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Classics of British Literature

Examine the crown jewels of Britain’s literary tradition in this spellbinding course that covers all your favorite British authors—including Chaucer, Shakespeare, the Brontës, Joyce, Wilde and more.
Classics of British Literature is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 69.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Well worth the time This is a fine survey course, and the course guidebook is especially useful. The ‘Timeline’ and ‘Biographical Notes’ are a great help. Lecture 30 (Miss Austin and Mrs. Radcliffe) introduced a book and a writer that we had not before come across: ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ (1794) by Ann Radcliffe (née Ward, 1764–1823). Thinking that this would be interesting, we splurged to purchase a Kindle text for $1.99. This is a wonderfully written gothic novel --a real page-turner. Many thanks to Prof. Sutherland for bringing this to our attention. Lecture 40 (Heart of Darkness – Heart of the Empire) was alarmingly relevant to our own times as the consequences of empires (colonialism, war and injustice) are now raging throughout the world. HWF & ISF, Mesa AZ.
Date published: 2024-06-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent lectures This course is an excellent introduction to British/English literature. It is commendable that Professor Sutherland includes lesser-known (but important) writers, and that he acknowledges the difficulty of some works, such as Paradise Lost, while stressing that they are still, of course, worth reading. I found the lectures interesting and enjoyable, and they made me want to read, or re-read, the classics of British literature. As Dr Johnson might have said, Sir, What more could one desire?
Date published: 2023-05-28
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good as historical overview I would have liked to be able to give 2 different reviews to this class. One would be for someone who has no significant prior background in English literature, and seeks a broad historical overview. For that person this course would be perfect, and deserves a 5. Sutherland is a charismatic lecturer who sticks to the big questions, doesn’t get caught up in academic debate and keeps the lectures going at a good pace. However, if you are someone (like me) who has substantial familiarity with English literature, then this course is of little use. It comes across as a breezy, big picture presentation of the highlights of English literature, without presenting any new or interesting ideas, or even attempting to say what is important and valuable about these works of literature. For such a listener, the course would be a 3. So I compromised and gave it a 4. Sutherland is far more interested in the historical dimension than the literary dimension of literature. His focus is situating the texts in their historical contexts, as well as tracing their historical influence. He often seems more interested in how influential a text was than in its intrinsic merits. And he spends a lot of time on the biography of the writer, rather than on analysis of the work. For example, he gives only 2 lectures on the entirety of Shakespeare’s work, even though he is the giant of English literature and the creator of multiple masterpieces (compare his giving a whole lecture on a single book, Shelley’s Frankenstein, a popular work but far from a great one). And one of the lectures on Shakespeare is largely biographical. What little time he spends on Shakespeare’s plays is surprising. Nothing on the masterpieces: Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth. He goes into detail on The Taming of the Shrew, a very minor play, presumably because it raises the hot button issue of a woman being subservient to her husband. And he spends time on Tempest, an important play, but only to dwell on the fact that Prospero’s farewell speech can be interpreted as Shakespeare saying farewell to the stage: an interesting (if familiar) observation, but hardly anything that teaches us something important about Shakespeare or his work. Contrast this with the courses on literature offered by Arnold Weinstein (e.g. his ‘Classics of American Literature,’ the exact counterpart of Sutherland’s ‘Classics of British Literature’). Weinstein’s approach is entirely different. He focuses closely on the texts in question, spending several lectures discussing each, and with the goal of providing a close and original interpretation of the text. This is how a course on literature should be: it is compelling, challenging, and original. Often you will disagree with Weinstein, but always he will challenge you (I would say the same of Thorburne’s lectures). In contrast, Sutherland’s course is amiable but little more than a broad, general historical background on England’s literary tradition: listenable, but not a lot of depth. When he discusses Coleridge’s Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, he addresses the question of what the poem means, and his answer is: it means what it is. Surely he could give us a little attempt at an interpretation. But as always, Sutherland is more interested in its historical influence than in providing interpretations. To be sure, Weinstein’s course is twice as long as Sutherland’s. But that is a reflection of his decision to make the class one that focuses on interpretation, rather than on historical overview. Sutherland tells you what works of literature are great; Weinstein attempts to show you why they are great. (Verbal tic observation: Sutherland says ‘as it were’ far too often, and it comes across as pedantic and pretentious).
Date published: 2022-04-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Worth repeated listenings When I read the classics growing up (often because it was assigned), I simply read the story itself and did not give it any thought beyond it. Professor Sutherland provides insight not only of the authors (if known), and the story, but of the language itself, the history behind it and the various influences on it, as well as from it. This makes for a much richer experience and I have already listened to many of the lessons several times over as I get something new each time.
Date published: 2022-01-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Playback difficulties I have tried repeatedly to listen to the lectures and playbak is constantly interrupted. Tried to access your contact page via website and was redirected over and over again. Content is rich with information but unable to listen.
Date published: 2021-10-10
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Interpretation, not facts I'm disappointed in this course. The speaker is engaging, but on works that are quite familiar to me, he gives inaccurate information or unwarranted interpretation as apparent statements of fact, concerning the content of the work. This is on matters that can be checked easily by reference to the actual text, so it makes me very suspicious about his descriptions of the works that are less familiar to me. I suppose that's encouragement to go read them all for myself, but it's not why I bought the course.
Date published: 2021-05-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Classics of British Literature This has been a wonderful overview of British literature over a period of 1,500 years. The lecturer was able to cover a mammoth breadth of material while still providing depth in his analysis. I appreciated his inclusion of non-male writers in the pre-18th century period. He also fairly presented a range of views on literature, most particularly in his analysis of "Heart of Darkness."
Date published: 2021-05-01
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Very good course Very informative & worth listening. Easy to follow in the gym while working out.
Date published: 2021-04-04
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How does literature connect a nation to its past? Few nations can offer a literary legacy that addresses this question as well as that of Great Britain. Professor John Sutherland's examination of Britain's literary treasures and their creators will show you how each is linked to those who have come before—whether building on their predecessors' work or casting it aside to challenge readers and audiences with a new way of understanding a changing world.


