Literary Britain

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Great Britain is home to some of the world’s most notable writers. From Harry Potter to Shakespeare, the plots and protagonists of famous British books are a huge part of popular culture. Read our guide to some of the most influential writers and their most important pieces of work, and discover where to visit to see literature come to life and make your next trip unforgettable!

Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340 – 1400)

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Bio: At the age of 17 Chaucer became a public servant to Countess Elizabeth of Ulster. At 19, he fought in the Hundred Years’ War in France. After that, he travelled to France, Italy, and Spain as a diplomat, where he was attributed as a literary influence of authors such as Eustache Deschamps (Le Roman de la Rose) and Dante Alighieri (The Divine Comedy).

Interesting fact: During the Hundred Years’ War, Chaucer was taken prisoner near Rheims. Luckily, due to his royal connections, Edward III helped pay his ransom and he was released.

Famous works: The Canterbury Tales (c. 1390s) is a collection of 24 stories written in Middle English. It is about a group of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury who enter a story-telling contest to pass the time on their journey. Chaucer is also famous for writing The Parliament of Fowls (c. 1380) and Troilus and Criseyde (c. mid 1380s)

Where to visit: Chaucer was the first writer to be laid to rest at Poets' Corner in London’s Westminster Abbey, now the burial place of many famous writers, poets, and playwrights.

Closest tube station: St James's Park (a five minute walk) and Westminster station (a four minute walk). The Abbey is located next to Big Ben

Further reading: http://newchaucersociety.org/

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1474: Establishing the first printing press made it easier to circulate British literature, which could be printed for the first time within Britain


William Shakespeare (1564 -1616)

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Bio: Shakespeare was likely born in Stratford-upon-Avon, however, record keeping was sporadic during his lifetime, so his exact date of birth is unknown. It is known that he was married and had three children. Throughout his life he became very wealthy and recognised for his work – a recognition that spread the globe and marked him as one of the most famous authors in history. Shakespeare’s theatre group built their own theatre called The Globe and were under protection of the crown. When he died in 1616 he was buried in the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Interesting fact: One of the first reviews in 1592 about a play Shakespeare wrote was very negative. In the review he is called an “upstart crow” and accused of acting above his position. Later on in life he enjoyed great success and acted in several performances before Queen Elizabeth I. In his will he left his widow his second best bed. 

Famous books: William Shakespeare is perhaps most famous for his plays, including Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (both were first performed around 1596), and Hamlet (written between 1599-1602). Love's Labour's Lost was the first work that was published with Shakespeare’s name on it, in 1598, showing that by then his name had become a trademark. In 1609, he published 154 sonnets, which explored themes of love, sex, beauty, and death.

Where to visit: Visiting the Globe Theatre in London is the perfect way to get a feel of how theatre might have been in Shakespeare’s time. Beneath the theatre is the Shakespeare exhibition, featuring a wealth of information about the famous author and his work. 

Closest tube station: The closest tube stations are Blackfriars station (a ten minute walk) or Mansion House tube station (also a ten minute walk)

Further reading: http://www.shakespeare.org.uk/home.html

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1709: The “Queen’s Royal Cookery Book” is published during the reign of Queen Anne. It contains culinary recipes, secrets of the royal kitchen and instructions on how to make cosmetics


Daniel Defoe (1660 – 1731)

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Bio: Daniel Defoe led a diverse life. His original name was “Foe”, but he later added the “De” to sound more gentlemanly. Defoe began his working life as a merchant and was intent on becoming a successful businessman. Unfortunately, this never happened and he struggled with debt, ultimately declaring bankruptcy in 1692. Unlike many of the authors listed here, he only began writing novels later in life – the famous Robinson Crusoe was his first novel, published when Defoe was 59 years old. It was so popular that tales about stranded individuals on deserted islands are now commonly referred to as “Robinsonades”.

Interesting fact: Despite his failure in the business world, Defoe was very lucky and avoided many   brushes with death – he was just five years old when the Plague was at its height, and a year later, in 1666, his house was miraculously untouched during the Great Fire of London. In 1685, he narrowly escaped hanging during trials known as the ‘Bloody Assizes’ for fighting as a rebel in the Battle of Sedgemoor. 

Famous books: Robinson Crusoe (1719) is the tale that largely details a voyager (Crusoe) who becomes stranded on an island. He survives by growing crops and raising animals, assisted later on by a ‘companion’, whom he calls Friday. Defoe is also famous for other books, including Moll Flanders (1722) and Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress (1724).

Where to visit: Daniel Defoe is buried at Bunhill Fields burial ground. The site has a monument in his name. There are tours available if you want to find out more about the historic events during Defoe’s lifetime, such as the Plague or the Great Fire of London.

