English Literature: 15 Quite Forgotten Canonical Authors

Updated on April 21, 2020
Douglas Redant profile image

Douglas has a master's degree in literature and likes to write about what he reads.

'Books and Phamphlets' by Jan Davidzoon de Heem
'Books and Phamphlets' by Jan Davidzoon de Heem | Source

Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, Orwell and Brontë are all part of what we call the English literary canon, and with good reason. But are there some others, too, who rightly deserve the title of canonical author, that are often forgotten about? The answer is yes. The English canon is a treasure trove of great works and inspiring people that helped shape culture as we know it today. Here are at least 15 authors and works to rediscover again.

1. Patrick Hamilton, Gaslight

Our first forgotten writer is Patrick Hamilton (1904 - 1962). Hamilton was a novelist and playwright who was primarily active during the interwar years between the first and second world wars. He was well-regarded by his peers, because of his sympathy for the poor and the working classes, depicting their lives and culture in Dickensian voice. Most of his novels have a tragic undertone but show the absurdity of some people's lives through the genre of black comedy.

Currently he is most famous for his plays, however, especially Rope and Gaslight. The characters in these plays are more upper-class and the psychological undertone of the plot is often more Dostoyevskyan than Dickensian. A good comparison can be made with George Bernard Shaw. Rope depicts two students, enthralled by their own intellectual superiority and criminological theory, who kill a third student they deem lesser and then have a party near the hiding spot of his corps. Gaslight tells the story of a woman who is made to believe by her husband that she is going mad so he can look for treasure in the apartment above without her knowing. The term 'gaslighting' became commonly used after this play.

2. George Meredith, The Egoist

George Meredith (1828 - 1909) was so well-respected in his time that he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature seven times and was dubbed 'our first novelist'. Now, however, most do not even know his name. He was a writer, essayist and poet. His decline in popularity can be attributed to the fact that he wrote about contemporary political and social issues, and that he was a realist writer who was nonetheless very aware of the symbolism of his descriptions, which gave them a tendency to be long and drawn out, full of commentary on their meaning and intention. He was also not averse to blurring the lines of genre, by including essay-like chapters and wordplay that bordered on poetical in his novels. This all made him an interesting writer, with his own specific style, but also a difficult one.

Among his many works, a few stand out. The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, Beauchamp's Career, The Amazing Marriage and Diana of the Crossways were very popular in his time, but it is mainly novels like The Egoist that still speak to us. The Egoist is a comedy based on clashing of characters. It also portrays how women are sometimes used by men as mirrors of their wishes and desires, which disregards their own personality. Its story follows Sir Willoughby Patterne in his quest to find someone who will marrying, while not understanding that it is his ego that is in the way.

'The Song of the Shirt' by John T. Peele, a visualisation of Hood's poem
'The Song of the Shirt' by John T. Peele, a visualisation of Hood's poem | Source

3. Thomas Hood, The Song of the Shirt

Both the poetry of Thomas Hood (1799 - 1845) as his more famous contemporaries, romantic poets like Coleridge and Byron, was full of emotion. However, while these contemporaries were keen on grand emotions, like the sublime and terror, Hood focused on the small and everyday, making his work more what we would call sentimental than romantic. This made him very popular during his time but might be one of the reasons he is lesser-known today, since romanticism is higher regarded than sentimentalism. Another reason might be the fact that he also was a humourist, when he wasn't sentimental, and humour is rather bound to a certain time and place.

His most well-known works are those he wrote as a reflection on contemporary poverty, while on his deathbed himself. Among these 'The Song of the Shirt' is the work that had the greatest impact. Indeed, it was universally praised and turned into a song. Moreover, it inspired many other artists, as well as social activists to improve the plight of the working classes. It narrated the story of a widow, who acquires more and more debt because she cannot provide for herself and her children on her income as a seamstress alone. It is supposedly based on the life of a real widow-seamstress, a Mrs. Biddell, who was sent to a workhouse because of her debt.

4. Henry Green, Loving

Henry Vincent Yorke, better known under his pen name Henry Green (1905 - 1973), was never a novelist for the big public, but was beloved by his modernist contemporaries. Terry Southern wrote of him that he was even more than a writer's writer and dubbed him a 'writer's writer's writer'. His novels dealt with everyday life, both of the upper and lower classes, and the problems of his time. Some themes he addressed where the life of the working class, human relations and the impact of war. Another accolade he received was that he was a great stylistic writer.

His most famous work is Loving, a story about the servants of the Tennants, an Irish upper-class family during the second world war. While the war rages on in the background, social tenses between these servants rise as well, only becoming more problematic as the Tennants depart for England.

5. Aphra Behn, Oroonoko

For a long time, Aphra Behn's (1640 - 1689) work was ignored, until a new wave of critics, among which a large number of feminist and gender critics, rediscovered her. Now, she is more well-known, but often still not a part of the official canon, a position she arguably deserves. She was a female pioneer as a playwright and an early proponent of free love. As a female writer, she was arguably also the first in English literature who wrote about female sexual desire. Moreover, she was among the first in English literature to write stories that could be described as novels.

