Jane Austen (1775–1817). Perhaps the most beloved of all English novelists. Her work has attracted a wide range of admirers—it has been the subject of innumerable film and television adaptations—and scholars have credited her with developing new techniques for the representation of consciousness. Austen was born in Hampshire, the sixth of seven children. Her father was a clergyman. She grew up in a family of devoted novel readers and showed an early talent for satire and parody. Austen began her first serious literary projects while in her 20s, producing early versions of what would later become Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey. She returned to these works in her 30s, revising them for publication—Sense and Sensibility appeared in 1811, Pride and Prejudice in 1813—while also writing three new works: Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1815), and Persuasion, published posthumously, along with Northanger Abbey, in 1818. She never married, though she did accept one proposal, from a wealthy young man six years her junior, only to think better of her acceptance the next day.
Pat Barker (1943– ). Among the greatest living practitioners of historical fiction, celebrated for the Regeneration trilogy (1991–1995), a series of novels set during the First World War. Born in Yorkshire, Barker was raised by her maternal grandparents. Her grandmother worked in a fish-and-chips shop, and her grandfather, a veteran of World War I, was a laborer. She was educated at the London School of Economics and worked as a teacher before devoting herself to writing. Inspired by a creative writing course with the novelist Angela Carter (1940–1992), Barker began to explore the realities of working-class life, eventually producing such novels as Union Street (1982) and Blow Your House Down (1984). She turned to historical fiction in Regeneration (1991), a novel focused on the wartime experience of poet Siegfried Sassoon (1886–1967). The next two novels in the trilogy are The Eye in the Door (1993) and The Ghost Road (1995), a work that earned her the Booker Prize in 1995 for the best full-length novel written by a citizen of the British Commonwealth. Barker’s novels are known for their vivid accounts of war and for their interest in issues of class, sexuality, and psychology.
Charlotte Brontë (1816–1855). The author of three novels, she is best known for her first book, Jane Eyre (1847). Jane’s story is, in many ways, autobiographical, based on Brontë’s experiences at school and her later work as a teacher and governess. Brontë was born in Yorkshire, in the town of Haworth. Her father was a clergyman, originally from Ireland; her mother died in 1821, when Charlotte was only 5. There were six children in the family, but only four survived to adulthood. Brontë sought literary fame much more eagerly than her sisters Emily and Anne. All three of the sisters published their works under ambiguous pseudonyms, inadvertently sparking debate about their real identities. Reviewers and readers were especially eager to know if they were male or female—the pseudonyms had left this unclear—with one reviewer arguing that Jane Eyre would be praiseworthy if the work of a man but “odious” if that of a woman. The great success of the novel was almost immediately followed by unimaginable tragedy, as Charlotte suffered the loss of all three of her siblings (Emily, Anne, and brother Branwell) within a period of about nine months. She married her father’s curate in 1854. Weakened by illnesses brought on by pregnancy, she died of tuberculosis less than a year later. During her lifetime, she also published Shirley (1849), a historical novel about the industrial revolution, and Villette (1853), a work based on her experiences (and her passionate love for her teacher) in Brussels.
Emily Brontë (1818–1848). The author of the most unusual and perhaps the most remarkable of all Victorian novels, Wuthering Heights (1847). Along with her surviving sisters, Charlotte and Anne, and her brother Branwell, Emily spent much of her childhood writing. She devoted enormous energy to the creation of an imaginary island called Gondal, continuing work on these stories well into her 20s. Invariably described as the most reclusive of the sisters, the adult Emily spent only two long periods of time away from home: In 1838 and 1839, she worked briefly as a teacher, and in 1842, she attended school with Charlotte in Brussels, an experience she seems to have hated. She died of tuberculosis, which she may have aggravated at her brother’s funeral only a few months earlier. Family members would later recall her emotional intensity, her love of music, and her devotion to animals. She is now regarded as an important Victorian poet as well as a major novelist.
