January 27th, 2015


What is the best known book set in England?

A note on methodology

I was very interested by this list of the most famous books set in each US state which I saw last week, to the extent of thinking about how I might measure the best known book set in neach European country. As ever in these matters, I have turned to my trusty friends LibraryThing and GoodReads, each of which allows users to record the books that they own and also to tag (LT) or shelve (GR) by key words such as setting. I did a quick response on Twitter using those figures for the four main divisions of the British Isles.

But in fact that only records how often people reading a particular book thoguht to tag it as set in a particular country. They may be wrong about its setting; the book itself may be have a universal appeal that transcends its location. With a little more effort, one can dig into the numbers and find which books that are (sometimes) tagged as being set in a particular country are also the most widely owned among users of both websites.

The results have been interesting. In more than half of all cases that I have looked at so far, LibraryThing and GoodReads users agree on a particular book that has Country X as a setting and is particularly well-known. In a couple of cases - three Shakespeare plays, to take a convenient example - the actual presentation of country X in the work is rather different from the reality; it's as if the author had never been there but just chose to write a story that was set there. In those cases I shall also strive to present an alternative book more firmly grounded in that country's setting than you might get if you were adapting an obscure sixteenth-century novella or historical chronicle for the stage.

I hope you will find the results interesting.

So, what is the best known book set in England?

I'm breaking the rules with my very first post, or course; in general I shall be running through Europe's sovereign states as they are in 2015, but for the UK I shall take each bit separately. (If you are lucky I'll get on to the Isle of Man, Guernsey and Jersey.)

The top seven books by popularity which have been tagged "England" by LibraryThing users and shelvedas "England" by GoodReads users are identical. They are:

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I have to say that although a lot of readers clearly consider these books to be very English, they are quite deliberately not set in any version of England that we know. The same criticism applies to the eighth book on both systems:

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Of course it is ostensibly set in England, but a future England from the writer's perspective that has not come to pass from the perspective of the reader thirty years after the book was set, and seventy after the book was written. If you were asked to name five books set in England, would this have been one of them?

The book most frequently tagged "England" on Librarything is the same as the book most frequently "shelved" as "England" on GoodReads, and it is ninth in popularity among those books on both systems after those identified above. It is:

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And this makes perfect sense. If we reframe the question slightly as "name the best known book that people in the wider English-speaking world think of as being set in England", it's obvious that this is a very good candidate and not surprising that the on-line catalogues bear that out.

And anyway, Hogwarts is in Scotland. Which is where we will go next.