John Sutherland

It is vital, while appreciating that universal, transcendent, and classic quality of literature, to appreciate, as fully as one can, the conditions that gave birth to these works of literature, to reinsert them, back into history.


University College London; California Institute of Technology

Dr. John Sutherland is the Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus of Modern English Literature at University College London and Visiting Professor of Literature at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). He earned his B.A. and M.A. from Leicester University and his Ph.D. from Edinburgh University. Professor Sutherland taught at Edinburgh University and University College London, the site of England's longest-standing university English department, for 10 years each, before assuming his current post at Caltech. His numerous awards and honors include the Associated Student Body of Caltech Excellence in Teaching Award and Caltech's Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Scholar Award. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and has served as a judge for the prestigious Man-Booker award. Professor Sutherland is the author of scores of scholarly articles, yet he is also one of the best-known academics outside of academia. His latest books are Curiosities of Literature (2009), an anthology of literary oddity; and a second edition of The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction (2009)-a massive encyclopedia which he regards as his major effort in scholarship. He also wrote Is Heathcliff a Murderer? Puzzles in 19th-Century Fiction, which spent a glorious week or two on The Sunday Times bestseller list; and Inside Bleak House, a companion to the BBC TV dramatization of Dickens's novel.

Anglo-Saxon Roots—Pessimism and Comradeship

01: Anglo-Saxon Roots—Pessimism and Comradeship

What is English literature? We begin with Anglo-Saxon oral literature, including an in-depth look at Beowulf, the 6th-century foundational text that barely survived the Dark Ages in which it was born.

33 min
Chaucer—Social Diversity

02: Chaucer—Social Diversity

Writing in a language still evolving after the Norman conquest, Geoffrey Chaucer took full advantage of the literate audience available for The Canterbury Tales and its groundbreaking depth of observation and diversity of character.

29 min
Chaucer—A Man of Unusual Cultivation

03: Chaucer—A Man of Unusual Cultivation

A remarkable life as soldier, businessman, scholar, government official, and far-ranging traveler gave Chaucer a deep knowledge of people, on display here in some of the most memorable tales from his most famous work.

30 min
Spenser—The Faerie Queene

04: Spenser—The Faerie Queene

See how literature can articulate the values that unite a society, nowhere exemplified as well as in Spenser's The Faerie Queene, whose knightly heroes embody the moral virtues of England.

31 min
Early Drama—Low Comedy and Religion

05: Early Drama—Low Comedy and Religion

Drama's modern form evolved from the so-called mystery or miracle plays staged by guilds, which communicated biblical stories to the masses. These works helped make literature available to a broad populace in spite of widespread illiteracy.