Frances Burney (1752–1840). One of the most important novelists of the second half of the 18th century and a major influence on later figures, including Jane Austen. Like Austen, Burney grew up in a family of readers and writers. Her father was the author of a four-volume history of music, published in the 1770s and 1780s, and the friend of such literary men as Samuel Johnson. Her mother died in 1762, when Burney was about 10. In her early 20s, she and her family moved into a house once occupied by Isaac Newton, whose observatory had been set up in the attic. Burney published her first novel, Evelina, anonymously in 1778. She followed up on its success with another novel, Cecilia, in 1782. Starting in 1786, she worked as second keeper of the robes to Queen Charlotte, spending much of her time at Windsor Castle. She found the job exhausting and boring and was more than happy to leave it in 1791. Married in 1793 to a refugee from the French Revolution, she had one child, a son. Burney survived breast cancer, living for 30 years after a painful mastectomy, and was preceded in death by both her husband and her son. Along with Evelina and Cecilia, she is best known for another novel, Camilla (1796), and for her journals, which first appeared in print in the 1840s.
A. S. Byatt (1936– ). Rose to fame with Possession (1990), a novel tracing the fortunes of two couples, one from the 19th century and the other from the 20th. In both her fiction and her critical writings, she is fascinated by relationships between past and present. Byatt was born in Yorkshire, and she later attended both Oxford and Cambridge. Aside from Possession, she is best known for Angels and Insects (1992), a book consisting of two stories set in the Victorian Age, and for a series of four novels dealing with the life of Frederica Potter, a character who seems in many ways to resemble Byatt herself. The novels in this series are The Virgin in the Garden (1978), Still Life (1985), Babel Tower (1996), and A Whistling Woman (2002). Byatt has also published two critical studies of Iris Murdoch and a book on the Romantic poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Of particular interest to us is another recent volume, On Histories and Stories (2000), in which she says, “narration is as much part of human nature as breath and the circulation of blood.” Byatt’s sister is the novelist Margaret Drabble.
Joseph Conrad (1857–1924). A crucial figure in the transition to Modernism, valued for his reflections on the nature of storytelling and his portrayal of European imperialism. Though his parents were both Polish, he was born in the Ukraine and given the name Józef Theodor Konrad Korzeniowski. When he was about 5, his parents were exiled to a remote village in northern Russia, where both of them would die. Conrad went to sea at the age of 16, visiting the West Indies and Venezuela while serving in the French merchant marine. He sought work on British ships in 1878 and became an English subject in 1886. The most important journey of his career came in 1890, when he sailed to the coast of Africa and steamed up the Congo River. This journey would become the basis for his most famous and influential work, Heart of Darkness (1899), which would later serve as the basis for the film Apocalypse Now. Closely associated with other major figures, including Henry James and Ford Madox Ford, Conrad would also publish several other important works of fiction, including Almayer’s Folly (1895); Lord Jim (1900); Nostromo (1904); The Secret Agent (1907), now celebrated as one of the first novels to take up the issue of urban terrorism; and Under Western Eyes (1911).
Charles Dickens (1812–1870). Beyond doubt the central figure in the history of English fiction. He was born in Portsmouth, where his father worked as a clerk in the navy pay office. The family settled in London when he was 10, and his father was arrested and imprisoned for debt about two years later. During this period, the young Dickens worked in a factory, pasting labels on bottles of boot blacking—an experience that left him feeling “utterly neglected and hopeless.” In his late teens and early 20s, Dickens worked as a law clerk and a parliamentary reporter, eventually trying his hand at other sorts of journalism. His first major work of fiction, The Pickwick Papers (1836–1837), would transform him into the most popular and successful writer of his age. He would spend the rest of his life as a kind of public icon, making two trips to America and touring, performing public readings from his own works. His experience of celebrity was not always happy, and in 1858, as he separated from his wife and deepened his relationship with a young actress, his behavior became the subject of gossip and scandal. Dickens’s literary career fell into two major phases. In the first half, which took him from 1835 to about 1846, he produced such works as Pickwick, Oliver Twist (1837–1838), Nicholas Nickleby (1838–1839), and The Old Curiosity Shop (1840–1841). These works, though brilliant in their own ways, are not best described as novels. In the second half of his career, from 1846 to 1870, Dickens mastered the novel form. Among the works he created in this period are Dombey and Son (1847–1848), Bleak House (1852–1853), Little Dorrit (1857-1857), Great Expectations (1860–1861), and Our Mutual Friend (1864–1865).
