Great Courses: Classics Of British Literature, Part 4, by Professor John Sutherland
One gets the clearest sense of an author’s bias and agendas when one looks at “classic” literature from the period most closely to the contemporary. At least when one looks at the distant past there is some idea of what literature has stood the test of time. What is tried and true has already been tried and found true, and whatever one’s interpretation of those classics and one’s view of those classics, one at least is bound to study them to keep up with generations of references and allusions and popularity. It is when one is looking at recent works that have not yet had the time to prove themselves that one’s bias shows itself most obviously, and this book is no exception to that rule. Although I am at least somewhat familiar with many of the works discussed here , at least by reputation. That is not to say that I liked the author’s choices or thought he captured what made literature great. There is no Chesterton here, no C.S. Lewis, no Tolkein. Instead we have Noel Coward, Tom Stoppard, Salmon Rushdie, a bunch of snobs from the Bloomsbury Group, and so on. This is not an impressive end to a course on British literature, sadly.
The course begins with a look at one of the most overrated Victorian writers, George Eliot, whose novel Middlemarch the author cannot celebrate enough. After that the author looks at Thomas Hardy as a novelist, viewing his loss of faith due to a belief in a poor scientific theory sympathetically. Later Hardy is viewed as a “traditionalist” poet, which expresses at least some of the trouble the professor faces in defending his view of classic literature. A look at the British bestseller allows the author the chance to celebrate midbrow writers like H.G. Wells for his science fiction and the novels of Arthur Conan Doyle, which are considered classics nowadays by many readers. A look at Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness (which the professor, strangely, returns to in a later lecture) gives him the chance to bloviate about imperialism, something he does often in this section, irritatingly. At this point the instructor spends a couple of lectures on plays, looking first Oscar Wilde as a celebrity whose literature was only part of his lasting appeal and then at Shaw and the greatness of Pygmalion. After this there is a look at the poetry of Yeats and the writing of Joyce, which gives the author more opportunity to talk about the Irish question. A lecture on the “great” poetry of the Great War gives the instructor a chance to talk about the sexuality of Britain’s overrated poets of that era, after which he drones on about the writings of the Bloomsbury circle, including the overrated economics of John Maynard Keynes, where there is more discussion about leftist politics and sexuality. After this point the instructor races to the finish with a look at two schools of poetry represented by Hardy and T.S. Eliot going to people like Ezra Pound and Auden, and Seamus Heaney, a brief look at the 20th century literary novel, most of which are largely unknown to me, and then a closing look at the overrated theater of the absurd as well as the plays of T.S. Eliot and Noel Coward.
This is a course, sadly, that staggers to the finish rather than finishes with glory. Part of the reason is that you will not appreciate the author’s choices for classic literature in the 20th century if you do not share a great deal of the political and moral worldview of the instructor, and that for me is a big red flag. Often in this part of the course in particular it appears as if the author wants to place some people in the literary canon without them necessarily deserving to be there because their politics are leftist and anti-imperialist and because they are hostile to even middle-class sensibilities, much less biblical morality. All of this does not make for great literature. Literature, even when not being judged on moral grounds, is not great merely because it is antagonistic to settled standards of behavior, but because it manages to rise above the muck of the time period and say something of lasting value to the world. Unfortunately, most of the literature shared here has little lasting to say, and certainly little that is edifying or worthwhile to look back on with anything other than anger or disgust.
 See, for example: