The Land and Literature of England: A Historical Account

The Land and Literature of England: A Historical Account

The Land and Literature of England: A Historical Account

The Land and Literature of England: A Historical Account

Synopsis

A companion to British literature explores the political, social, intellectual, and cultural history and background of English poetry, fiction, prose, and drama and analyzes the changing conditions of literary activity.

Excerpt

The intent of this book is to set forth the outlines of English history so that they may serve as background for the study of English literature.

Mention English literature, and it's clear within quite definite limits what you mean; mention English history, and it's much less clear. There are constitutional, political, social, economic, military, diplomatic, and cultural histories; most general histories are a medley of all these varieties. Considered as a background to English literature, however, English history is almost required to assume a certain character. Like most of the world's literatures, the literature of England has mostly been written for and by the educated, who commonly are the leisured and relatively wealthy classes. History as it affects them provides the most relevant background for literature written with their tastes and values in mind.

The leisured and wealthy classes, to be sure, are only a fraction of the whole society; and in some stages, even the literate are only a small minority. a short history covering a long period of time cannot possibly give full attention to those silent throngs whose lives rose only rarely to literary expression. But this should not be an excuse for forgetting them. They are the background to the background, millions of people engaged in routine chores such as milking the cow, tending the pig, tanning the leather, grinding the flour, hewing the wood, and drawing the water. For thousands of years, most men and all women fell into this class; interest in sonnets or allegorical romances may distract attention from them, and sheer lack of space prevent an author from constantly reminding his readers that there they are. But there they were, throughout the entire history; and it was only because of their obscure and unceasing labors that history as a narrative of public events, and literature as the free expansion of the imagination, became possible at all, for anybody.

As there are two long stories to tell, and very little space to tell them, other elements of the background must be treated only intermittently. Literature presupposes people who can read and write; there's more than one way to acquire these skills, and different individuals do it differently. For much of England's history, her educational "system" was the reverse of systematic; many even of those who attended the best schools and universities got an education (if they did so at all) through their own initiatives. Some of England's greatest writers were self-taught; the "system" often hindered as much as it helped. This is a general if not a universal fact of life. Accordingly, the educational backgrounds of indi-

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