Margaret Drabble (1939– ). A novelist known for her interest in women’s lives and experiences. Born in Yorkshire, she was educated at Cambridge and enjoyed a brief career as an actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company. (Her first husband, the actor Clive Swift, starred in the British sitcom Keeping Up Appearances.) From 1963 to 1969, Drabble published five novels, including the award-winning The Millstone. It was an impressive beginning, establishing Drabble as a writer in the tradition of George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, interested in the pressures confronting ambitious women. Drabble’s later novels include The Needle’s Eye (1972), The Ice Age (1977), and a trilogy focused on the friendship of three women: The Radiant Way (1987), A Natural Curiosity (1989), and The Gates of Ivory (1991). Her critical writings include essays on classic novelists from Jane Austen and Emily Brontë to Thomas Hardy. Drabble is also the editor of the indispensable reference work The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Her sister is the novelist A. S. Byatt.
George Eliot (1819–1880). The pseudonym of Mary Ann (later Marian) Evans. Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871–1872) is often described as the greatest of all English novels. Marian Evans was born and grew up in the country, where her father worked as the agent for an aristocratic family. Intensely devout as a young woman, she later came to view the Gospels as “histories consisting of mingled truth and fiction.” After translating two important works of biblical scholarship and serving as assistant editor of the prestigious Westminster Review, she was encouraged to try her hand at fiction by G. H. Lewes, a writer with whom she lived for about 25 years. Her first sketches were submitted anonymously, and she began using her pseudonym in 1858, partly because she feared public exposure of her unconventional relationship with Lewes. Like Charlotte Brontë, she continued to use her pseudonym long after her real identity was well known. About 18 months after Lewes’s death, she chose to marry John Cross, a man 20 years her junior. She died of kidney disease in December of 1880, only a few months after the wedding. Eliot’s first novel, Adam Bede (1859), was an enormous popular and critical success, establishing her as a major rival to Dickens. Her later works include The Mill on the Floss (1860), a fictional treatment of her relationship to her brother; Silas Marner (1861); Felix Holt (1866); Middlemarch; and Daniel Deronda (1874–1876).
Henry Fielding (1707–1754). With his great rival, Samuel Richardson, one of the two early masters of the English novel. Born in Somerset and educated at Eton, he had aristocratic connections on his father’s side. Fielding enjoyed great success in two fields, literature and the law. His first significant literary achievements came as a playwright. He had a particular gift for satire, directing most of his barbs at Sir Robert Walpole, the Tory prime minister—but his dramatic career was halted by the Licensing Act of 1737, which imposed strict censorship on most of the theaters in London. Fielding responded to this crisis by preparing for the bar exam and turning his attention to prose fiction. In the early 1740s, he produced two hilarious parodies of Richardson’s Pamela (1740): Shamela (1741) and Joseph Andrews (1742). Joseph Andrews is Fielding’s first great novel, as well as his earliest effort to create what he called a “comic epic in prose.” It paved the way for the even greater achievement of Tom Jones (1749), which contains the first serious reflections on the art of fiction in English. Fielding also served for five years as a magistrate or judge in London, gaining additional fame as the founder of the “Bow Street Runners,” the first modern police force in the city’s history. His younger sister, Sarah, was a successful novelist in her own right, with her most successful work, The Adventures of David Simple, appearing in 1744.
Ford Madox Ford (1873–1939). The author of one of the greatest 20th-century novels, The Good Soldier (1915), and the editor of two influential literary journals. Born Ford Hermann Hueffer, he grew up among artists and intellectuals. His father was a German musicologist; his mother, a painter. His maternal grandfather was the Pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown. Hueffer wrote his first novel at the age of 18 and later collaborated on two novels with Joseph Conrad. While working as the editor of the English Review, he played a major role in the discovery of such new writers as Ezra Pound, Wyndam Lewis, and D. H. Lawrence. Much later, while living in Paris, he employed the young Ernest Hemingway as a subeditor on the Transatlantic Review. In 1915, after failing to win a divorce from his wife—he was at the time involved in an affair with another woman—he enlisted in the Army, serving through the years of the First World War and nearly dying in the first battle of the Somme. Ford changed his name in 1919, after returning from the war. He spent most of his later years in America, where he served on the faculty of Olivet College, and France, where he died in 1939. His major works of fiction include the Fifth Queen trilogy (1907–1908), a series set during the reign of Henry VIII; The Good Soldier; and the novels of the Parade’s End tetralogy (1924–1928).