Another first attributed to her is being the writer of the first anti-slavery novel, Oroonoko. Oroonoko was possibly inspired by an interaction Behn had in her youth with a slave leader in Surinam, though we cannot be sure of this, because Behn's true life story, especially her youth, is notoriously elusive. Oroonoko is the tragic life of an African prince tricked into slavery and paints a sympathetic portrait that has much in common with but predates the 'noble savage' myth.

6. Francis Lathom, The Midnight Bell

Francis Lathom (1774 - 1832) is one of the most obscure writers on this list, nowadays only known in gothic novel-enthusiasts’ cycles for his output of popular gothic novels in the style of more famous gothic novelist, Ann Radcliffe. During his life, Lathom dabbled in more than just the gothic, however: he was also a playwright and in the novel genre, he was also one of the first to try his hand at the historical novel, even before Walter Scott. Moreover, he was also a humourist and a social writer, writing among other things, although hidden, about love between men.

His most famous work and one of the only works of his still in print is the gothic novel, The Midnight Bell. Its fame is primarily due to it being mentioned as one of the horrid novels in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, but it is great as a quintessentially gothic story. The Midnight Bell tells the tale of a hero deprived of his possessions by a villain and his quest to get back what is taken from him. It has many common gothic tropes, like an old castle, ghostly apparitions, evil Catholic clergy, bandits and hermits.

'Willow Bush under a Setting Sun' by Caspar David Friedrich
'Willow Bush under a Setting Sun' by Caspar David Friedrich | Source

7. Algernon Blackwood, The Willows

In the world of 'weird' short story fiction, there are many great names: there are greats in the American branch of this tradition, like Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft and Ambrose Bierce, and there are greats in the 'old world'-branch, like Sheridan Le Fanu, Arthur Machen, E.F. Benson and Algernon Blackwood (1869 - 1951). Among these writers from the 'old world', Blackwood occupied an important position, though he most people don't know him. Indeed, many other writers see him as a master in supernatural and psychological horror.

One of his most well-known tales is The Willows. In this story, two men are travelling the river Danube by canoe, when they need to set up camp on an island. Soon one of them, the narrator, begins to question whether the island is entirely normal and when strange things start to happen to him and to his friend, he begins to understand that they have entered the domain of a power more ancient and grand than they can image. The willows was a big influence on many others, among which H.P. Lovecraft. He even considered it the finest supernatural tale in English literature.

8. Ernest Dowson, Cynara

More than even Wilde or Swinburne, Ernest Dowson (1867 - 1900) can be described as the poster boy for the Decadent Movement in English literature. And his poem 'Cynara' could be put forward as a prime example of his Decadent output. Dowson was both a tragic figure, especially after the death of his father and the subsequent suicide of his mother, and a dubious figure, as his infatuation with an 11-year old girl attests. He also died before his time, at age 32, after having led an active—some might say too active—social life.

'Cynara', or more correctly, 'Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae' refers to a poem by Horace about an old lover who cannot command him like before anymore. Dowson's poem has the same basis but reverts the 'Cynara'-character to one who will always be there in his mind, while he and the world around him change. It is a poem about inescapable memories, especially the melancholy memory of past love, when times were simpler. The word 'cynara' itself means 'artichoke' and might refer symbolically (we can never truly know) to the fact that the artichoke has a tender hart enveloped by harder and harder layers.

9. George W.M. Reynolds, The Mysteries of London

When it comes to the genre of the penny dreadful, there is no more important writer than George W.M. Reynolds (1814 - 1879). Unfortunately, along with the penny dreadful, his durability has shown to be weak. This might be due to the fact that the penny dreadful, a type of cheap, Victorian newspaper vignette, with a gothic, crime or horror sketch or story, was never meant to last a long time and has never been part of high literature. However, the genre had a massive impact on the development of later (genre) fiction and thus deserves a spotlight. And with it one of its most important practitioners.

Among Reynold's work, especially The Mysteries of London stands out. The Mysteries is a compendium of little stories with horror and supernatural themes as well as allusions to crime and depravity centred around the inhabitants of the city of London. It is mainly a piece of mid-Victorian entertainment but was also concerned with depicting the plight of the poor. It followed the trend of The Mysteries of Paris by Eugène Sue and was published serially in the newspapers before being bound together and sold as a whole.

'Battle of the Nile' by Thomas Luny
'Battle of the Nile' by Thomas Luny | Source

10. Felicia Hemans, Casabianca

Felicia Dorothea Hemans (1793 - 1835) was a highly regarded literary figure and one of the most popular poets of her time among the masses and literary society. This can be explained by the fact that she had a knack for writing what people wanted to hear. Her female characters were sometimes soft and domestic and at other times warriorlike and as courageous as their men. Courage, nationalism, honour and patriotic duty shine through in most of her poems, at a time when, battling against Napoleon, a sense of British pride and unity was sought after.