Closest Tube station: Old Street Station is a four minute walk away from Bunhill Fields.

Further reading: http://www.defoesociety.org/defoe.html

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1755: One of the most famous dictionaries in history is published, Samuel Johnson’s “Dictionary of the English Language”, containing 42,773 words


Jane Austen (1775 – 1817)

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Bio: Jane Austen – one of seven children – was born in a little village named Steventon, in Hampshire. She started writing when she was a teenager, with her brother Henry helping to negotiate with the publisher to get her first novel published. She died in 1817 and was buried in the North Aisle of Winchester Cathedral.

Interesting fact: All six of Jane Austen’s novels were published anonymously. Although Austen’s books focus predominantly on love and marriage, she herself never married. 

Famous books: Her first novel was Sense and Sensibility (1811), followed by what is perhaps her most well-known work, Pride and Prejudice (1813). Since its publication, the latter has seen countless book adaptations, as well as several TV series and films. Only four of her six novels were published during her lifetime – Persuasion (1818) and Northanger Abbey (1818) were published posthumously. 

Where to visit: You can visit the Jane Austen House Museum in Hampshire, where Jane lived for 8 years along with other family members. 

You can also visit the British Library to see the actual desk on which she wrote her novels and letters. 

Closest Tube station: The closest tube station to The British Library is King's Cross St. Pancras, a five minute walk away. 

Further reading: http://www.janeaustensoci.freeuk.com/index.htm 

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1802: Literary magazines begin to appear, and the number of books, magazines, and scholarly journals published rises sharply


Charles (John Huffam) Dickens (1812-1870)

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Bio: Charles Dickens was born into a poor family in Portsmouth. During his teenage years he had to leave school to support his family, but later returned to his studies. He began his career in writing as a journalist – a job which provided him with valuable publishing contacts, through which he published his first pieces of work. His work was praised early on and he went on to write plays, travel books, and the novels he is most known for today. He performed in front of Queen Victoria in 1851, and when he died was buried in the Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.

Interesting fact: When Charles Dickens was 12 years old, his father was imprisoned for debt, and young Charles was sent to work in a factory to help support his family – an experience that is mirrored in many of his publications. Later in his life, Dickens travelled extensively, visiting the USA several times to hold lectures against slavery. 

Famous books: Over the course of his life, Dickens wrote 15 major novels, as well as countless short stories and articles. Among his most famous publications are Oliver Twist (serialised monthly 1837-39), David Copperfield (serialised monthly 1849-50) and Great Expectations (serialised weekly 1860-61). 

Dickens’ festive story A Christmas Carol (1843) was an instant success and has since been turned into countless films, theatre plays, radio readings, and TV series. 

Where to visit: Dickens' family lived at 16 Bayham Street, Camden Town – a location that would inspire countless settings in his work. The Cratchits (A Christmas Carol), the Micawbers (David Copperfield), and Polly Toodles’ family (Dombey and Son) also lived in Camden Town.

Closest Tube station: Camden Town (a four minute walk to Bayham Street)

Further reading: http://charlesdickenspage.com/index.html

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1837: As the Victorian age begins, novels become the most popular form of prose in the English language


Arthur Conan Doyle (1859 – 1930)

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Bio: Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh, Scotland and is most famous for his short stories and novels about the enigmatic detective Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle started writing while he was studying medicine, and his short stories were quickly picked up by high quality newspapers and magazines.  

In 1902, Arthur Conan Doyle was knighted (earning the prefix ‘Sir’), following his fierce political engagement in the South African war (1899-1902). 

Interesting fact: The character Sherlock Holmes appears in four novels and 56 short-stories. Both Conan Doyle and Holmes were, and still are, an inspiration for many other authors. It is hard to put an exact figure on the number of television and film adaptations around, but between 1900 and 2013 there were at least 275 movies and TV shows in which Sherlock Holmes appears.

Famous books: Sherlock Holmes appears for the very first time in A study in Scarlet (1887). This novel is about an investigation led by the detective, narrated by his partner Doctor Watson, into a man found dead in his house in London.

Three more Sherlock Holmes novels followed this one, including the famous The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) and The Valley of Fear (1915).

Where to visit: The fictional private detective lived at 221B Baker Street in London, between 1881 and 1904. You can still visit this address today, where you’ll find an extensive museum dedicated to Holmes and Conan Doyle.

Closest Tube station: Baker Street (a three minute walk) or Marylebone (a six minute walk). 

Further reading: http://www.arthurconandoyle.com/index.html

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1939 – 1945: The Second World War had a great effect on poetry. To this day, it remains a key theme in British literature


Eric Arthur Blair (25 June 1903 – 21 January 1950) – George Orwell was his pen name

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Bio: Orwell was born in Bengal, India, and moved a few years later with his mother and sister to Henley-on-Thames, England. He is most famous as a novelist, but was also a prolific essayist, journalist, and critic. He firmly believed in democratic socialism and was against any form of totalitarianism – convictions that are evident in his work. His most well-known novels are Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. During his life he also published numerous collections of short stories, essays, screenplays, and dramas.

Interesting facts: Orwell studied at Eton College, and during this time there, his French Professor was the famous novelist and author of Brave New World, Aldous Huxley. In 1922, after completing his studies at Eton, he joined the India Imperial Police in Burma, where he worked and experienced Burmese culture for several years before returning to England.

Famous books: Both the novels Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four became film adaptations. The Animal Farm adaptation was released in 1954 and was an animated feature, whereas the 1999 film version was a TV live action version. The film adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four was filmed in 1984.

Where to visit: At 22 Portobello Road, Notting Hill, you’ll find a blue plaque dedicated to Orwell marking his first home in London. On Pond Street in Hampstead is a marble plaque that marks where he worked as a bookshop assistant during the time he lived at Warwick Mansions from 1934 to 1935. In 1929, Orwell moved into the Suffolk village of Southwold, where he lived for five years. His travels to northern England inspired the book Road to Wigan Pier, published in 1937. He wrote the tale whilst living in a cottage called “The Stores” in the town of Wallington, Hertfordshire.

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1900s: The 20th Century saw a rise of dystopian literature with publications such as Huxley’s “Brave New World” (1932) and Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” (1954)


John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892 – 1973)

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Bio: Tolkien was born in Orange Free State, South Africa, but moved to England when he was just three years old. From an early age, he invented several languages, which became a key component to the lore that surrounds and enriches his tales.

On 28 March 1972, Tolkien was appointed as ‘Commander of the Order of the British Empire’ by Queen Elizabeth II. 

Books: Tolkien is the author of The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and Silmarillion. Tolkien has been acknowledged as “The Father” of the modern literary genre, high fantasy. In 2008, The Times awarded Tolkien sixth place in “The 50 best English writers since 1945”.

Interesting facts: The Silmarillion (published posthumously), The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings are all component parts of one literary ensemble, which also includes poems, fictional languages, and essays. In 1999, Amazon.com’s customers voted The Lord of the Rings as the most popular book of the millennium. 

Two years later, the film adaptation of the first part of the trilogy The Lord of the Rings was released. The film was directed by Peter Jackson. The trilogy was followed, ten years later – from 2012 to 2014 – by The Hobbit trilogy.

Where to visit: Exeter College, Oxford University, where Tolkein studied English Literature. The Botanic Gardens in High Street, Oxford, where he would sit under a huge deformed Austrian pine tree – which may or may not have inspired him for the Ents in The Lord of the Rings! 

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1997: The first Harry Potter book was published. The books have since become the bestselling series in history


Joanne Kathleen Rowling (1965 – present)

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Bio: J.K. Rowling was born in Yate, in the south of England. She became famous after the release of the first Harry Potter novel in 1997. She studied French and Classics at the University of Exeter. 

She began to develop the idea for Harry Potter whilst stuck on a delayed train, but it would be several years before the fully formed novel was published. Rowling went through a stressful period while she was working on the novels, involving a divorce, the death of her mother, and a move to Scotland. 

Interesting fact: More than 450 million copies of the Harry Potter books have been sold around the world, and they have been translated into 74 different languages. 

Harry Potter had a huge cultural impact on both fiction, film and contemporary culture – for example, the word “Muggles” now finds a place in the Oxford English Dictionary. 

Famous books: J.K. Rowling became famous with the release of the first Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (1997). At the age of 11, Harry Potter discovers that he is a wizard. The book depicts his early life and his first year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Six sequels were then released between 1998 and 2007. 

Where to visit: You can visit the Warner Bros Studio Tour in London, where many of the films were produced. On the tour, you can see the Great Hall, Dumbledore’s office, and climb aboard the Hogwarts Express. There are countless other places related to Harry Potter that you can visit in London and all over the UK, including the real platform 9 ¾ at King’s Cross train station.

Closest Tube station: Tickets to the Studio Tour include a return bus trip from central London, departing from outside Victoria station

Further reading: http://www.jkrowling.com/


Picking just a few great British authors is by no means an easy feat – there are simply so many to choose from that giving credence to one means discounting another. We could easily have chosen to feature Roald Dahl or A. A. Milne, or John Keats and W.B. Yeats, to name but a few.

With such a wealth of authors and associated places to visit, where will you head to next? Why not tell us about your author inspired trips over at @VisitBritain.

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