30 min
Marlowe—Controversy and Danger

06: Marlowe—Controversy and Danger

Our discussion of Christopher Marlow - murdered at 29 in what was likely an act of political intrigue - focuses on his masterpiece, Dr. Faustus. In this and three other tragedies, Marlowe probed the theme of man's vaulting ambition and left us a treasure of dramatic innovations.

30 min
Shakespeare the Man—The Road to the Globe

07: Shakespeare the Man—The Road to the Globe

By the age of 30, Shakespeare had risen to the top of London's theatrical world as both playwright and actor. This lecture turns to a history, a comedy, and a Roman play drawn from his early works such as Richard III, The Taming of the Shrew, and Titus Andronicus.

31 min
Shakespeare—The Mature Years

08: Shakespeare—The Mature Years

Shakespeare retired while still in his 50s, at the height of his career, but not before his maturity yielded the finest of his many masterpieces. We explore several, including four great tragedies: Macbeth, King Lear, Hamlet, and Othello.

28 min
Shakespeare's Rivals—Jonson and Webster

09: Shakespeare's Rivals—Jonson and Webster

Great writers happen in company, more so than chance would predict. We look at two who took on the difficult task of following Shakespeare - one writing comedies and the other tragedies. Their work marks the end of a great period for English theater.

29 min
The King James Bible—English Most Elegant

10: The King James Bible—English Most Elegant

The King James Bible of 1611 is the most read work in English literature history, and it owes its greatest debt to William Tyndale. His work on an English translation a century earlier and falling out with Henry VIII led to his own execution.

29 min
The Metaphysicals—Conceptual Daring

11: The Metaphysicals—Conceptual Daring

Many modern readers and scholars consider the work of John Donne and the other so-called "metaphysical" poets to be the highest achievement in English verse. In their day their work circulated in manuscript form, and only among an educated elite.

30 min
Paradise Lost—A New Language for Poetry

12: Paradise Lost—A New Language for Poetry

What novelties did Milton employ in creating a work meant "to justify the ways of God to men"? In examining one of literature's enduring masterpieces, we see that the invention of a new language was only one of many innovations of this blind poet.

30 min
Turmoil Makes for Good Literature

13: Turmoil Makes for Good Literature

Literature both contributed to and reflected England's turmoil in the mid-17th-century overthrow of the monarchy and the subsequent restoration. We see how these roles are illuminated in Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan and John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress.

30 min
The Augustans—Order, Decorum, and Wit

14: The Augustans—Order, Decorum, and Wit

As a prosperous England became a leader in European commerce, science, and diplomacy, writers such as Alexander Pope and John Dryden sought to emulate the cultural achievements of Augustan Rome, including its love of wit and satire.

30 min
Swift—Anger and Satire

15: Swift—Anger and Satire

In two works by the first great Irish writer - the Tory pamphlet A Modest Proposal and the fable Gulliver's Travels - we see how Jonathan Swift's simple, satiric prose masks a seething anger with the English court, the Crown, the scientific community, and even mankind.

29 min
Johnson—Bringing Order to the Language

16: Johnson—Bringing Order to the Language

Few writers have ever had as much of an authority over their subject matter as the luminary known as "Dr. Johnson." In focusing on his great dictionary project, we see how he established an enduring foundation for the English language and its literature.

30 min
Defoe—Crusoe and the Rise of Capitalism

17: Defoe—Crusoe and the Rise of Capitalism

We can date the emergence of the novel almost precisely with the publication of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe in 1719. More than just a great novel that reflects the emerging economic ideas of its time, it created a genre that inspires greatness and innovation to this day.

30 min
Behn—Emancipation in the Restoration

18: Behn—Emancipation in the Restoration

In introducing a woman whose work is the equal of any male writer of the Restoration period, we focus on her masterwork, Oroonoko, the powerful tale of an African prince enslaved and ultimately killed by whites in a colony off the coast of South America.

29 min
The Golden Age of Fiction

19: The Golden Age of Fiction

Many factors brought about the rise of the novel in the 18th century - including a new mass literacy, urbanization, and technological advances in printing. These forces helped bring us the work of Laurence Sterne, which anticipated much of what we now call Postmodernism, the sentimental romance of Samuel Richardson, and the realism of Henry Fielding.

30 min
Gibbon—Window into 18th-Century England

20: Gibbon—Window into 18th-Century England

In examining The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, we see how the enduring literary quality of Gibbon's work gives us a window into 18th-century England as it was becoming an imperial power in its own right.

