Great British reads

Some of the world’s greatest stories and storytellers have emerged from Great Britain’s deep cultural and historical roots. There are too many great titles to fit in one article, but here are some favourites to add to your reading list.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Editors have quipped this Austen classic is merely about “how a man changes his manors and a woman changes her mind”, but you have to admit Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet do it with flare. You can’t help but fall in love with this witty, vivacious female lead and her wealthy and often arrogant suitor. It’s easy to get a little lost in Austen’s England with proper manners, empire gowns and grand estates — especially in the wake of film and TV adaptations like the BBC and A&E miniseries.

If you’re looking for a more modern take, try Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Austen-themed chick lit like Definitely not Mr. Darcy or The Jane Austen Marriage Manual. Several writers have penned sequels to the book, including P.D. James’s recent Death Comes to Pemberley.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

We never learn her real name, but the “second Mrs. de Winter” has some pretty big shoes to fill when she marries wealthy widower Maxim de Winter. Not only is she living in the shadow of Maxim’s beautiful and charismatic first wife, Rebecca, she is tormented almost to the point of suicide by the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers. When a violent storm reveals Rebecca’s missing body, disturbing questions about her mysterious death start to surface.

The novel has everything a good suspense story should have: a mysterious death, blackmail, affairs and characters you can’t quite trust. It’s hardly surprising that du Maurier’s work also became an Alfred Hitchcock film in 1951 starring Sir Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine.

Sherlock Holmes: the Complete Novels and Stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Doyle’s famous detective-for-hire is once again in the spotlight thanks to the recent movies starring Robert Downey Jr. and a new popular TV series. Still, some fans argue that the enigmatic Holmes is at his best in print. Most of the novels are told from Watson’s point of view, complete with Holmes’s quirky personal traits — including a cocaine habit and the organized chaos of his office. Holmes’ deductive method, use of disguise and ahead-of-his-time forensic methods have influenced generations of sleuths.

Of course, you can pick and choose which titles you’d like to read — including the famous The Hounds of the Baskervilles — but it’s handy to have the two volumes that compromise Doyle’s complete works when you become addicted.


The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Lord of the Rings trilogy is one of the world’s best-loved fantasy series, and The Hobbit is a great way to get your feet wet. The novel isn’t as complex or as lengthy as its trilogy sequel, but still has Tolkien’s imaginative description and clever narrative that draws readers in. There and Back Again, as the book is also known, tells the story of adventurous hobbit Bilbo Baggins who is lured away from his comfortable shire life into a quest to help a pack of dwarves recover stolen treasure from an evil dragon. It’s our first chance to get to know the wizard Gandalf and the riddling creature Gollum, and our first glimpse of the power of the ring.

Fans of the Lord of the Rings films take note: the same team is set to release a film version of The Hobbit this coming December.

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

Been there, done that with the Harry Potter series? While only the first novel in the trilogy — The Golden Compass (originally titled Northern Lights) — made it to the big screen, this beloved trilogy tops many a must-read list for adults and youth alike. The books follow the journeys of Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry as they come of age — travelling through parallel universes and experiencing epic events, that is!

The title of the series and the first book, are a nod to another great Brit work: Milton’s Paradise Lost — though critics say the themes seem to suggest a reversal of the epic poem. Pullman’s fantasy world deals with the very real conflict over self-awareness and will versus an oppressive state.

Watership Down by Richard Adams

This modern classic started as stories Adams told to his young daughters, who naturally pestered him to capture the tales in print. Fearing the imminent destruction of their warren, a group of rabbits led by brothers Fiver and Hazel are forced to leave their home in search of a new one. What started as a children’s story has sophisticated themes of freedom, survival and nature. There’s a hefty dose of adventure and danger along the way, making the story appealing for nearly all ages.

And yes, Watership Down is a real place — you’ll find it in the south of England in Hampshire.

The Warlord Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell

Since his 9th century roots as a tribal war hero, King Arthur has evolved throughout the centuries to suit a variety of audiences and traditions. It’s hard not to think of Britain’s castles without invoking Excalibur and heroic deeds of the Knights of the Round Table.

Countless writers have tackled this tradition, but few go back to Arthur’s warrior roots. Narrated by one of Arthur’s warriors, Derfel, Cornwell’s The Winter King, The Enemy of God and Excalibur takes readers back to the more brutal and turbulent dark ages — no Holy Grail or “courtly love” in sight. The characters’ personal struggles are matched only by the desperate need to protect their land from invaders.

Other famous takes on the Arthur stories include T.H. White’s The Once and Future King books and Mary Stewart’s Merlin Series.

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

It’s been nearly 60 years since 007 made his debut in April of 1953. Casino Royale is our first introduction to James Bond as the ultimate spy tries to take down a Russian operative at the Baccarat table. Unfortunately, the first of many soon-to-be Bond girls is trying to take him down too. The story was spoofed twice on screen before it was given proper spy thriller treatment in 2006 featuring Daniel Craig.

If you’re having a hard time tracking down Fleming’s books, take heart: Ian Fleming’s estate recently signed a 10-year deal with Vintage, a division of Random House, to reprint all 14 books, according to BBC News.

The latest Bond flick, Skyfall, is headed for theatres this November.

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

With all the attention on the Royal Family lately, why not dive into a novella featuring Queen Elizabeth herself? After a chance encounter at a mobile book library, the Queen becomes obsessed with reading. Soon, her new habit is informing her opinions, and even undermining her Parliament. She even promotes one of her kitchen staff — the only other borrower from this mobile library — to a higher position to serve a literary guide of sorts.

The title is a play on the term “common reader” that is, someone who reads purely for the pleasure or it. The novella isn’t meant to be taken too seriously — it’s part satire and its shorter length make it a right-sized read for the hammock.

The Kingmaker’s Daughters by Philippa Gregory

Fans of Gregory knows she brings a creative and invocative take to the major events and figures of British history. The Kingmaker’s Daughter is the fourth book in Gregory’s Cousins’ War series and tells the story of the daughters of the “Kingmaker” — Richard, Earl of Warwick, one of the most powerful men in 15th century England. Without an heir, the Kingmaker turns his daughters into pawns in his political ambitions. Like Gregory’s other works, it’s a tale of love and power — often with tragic consequences.

If you haven’t already picked up the first three, you’ve got time before this title arrives in August — or try the Tudor Series (starting with The Other Boleyn Girl).

Looking for more ideas? It was difficult to select a few good reads for this list — there are so many from which to choose! Here’s where you can find more inspiration:

Goodreads’ Best British Literature
BBC’s Big Reads Contest (from 2003)

What are some of your favourite books by British authors? Share your recommendations in the comments below.