Welcome to our recommendations for the best classics of English literature. If you’re after classic books, whether reading for school or for pleasure, we’ve interviewed leading academics, literary critics and the world’s best novelists.
Our interviews cover the majority of the literary canon, though we are adding new subjects all the time. Our Literary Editor is Stephanie Kelley: if you have suggestions for English literary classics (or classic authors) not currently covered on Five Books, email her at email@example.com.
We have top academic Jane Austen experts like Patricia Meyer Spacks and Devoney Looser recommending both her best Austen novels and the best biographies and critical guides. If it’s a taste of Victorian Britain you’re after, we have John Sutherland’s picks of the best Victorian Fiction; leading Dickens expert, Oxford World’s Classics Editor, and Oxford Professor Robert Douglas Fairhurst on Dickens and Christmas, and prolific Eliot critic Philip Davis recommending the best George Eliot books—not just Middlemarch!
What if you want to get a feel for literary classics, but don’t want to stray too far from the present day? We also have interviews on up and coming twentieth century authors receiving new attention, like Oxford academic Laura Varnam on the best classic novels of Daphne du Maurier, the fiction author of Jamaica Inn and Rebecca (you may have seen the Hitchcock film.)
Some of our other experts include eminent Shakespearean René Weis and University of Oxford Professor Emma Smith on the best plays of William Shakespeare, and authors Amanda Craig (on books that changed the world) and Scott Pack on his favourite forgotten classics.
Iris Murdoch gained fame as a novelist, a philosopher and, perhaps most prominently of all, for her public and rapid decline (and posthumous immortalization by her husband John Bayley) after an early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. But now, a hundred years on from her birth, the attention is returning back to her work: Miles Leeson, Director of the Iris Murdoch Centre at the University of Chichester, recommends what books to read from her canon of 27 novels.
Seventy years on from its initial publication, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is just as resonant in today’s era of misinformation and fake news as it was in the incipient Cold War era. D J Taylor, author of a lauded biography of Orwell and a forthcoming biography of Nineteen Eighty-Four, takes us through the extraordinary impact of the author’s fiction and reportage.
Troilus and Criseyde
Geoffrey Chaucer (ed. by Stephen Barney)
Oxford Guides to Chaucer: Troilus and Criseyde
by Barry Windeatt
The Double Sorrow of Troilus: A Study of Ambiguities in ‘Troilus and Criseyde’
by Ida L. Gordon
The Tragic Argument of Troilus and Criseyde
by Gerald Morgan
A Double Sorrow: Troilus and Criseyde
by Lavinia Greenlaw
Long before Renaissance dramas or realist novels, Chaucer wrote a love story set in a besieged city that was a deep psychological exploration of character and human relationships. Jenni Nuttall, author of Troilus and Criseyde: A Reader’s Guide, shares her reading recommendations after over a decade of teaching the poem to Oxford undergraduates.
Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales not only revolutionized English poetry—they’re also extremely funny and moving. Oxford Professor Marion Turner, who has written the first full-length biography of Chaucer in a generation, tells us about the extraordinary man who wrote them and why we should all read the Canterbury Tales.
George Eliot is all but synonymous with Victorian realism; for D H Lawrence, she was the first novelist to start ‘putting all the action inside.’ Here, Philip Davis, author of The Transferred Life of George Eliot, selects the best books by or about one of the greatest novelists of all time: ‘If you want to read literature that sets out to create a holding ground for raw human material—for human struggles, difficulties, and celebrations—read George Eliot’
Daphne du Maurier is one of the most overlooked writers of the twentieth century, says Oxford University’s Laura Varnam. As Rebecca celebrates its eightieth anniversary and du Maurier enjoys a critical renaissance, Varnam explores the books which highlight this novelist’s sheer range and brilliance—from biography and fiction to history and horror.
When it was published on December 19th, 1843, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol was an instant classic. As families settle in front of the fire to read it aloud on Christmas Eve, Oxford Professor of English Literature Robert Douglas-Fairhurst runs through the best of Dickens’s prolific writings about Christmas.
Ninety per cent of the books we hear about are new, which means we are missing out on countless masterpieces already out there. Scott Pack, co-founder of the Abandoned Bookshop, a digital publisher that specialises in finding forgotten and neglected books, picks five forgotten classics, for lovers not of the new but of the different…
Thanks to her ability to be many things to many people at once, Jane Austen is one of the vast minority of writers who manage to be both eternally popular and canonical. Here, Austen scholar Devoney ‘Stone Cold Jane’ Looser presents alternative Austens, from subversive youngster to video-game heroine