My Two Cents on the Best British Novels of All Time

A couple of months ago I received an email from Jane Ciabattari, BBC Culture contributor, asking me to participate in a poll of non-UK critics to determine our views on the best British novels of all time. As an American Studies Ph.D. and American literature professor, I must admit my opinions about British literature are pretty subjective. I love reading it but haven’t had the time to devote to it. As a result, perhaps, my list differs a great deal from the overall vote.

My #1 favorite was Howard’s End by E. M. Forster. Here is what Jane quotes from me about my choice, in her article on the top 25:

Howards End17. Howards End (EM Forster, 1910)

“I will never forget the depth of emotion I felt upon reading the words ‘Only connect,’” writes Anne Boyd Rioux of The Millions and The Rumpus. “Forster had summed up not only the novel itself and the purpose of literature generally, but the whole of human yearning. Rarely have I read a book that so perfectly cut to the quick of existence and summed it all up in the briefest but most powerful of passages.”

I can’t find the cover of the edition I read online. And, sadly, my copy was washed away with Hurricane Katrina. I would love now to look at my marks inside of it. I remember very vividly reading it the winter I lived in Canterbury, England, the year before I started graduate school. I was making my way through as much British literature as I could before immersing myself in American Studies. I was the only American in town, as far as I knew, and felt rather alone in a sea of Englishness.

Here is the full list of my favorite ten British novels, in no apparent order (except Howards End #1), with their ranking in the poll in parentheses:

Forster, Howard’s End (#17)
Forster, A Room With a View (#32)
Bronte, Jane Eyre (#5)
Austen, Pride and Prejudice (#11)
Austen, Sense and Sensibility (#66)
Eliot, Adam Bede (not on list)
Eliot, Middlemarch (#1)
Dickens, Hard Times (not on list)
Byatt, Possession (#49)
Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (#3)
Interestingly, although Middlemarch was ranked #1, only one other Eliot novel made the list (Daniel Deronda at #70). And Dickens had three novels in the top ten, and four overall, but not Hard Times. But I am by no means an expert on either of these authors. Sadly, Austen made a rather poor showing, not even appearing in the top ten.
The full 100 can be perused here. What is your favorite British novel? Did it make the list?

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