E. M. Forster (1879–1970). Author of two important modern novels—Howards End (1910) and A Passage to India (1924)—as well as Aspects of the Novel (1927), a major study of the form. Forster was born in London. His father, an architect, died before he reached the age of 2, and he was raised chiefly by his mother, who sometimes referred to him (only half-jokingly) as “the Important One.” He attended Cambridge and joined some of his classmates as a member of the Bloomsbury Group. He traveled widely as a young man, visiting Italy, India, and Egypt. Though not as formally innovative as the novels of Joyce or Woolf, Forster’s books should be credited with updating the tradition of the novel of manners. In Howards End, he explores the relationship among artists, intellectuals, and businessmen, looking for connections among these apparently separate groups. In A Passage to India, he takes on the even more difficult subject of imperialism, suggesting that colonial rule has had dire effects on both Indian and English people alike. Forster wrote the libretto for Benjamin Britten’s opera of Billy Budd (1951) and appeared as a witness for the defense in the 1960 censorship trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Because he refused to allow his books to be made into movies, film versions of A Passage to India (1984), A Room with a View (1985), and Howards End (1992) would have to wait until after his death. Published posthumously was his novel Maurice (written 1910–1913), one of the earliest sympathetic treatments of gay characters and themes.
Henry Green (1905–1973). The pseudonym of Henry Vincent Yorke, author of nine novels and an important member of the generation following Lawrence, Joyce, and Woolf. He was born into a very wealthy Midlands family. Educated at Eton and Oxford, he left college to work on the floor of his family’s factory. His experiences during this period were formative, helping to inspire Living (1929), a novel still valued for its close attention to the rhythms of working-class speech. Later in life, Green became an executive in the family firm, often attending to his fiction during lunch hours. His other major works include Party Going (1939) and Loving (1945), a novel set in an Irish castle in the period of the Second World War. Often reclusive during his own lifetime—the most famous photograph of him, taken by Cecil Beaton, shows the back of his head and shoulders—Green has won the admiration of many other writers. Among his most enthusiastic fans are the poet W. H. Auden and the American novelist John Updike.
Graham Greene (1904–1991). Novelist, screenwriter, MI6 agent, and chronicler of Cold War conflicts in such places as Vietnam and Haiti, Greene’s career spans six decades, beginning in the 1920s and ending in the 1970s. The son of a schoolmaster, he had a very difficult childhood and adolescence. At Oxford, he devoted himself to poetry, but negative reviews of his first collection convinced him to try journalism instead. In 1926, at the urging of his future wife, he converted to Catholicism. He disliked being described as a “Catholic novelist” but often centered his stories on feelings of spiritual crisis and guilt. The experience of adultery was an especially compelling subject, occupying Greene in such novels as The End of the Affair (1951) and The Quiet American (1955). It was also a subject he knew firsthand, having separated from his wife and beginning a long affair with a married woman. His love of the movies, and their influence on his fiction, helps to distinguish him from earlier writers. Through the 1930s, he reviewed more than 400 films and, in the 1940s, began writing screenplays, the best of which is the one for The Third Man (directed by Carol Reed and released in 1949). In the 1950s, Greene began writing about other parts of the world, setting novels in Africa, South America, and East Asia. His most important works of fiction include Brighton Rock (1938), The Power and the Glory (1940), and The Heart of the Matter (1948).
Thomas Hardy (1840–1928). A crucial figure in the transition from Victorian to Modernist fiction, perhaps chiefly important for his use of tragic endings. Born in Dorset, the region he would later make famous as “Wessex,” Hardy was a sickly child. His father was a stonemason, and he was apprenticed to a local architect at the age of 16. He had good teachers at local schools and enjoyed the opportunity to study Latin. He began adult life as a draftsman in London but dreamed of a career as a writer, thinking first of poetry. His first work of fiction appeared in 1871, and after the great success of Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), Hardy was able to give up architecture and devote himself to literature full-time. Many of his novels were originally published in weekly and monthly magazines, and the sexual content of his stories frequently led to protracted disputes with editors and publishers. By the late 1890s, owing to the financial independence he had gained with such novels as Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), he could afford to retire from fiction writing and devote himself to poetry once again. Hardy published his poetry through the 1910s and 1920s and is now regarded as a crucial influence on later poets, including Robert Frost, Dylan Thomas, and Philip Larkin. His other major novels are The Return of the Native (1878), The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), and Jude the Obscure (1895).
