates back to the first century. The unique characteristic of this literature is the distinctiveness in style, subject and language in each literary era. Therefore, the study of British Literature is equally significant in historical, social and political perspectives.