29 min
Equiano—The Inhumanity of Slavery

21: Equiano—The Inhumanity of Slavery

Professor Sutherland introduces us to the first major black author, who was a slave from age 11 until his early 20s. His works are as important to British literary history as the slave narratives of Frederick Douglass and others are to American literary history.

31 min
Women Poets—The Minor Voice

22: Women Poets—The Minor Voice

This lecture takes up the unique voices of several women who wrote private lyric poetry, including Queen Elizabeth I, Anne Bradstreet, Margaret Cavendish, Katherine Philips, and Anne Finch. Their work expresses the consciousness and experience of women in this characteristic form.

30 min

23: Wollstonecraft—"First of a New Genus"

We examine the life of a remarkable, largely self-educated woman who determined at age 28 to chart new territory for a female author. Her great work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, still speaks loudly to us across the centuries.

29 min
Blake—Mythic Universes and Poetry

24: Blake—Mythic Universes and Poetry

William Blake created an entirely new method of poetry - a method that requires us to learn his highly individual way of thinking in order to understand the ferociously authoritative voice that dares the reader to disagree.

29 min
Scott and Burns—The Voices of Scotland

25: Scott and Burns—The Voices of Scotland

Sir Walter Scott initially gained fame as a lyric poet before achieving immortality through historical novels such as Waverley. Robert Burns found the identity of Scotland in its common people and their songs, transmuting their ballads into poetry.

32 min
Lyrical Ballads—Collaborative Creation

26: Lyrical Ballads—Collaborative Creation

The era from 1770 to 1830 was one of widespread revolution not only in politics, but also in literature. William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge were an unlikely pairing in this Romantic revival, but their Lyrical Ballads overthrew the poetic diction of the Augustan establishment and took poetry in new directions.

31 min
Mad, Bad Byron

27: Mad, Bad Byron

We look at both Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and Don Juan, the best-known poems of an artist whose scandalous reputation and development of the world-weary misanthropic "Byronic" hero should not obscure a talent for wit that equaled that of the Augustans.

31 min
Keats—Literary Gold

28: Keats—Literary Gold

The poetic career of John Keats spanned only five years, but he earned immortality. His explorations of beauty, self-destruction, and other mysteries belied the prejudices of upper-crust critics unwilling to forgive his working-class "Cockney" origins.

29 min
Frankenstein—A Gothic Masterpiece

29: Frankenstein—A Gothic Masterpiece

It may be difficult to imagine Frankenstein as the product of an 18-year-old mind. But with Mary Wollstonecraft for a mother, William Godwin for a father, and Percy Shelley for a lover and husband, Mary Shelley was, perhaps, genetically and environmentally destined for literary greatness.

31 min
Miss Austen and Mrs. Radcliffe

30: Miss Austen and Mrs. Radcliffe

Jane Austen, who viewed the novel as a source of moral authority, would have seen her contemporary Ann Radcliffe's bestselling gothic fiction as a corruption and prostitution of literature. Nonetheless, she read and even relished the fiction of her great opposite.

32 min
Pride and Prejudice—Moral Fiction

31: Pride and Prejudice—Moral Fiction

Pride and Prejudice explores the questions surrounding the marriage decision in a country where the law made women profoundly vulnerable. Like much of Austen's fiction, the novel does not protest against England's laws so much as it examines their implications in the domestic arena.

32 min
Dickens—Writer with a Mission

32: Dickens—Writer with a Mission

Having captured his public with the comic novel The Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens resolved to use fiction as an instrument for social reform in an age of injustice - a resolution made clear by the novel explored in this lecture, Oliver Twist.

31 min
The 1840s—Growth of the Realistic Novel

33: The 1840s—Growth of the Realistic Novel

The 1840s saw a phenomenal growth in the realistic novel's popularity. We explore four from this period - Dickens's Dombey and Son, Mrs. Gaskell's Mary Barton, Disraeli's Sybil, and Thackeray's Vanity Fair. Each asked hard questions about the direction in which England was headed.

30 min
Wuthering Heights—Emily's Masterwork

34: Wuthering Heights—Emily's Masterwork

The 19th century saw the emergence of women novelists, with Charlotte and Emily Brontë joining Jane Austen in achieving dominance. This lecture explores Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, a romance narrative built on a sophisticated framework and showcasing characters of psychological complexity.