Henry James (1843–1916). Known later in life as “the Master” and with good reason. One of the two or three most important figures in the history of Anglo-American fiction, James did much to elevate the status of the novel in the period from 1880 to 1910. Though born in New York City, he spent much of his childhood traveling in Europe. He attended Harvard Law School for a year. Drafted into the army during the American Civil War, he was exempted from service because of a medical disability. While living in Paris during the mid-1870s, he became acquainted with some of Europe’s greatest living novelists; his friends in this period included Ivan Turgenev and Gustave Flaubert. James’s first major novels were focused on the “international theme,” taking their American protagonists to England, France, and Italy. Among such works are The American (1877), Daisy Miller (1878), and The Portrait of a Lady (1881), considered by many his greatest novel. James experienced a creative rebirth in the early years of the 20th century, producing three astounding novels—The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904)—all now famous for their close attention to the workings of human consciousness. He lived in England for more than 40 years and became a British citizen in 1915. Recently, he has become the subject of other people’s fiction, taking the lead role in two interesting novels: Colm Tóibin’s The Master (2004) and David Lodge’s Author, Author (2004).
James Joyce (1882–1941). Author of three novels, all Modernist classics. Famous for his depiction of human thought—Joyce is a master of the interior monologue—as well as his experiments with literary form. Born in Dublin, he watched his middle-class Catholic family slide into poverty. After finishing his education at University College, he spent a few months in Paris, returning home after learning that his mother was on the verge of death. In 1904, he left Ireland once and for all, taking his lover, Nora Barnacle, with him. They raised two children together, remaining unmarried until 1931.
Though he spent his adult life on the Continent, settling in such places as Trieste, Zurich, and Paris, Joyce set all his major fiction in Dublin. His first important publication was a collection of stories, Dubliners (1914), and his first novel was the autobiographical A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). Though his early work is justly admired, his reputation now rests chiefly on Ulysses (1922). A remarkable and still-controversial work, it simultaneously upholds and rejects the tradition of novelistic Realism. Not least of the work’s charms is its comedy, for it is not only one of the most challenging novels in the language but also one of the funniest. Joyce’s last major work was Finnegans Wake (1939), in which he practically invented a language of his own. Whether or not the Wake should be described as a novel is an open question. There can be no doubt, however, that it is one of the most inventive works ever published—and a fitting end to a brilliant career.
D. H. Lawrence (1885–1930). One of three writers—the others being James Joyce and Virginia Woolf—whose work is said to mark the appearance of Modernist fiction in England. Lawrence’s father was a miner—he worked in the pits from the age of 10—and his mother, a former schoolteacher. His parents were always at odds, and their troubles seem to have affected their son deeply. At his mother’s urging, Lawrence attended college and became a teacher himself, all the while hoping for a career as a writer. In 1909, he enjoyed his first real success, when Ford Madox Hueffer (later Ford Madox Ford) offered to publish his poetry in the English Review. His first major novel, Sons and Lovers (1913), dramatizes the events of his own adolescence, introducing many of the themes—family, work, sexual passion, freedom—that characterize his later fiction. Many of Lawrence’s greatest works were the subject of intense battles with editors, censors, and reviewers. The Rainbow (1915) was banned as obscene, while Women in Love (1920) went three years without finding a publisher. Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) remained controversial as late as 1960, when Penguin Books finally won the right to bring out a British edition. Lawrence’s personal life was no less difficult. He met his future wife, Frieda, in 1912, while she was still married to one of his professors. She would leave her husband and three children for him—though not without considerable difficulty. The couple spent the years of the First World War in England, more or less against their will, but they were able to travel extensively in the 1920s. Through these years, they visited Ceylon, Australia, New Mexico, and Italy, where Lawrence died of tuberculosis at the age of 45.
Ian McEwan (1948– ). Major contemporary novelist, likely to be remembered for Atonement (2001). The son of an officer, McEwan has described himself as an “army brat.” He was born in Aldershot and spent parts of his childhood in Tripoli and Singapore. Educated at the Universities of Sussex and East Anglia, he studied creative writing with Malcolm Bradbury (1932–2000) and Angus Wilson (1913–1991). McEwan’s career can be divided into two parts. The early works, including The Cement Garden (1978) and The Comfort of Strangers (1981), often center on acts of grotesque violence—and help to explain why he was once known as “Ian Macabre.” Recent works, including Atonement and Saturday (2005), show a considerable advance in maturity. In Atonement, McEwan explores the connection between creation and destruction. In Saturday, he considers the relationship between literature and science, taking as his central character a neurosurgeon who admits to disliking fiction. In addition to his nine novels, McEwan has also written screenplays, libretti, and two works for children.