Her most famous poem, 'Casabianca', shows these last themes exceptionally well. It depicts the story of the young son of captain Casabianca, who heroically remained on his post, while the ship burned and sank around him, a scene from the battle of the Nile. It starts with one of Hemans' most famous lines: 'The boy stood on the burning deck.'

11. Max Beerbohm, Zuleika Dobson

Maximilian 'Max' Beerbohm (1872 - 1956) is primarily known as an essayist and caricaturist. He was a regular in the literary circles of his time, however, and was friends with, among others, Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. He had a witty personality and was generally loved. George Bernard Shaw even called him the 'incomparable Max'. Later on, his wit gave him a spot as a commentator on the early BBC.

Among his fiction, Zuleika Dobson is his only novel and most enduring work. Zuleika is a satire on the precociousness of Oxford society. In the story, the all-male body of students all start to fall in love with a femme fatale named Zuleika who has entered their vicinities. Soon they all pledge to kill themselves for her, with Zuleika not completely opposed to the idea herself, as the idea strokes her ego.

12. Frederick Marryat, Mr. Midschipman Easy

Frederick Marryat (1792 - 1848) is probably one of the least well-known people on this list, though his place is deserved because of his important influence on the genre of the sea-story. Indeed, a passionate sailor himself—he came from a good background, but threatened to run away to sea as a child, if his parents didn't help him get a position themselves—life on board of a ship is a central element in much of his fiction.

One of his most well-known nautical novels is Mr. Mischipman Easy. The story in this book is semi-autobiographical, as it also deals with a young man from a good background who starts a career on a ship. The running motive throughout the plot is more philosophical, though, and geared towards disproving ideas like 'everyone is equal' and 'all property should be commonly shared' with realistic scenarios. Indeed, These ideas, coming from the protagonist's father, spur the main character on to try his hand at being a sailor and get overturned through experience onboard.

'King Arthur' by Charles Ernest Butler
'King Arthur' by Charles Ernest Butler | Source

13. T.H. White, The Once and Future King

As writers like J.K Rowling and Neil Gaiman have let us know, much of modern fantasy is indebted to T.H. White (1906 - 1964), even though he is not as well known as, for instance, Tolkien or C.S. Lewis. White had a knack for writing charming stories full of wonder that were comical at nobody's expense. He can, arguably, also be called the progenitor of the modern craze for reworking old classics. In Mistress Masham's Repose, he works with the Lilliputians from Gulliver's Travels, but most famously, he reworked the legend of King Arthur in his magnum opus, The Once and Future King.

The Once and Future King follows Arthur from boyhood till death in a series of five books. As a narrator, White tells us about Arthur firmly from the perspective of our present age, often comically referring to modern life, while his characters remain firmly set in their time and place. This makes for an endearing atmosphere, especially with the silliness of the Merlyn character, who straddles between the two worlds. The Disney movie based on The Sword in the Stone, the first book in the series, is a great translation of this dynamic to the silver screen.

14. Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley's Secret

Along with Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835 - 1915) was one of the major figures of the sensationalist genre during the Victorian age. She came from a humble background and worked herself up to be an important force in popular writing. She was very prolific: during her life, she wrote more than 80 novels while she worked as the editor of her own sensationalist magazine.

Her most famous work remains Lady Audley's Secret, however, one of her earliest works. When it was published in 1862, Lady Audley was an immediate bestseller and it has never gone out of print since. There have also been three film adaptations. Its story revolves around a young lady, who is the seemingly innocent new wife of an old lord, and a young man connected to the lord who is very suspicious of her. As the story evolves, he tries to get to know more about her past, only to discover that she isn't as naïve and innocent as she portrays herself, but a ruthless social climber. Lady Audley's Secret combines classic horror tropes with social themes like class inequality and the role of women, creating a tale that has kept many readers on edge during the ages and is still relevant now.

15. Richard Marsh, The Beetle

Richard Marsh (1857 - 1915), the last writer on this list, was a prolific late-Victorian writer and an important canonical figure in the horror genre. His most famous novel, The Beetle, came out around the same time as Bram Stoker's Dracula and was for a time the more successful book. Like in Dracula, the dangers of unknown and ancient foreign influence on modern cosmopolitan society was a major theme in The Beetle and other works of his.

The story of The Beetle specifically narrates how an ancient Egyptian deity follows a British member of parliament back to England and wreaks havoc within the already complicated social drama of a set of people. The main perspective in the story is that of a detective, who is brought in by one of the victims to help. By this time, the presence of the deity and the grip it has on his victims is already palpable, however, and it is an open question whether they will succeed in rescuing the other characters.

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© 2020 Douglas Redant

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