30 min
Jane Eyre and the Other Brontë

35: Jane Eyre and the Other Brontë

Charlotte was the only Brontë sister to live long enough to compile a body of work. Jane Eyre - whose heroine navigates a male-dominated world through intelligence, morality, and spirit - contains many Feminist elements and was the most popular novel of the period.

32 min
Voices of Victorian Poetry

36: Voices of Victorian Poetry

The Victorians revered poetry. We look at three revered voices: Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Their work, a bridge from high Romanticism to Modernism, paved the way for the poetic achievements of the 20th century.

30 min
Eliot—Fiction and Moral Reflection

37: Eliot—Fiction and Moral Reflection

The woman who wrote as George Eliot was more than the leading female intellectual of her time. Her novel Middlemarch is a vast canvas of ambiguities, taking Realism to its fullest extent and, in asking how society and individuals can be made better, demanding much from readers.

31 min
Hardy—Life at Its Worst

38: Hardy—Life at Its Worst

Thomas Hardy never shrank from his belief that "the way to the better" demands a "full look at the worst." Jude the Obscure reflects his pain over the demise of English prosperity and his Wessex birthplace, and is the most autobiographical and pessimistic of his novels.

30 min
The British Bestseller—An Overview

39: The British Bestseller—An Overview

Though often neglected as "literature," popular fiction can endure as well as those works recognized as classics. This lecture covers popular fiction by Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes and H. G. Wells, a pioneer of science fiction.

31 min
Heart of Darkness—Heart of the Empire?

40: Heart of Darkness—Heart of the Empire?

Although the interpretation and reputation of Conrad's Heart of Darkness, a devastating look at the colonial enterprise in Africa, have changed more than once since it was written, the novel continues to force an examination of the truths and prejudices held in our own hearts.

30 min
Wilde—Celebrity Author

41: Wilde—Celebrity Author

Oscar Wilde was perhaps the first celebrity author. Although he does not rank with such writers as Shakespeare, Milton, or Byron, his witticisms, aesthete's guise, and persecution have become enshrined in our memories and help sustain his position in the canon of English literature.

32 min
Shaw and Pygmalion

42: Shaw and Pygmalion

Although the Dublin-born playwright George Bernard Shaw was radically antiestablishment in his espousal of Socialism, feminism, and evolution, he was revered by the English and wildly successful. This lecture looks at Pygmalion, Shaw's satire on language and the class system in English society.

29 min
Joyce and Yeats—Giants of Irish Literature

43: Joyce and Yeats—Giants of Irish Literature

In the second of two lectures featuring the Irish voice, we look at the lives and work of James Joyce and W. B. Yeats, two giants who rejected Victorianism and pioneered new forms and themes for the writers who followed.

32 min
Great War, Great Poetry

44: Great War, Great Poetry

The carnage of World War I produced a flood of great poetry in England: bitter, angry, haunting, and beautiful. We look at several poets who found the inspiration for art amid the horror, including Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, Isaac Rosenberg, and Robert Graves.

29 min
Bloomsbury and the Bloomsberries

45: Bloomsbury and the Bloomsberries

The Bloomsbury Group was a civilized set of writers, thinkers, artists, and political theorists who helped reshape English society, culture, and literature in the aftermath of World War I. We focus on its two most prominent literary members, Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster.

29 min
20th-Century English Poetry—Two Traditions

46: 20th-Century English Poetry—Two Traditions

The two broad 20th-century streams of English poetry are the traditional, with Thomas Hardy at its headwaters, and the Modernist, steered by T. S. Eliot. In addition to poetry by these masters - including Eliot's "The Waste Land" - we'll also look at work by W. H. Auden, Philip Larkin, and Seamus Heaney.

32 min
British Fiction from James to Rushdie

47: British Fiction from James to Rushdie

Quality fiction has expanded remarkably since the Victorian novel. This lecture looks at the genre's changing role in the 20th and 21st centuries, introducing a broad range of writers that includes Henry James, D. H. Lawrence, George Orwell, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and Salman Rushdie.

31 min
New Theatre, New Literary Worlds

48: New Theatre, New Literary Worlds

We conclude with a look at the vital changes in British drama since the early 20th century, focusing primarily on the geniuses of anger and absurdity - Samuel Beckett, John Osborne, and Harold Pinter - and closing with the greatest theatrical wit since Ben Jonson: Tom Stoppard.

33 min