Iris Murdoch (1919–1999). Novelist, philosopher, and folk hero. Her later struggles with Alzheimer’s disease were made famous in bestselling memoirs by her husband, literary critic John Bayley. Bayley’s memoirs were themselves the inspiration for a feature film, titled Iris (2001), in which Murdoch is portrayed (at different stages of life) by two great English actresses, Kate Winslet and Dame Judi Dench. Murdoch was born in Dublin, and although her family moved to London when she was very young, her Irish identity remained important to her. She read “greats” at Oxford, then went on to work for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. In the mid-1950s, she published two works that demonstrate her commitment to different kinds of moral and intellectual inquiry: a critical study of existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and a novel, her first, Under the Net. Popular success and fame came to her a few years later, with the publication of The Bell. Murdoch wrote 20 novels in all, including The Sea, The Sea, for which she received the Booker Prize in 1978. It seems likely that she’ll be remembered as one of the greatest and most important novelists of the postwar period.
Anthony Powell (1905–2000). Important figure in mid-20th-century fiction, known for his 12-volume sequence, A Dance to the Music of Time (1951–1975). Powell was born in London, the son of an Army officer, and he was educated at Eton and Oxford. After finishing his degree, he went to work in a publishing house, producing his first novel, Afternoon Men, in 1931. In 1934, he married Lady Violet Georgiana Pakenham, daughter of the fifth earl of Longford, who raised two children with him and enjoyed a literary career of her own. Powell served in the army during the Second World War, working as an intelligence officer and liaison to governments in exile. After leaving the service, he began his ambitious series of novels, publishing the first, A Question of Upbringing, in 1951. The series traces the experiences of Nicholas Jenkins, a character not unlike Powell himself. Named after a painting by the French artist Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), the sequence covers more than 50 years of Jenkins’s life and is now valued chiefly for its witty commentary on upper-class English society.
Ann Radcliffe (1764–1823). The most popular of the late-18th-century Gothic novelists. She was born in London and moved to Bath at the age of 8. Her father was in trade, managing a showroom for the pottery firm of Wedgwood and Bentley. She spent a good deal of her youth among wealthy relatives—one childhood playmate was the future mother of Charles Darwin—and married William Radcliffe, a journalist, at the age of 23. She published her first novel, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne, about two years later. It is said that her husband encouraged her efforts and that she began writing as a way of diverting herself during evenings when he was away. Radcliffe produced five novels in all, the most famous being The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). She did not invent the form of the Gothic novel—credit for that is usually given to Horace Walpole (1717–1797)—but she dominated the field, almost single-handedly creating an enormous audience for horror stories. Radcliffe stopped writing fiction, for reasons that remain somewhat mysterious, while still only 33 years old. Another novel, Gaston de Blondeville (1826), was published after her death.
Samuel Richardson (1689–1761). Author of Pamela (1740), a work usually regarded as the first English novel. Richardson was born in Derbyshire, the son of a joiner, but he spent most of his life in London. At age 17, he was apprenticed to a printer. By his early 30s, he was running his own printing business, eventually serving as the official printer to the House of Commons. Richardson now seems a perfect representative of the rising middle class, eager to advance himself financially, socially, and culturally. The turning point in his life is said to have come in 1739, when his fellow printers asked him to write a book of sample letters that could be used as templates by newly literate readers. As he worked on this project, Richardson produced two letters that would become the basis for Pamela. Breaking off the initial project, he shifted all his attention to the new work, which he finished in two months. The book was an enormous success, inspiring dozens of imitations, theatrical adaptations, and parodies—including two by his greatest rival, Henry Fielding. In 1741, Richardson produced his own sequel to Pamela, a work known as Pamela in Her Exalted Condition. He went on to write Clarissa (1747–1749), one of the very few tragic novels in the early English tradition, and Sir Charles Grandison (1753–1754), the only one of his works with a male protagonist. He is most famous for his use of the epistolary form—his stories are told through letters to and from the characters—and his obsessive revisions. Eight different versions of Pamela appeared during his lifetime, and a ninth followed posthumously. He died from complications of a stroke about a month before his 72nd birthday.
Salman Rushdie (1947– ). Arguably the most important British novelist of the last quarter century. Known to most as the author of The Satanic Verses (1988) and the target of a death sentence by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeni. Rushdie was born in Bombay and raised in a nonobservant Muslim family. He was educated in England, at Rugby and Cambridge, and earned an M.A. in history. He enjoyed some success with his first novel, Grimus (1975), but it was Midnight’s Children (1981) that established his reputation. In Midnight’s Children, Rushdie tells the story of Saleem Sinai, born at midnight on August 15, 1947—the very moment of India’s independence from England. Though known for its exploration of Indian history, the work should also be recognized for its boundless humor and energy. Rushdie’s mastery of the novelistic tradition is evident throughout the work, and even the briefest list of his literary influences would have to include writers from Laurence Sterne to the Latin American magical realists of the 1960s and 1970s. Since Midnight’s Children, Rushdie has published a volume of short stories, a book for children, and six novels, including Shame (1983), The Satanic Verses, The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995), and Shalimar the Clown (2005).
Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832). Responsible for the enormous popularity of historical fiction, which dominated the English scene through much of the 19th century. Born in Edinburgh, Scott came down with polio while still an infant and suffered from lameness in his right leg throughout the rest of his life. His father was a solicitor; his maternal grandfather, a professor of physiology. He studied at the University of Edinburgh and was admitted to the bar in 1792. Scott’s first literary production was a three-volume collection of traditional ballads, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802–1803). He became a famous poet in his own right, achieving great success with The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805) and The Lady of the Lake (1810), and was offered the laureateship in 1813. He refused the position and soon went on to publish Waverley (1814), the first of his great historical novels. Scott wrote 23 works of fiction in all, including Old Mortality (1816), Rob Roy (1817), The Heart of Midlothian (1818), and Ivanhoe (1819). In such works, he frequently returns to conflicts between traditional and modern ways of life, offering a complex account of historical change. Scott was made a baronet in 1820 and spent much of his later life working almost furiously in an attempt to pay off massive debts. After suffering a series of strokes, he died at Abbotsford, his country house near the River Tweed, at the age of 61.
Zadie Smith (1975– ). One of the most promising young novelists in England, already famous for her panoramic image of a multiracial, multicultural London. Born to an English father (an advertising executive) and a Jamaican mother (a child psychologist), Smith grew up in the North London neighborhood of Willesden. She attended Cambridge, where she began working on her first novel. Circulated in manuscript, the novel’s opening pages set off a bidding war among English publishers. It’s easy to see why. Hilarious and compassionate, traditional in form yet very much of the moment, White Teeth (2000) marked an astonishing debut. In many ways, the novel is the story of two friends—one English, the other Bengali—whose lives and destinies are increasingly intertwined. Smith followed her initial success with The Autograph Man (2002) and On Beauty (2005), a novel informed by her experience as a Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard. On Beauty is set in the community surrounding an American college, and the central figure is Howard Belsey, a contentious art historian. Smith borrows much of the novel’s structure from Howards End (1910) and credits E. M. Forster as a major influence on her work.
Laurence Sterne (1713–1768). Author of Tristram Shandy (1759–1767), a brilliant and often salacious challenge to emerging notions of novelistic Realism. One of the most innovative writers in the English tradition and an inspiration to later writers from James Joyce to Salman Rushdie. Sterne was born in Ireland, where his father was serving in the army. He was sent to school in Yorkshire, the family’s home region, at the age of 10 and eventually earned both a B.A. and an M.A. from Cambridge. He became a clergyman and obtained a reasonably good living, once again in Yorkshire, marrying a few years later. The union was unhappy, and Sterne is known to have had a number of affairs. He published the first two volumes of Tristram Shandy in 1759, enjoying immediate and enormous success with the book. He took full advantage of his celebrity, posing for a portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds and appearing at court. Later volumes appeared in bunches: four in 1761; two more in 1765; another, the last to be published, in 1767. It is not certain that Sterne intended to conclude the book with the ninth volume, though American literary critic Wayne Booth made a convincing argument in support of that proposition. In addition to Tristram Shandy, Sterne also published A Sentimental Journey (1768), a work based on his two tours of the Continent. In an episode he would have enjoyed, his body was stolen from its grave and sold for use in an anatomy class at Cambridge—where the professor recognized the body as Sterne’s and had it returned for reburial.
William Makepeace Thackeray (1811–1863). Major rival to Dickens—their disagreements were both personal and professional—and author of Vanity Fair (1847–1848), the first great example of the Victorian multiplot novel. Thackeray was born in Calcutta, where his father worked for the East India Company and later collected taxes. After his father’s death in 1815, he was sent to live in England. Along the way, while the ship was in port at St. Helena, the future novelist caught a glimpse of Napoleon in exile. He left Cambridge without taking his degree, largely because of a financial crisis brought on by gambling. His family life was also marked by disappointment. After only four years of marriage, his wife suffered a complete mental breakdown. In 1842, she was placed in an institution, where she lived for another 50 years. Thackeray never remarried and seems to have devoted himself to the care of his two surviving daughters, one of whom became a novelist in her own right. He began his literary career in the 1830s, working as both editor and writer, eventually producing his best work for Punch. His real breakthrough came with Vanity Fair, a work that he also illustrated. Billed as a “novel without a hero,” Vanity Fair challenges almost every dominant social value, including marriage and motherhood, imaging a fictional world in which anyone can be the object of both ridicule and sympathy. Thackeray’s major works of fiction include The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844, revised 1856), later made into a film by Stanley Kubrick (1975); The History of Pendennis (1848–1850); The History of Henry Esmond (1852); and The Newcomes (1853–1855). He died on Christmas Eve, at the age of 52.
Evelyn Waugh (1903–1966). With Henry Green and Graham Greene, a key figure in the middle decades of the 20th century; he first gained fame for his darkly comic novels but is now best known for a more serious work, Brideshead Revisited (1945). The son of an editor and publisher, Waugh was born in London. He was educated at Oxford, where he entered into what one of his biographers has called a homosexual phase. After leaving college, Waugh worked as a schoolteacher and considered becoming a carpenter before beginning his literary career in the late 1920s. Married in 1928 and divorced a little over a year later—his wife had committed adultery—Waugh converted to Roman Catholicism in 1930. His early works of fiction include Decline and Fall (1928), Vile Bodies (1930), and A Handful of Dust (1934). During the war, he served in the Royal Marines, beginning work on Brideshead after breaking his leg in parachute training. Brideshead announced a new seriousness of purpose, portraying an aristocratic family’s return to its Catholic faith. In his later years, Waugh grew increasingly conservative, especially in religious matters, often protesting the reforms enacted by the Second Vatican Council. He seldom attended mass in this period but did go to church on Easter Sunday, 1966. Later that same day, he passed away, the victim of a massive heart attack. He was 62 years old.
Virginia Woolf (1882–1941). Twentieth-century novelist, essayist, and publisher, perhaps most famous for her experiments with stream-of-consciousness narration. She was born in London, where she grew up in a house full of books. Starting at age 6, she was subjected to repeated sexual abuse by her stepbrother. She lost her mother in 1895 and her father, the writer Leslie Stephen, about a decade later. After their father’s death, she and her three siblings moved to Bloomsbury, a then unfashionable neighborhood, where they began to assemble the community of intellectuals and artists later known as the Bloomsbury Group. The group’s members included novelist E. M. Forster, economist John Maynard Keynes, and writer Leonard Woolf, whom Virginia married in 1912. Leonard Woolf was a famously devoted husband, working with Virginia to found the Hogarth Press and helping her to cope with episodes of depression. Virginia Woolf’s initial publications were book reviews—these began to appear in 1905—and she produced her first novel, The Voyage Out, in 1915. Her work is generally said to become more ambitious, and more experimental, with the publication of Jacob’s Room in 1922. Her major works of fiction include Mrs. Dalloway (1925); To the Lighthouse (1927), which contains a moving portrait of her parents; Orlando (1928); and The Waves (1931). Her remarkable intellectual productivity is now, unfortunately, overshadowed by images of her mental instability. Although it is true that she took her own life, drowning herself in the River Ouse, it is also true that in her lifetime she published 9 novels, wrote 400 essays, and filled 30 volumes of a diary. Once regarded as somewhat less substantial than her contemporaries, she now stands alongside James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence as a major figure in British Modernism and one of the greatest of all English novelists.