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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:

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling,
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling,
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling,
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling,
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling,
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling, and
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling.

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:

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell.

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:

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen.

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.


( 29 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 27th, 2015 09:15 pm (UTC)
FWIW, I am very fond of Ben Aaronovitch's series about constable Peter Grant, which is (mostly) set in London. It is arguably an alternate London, since magic exists, but I get the impression it is closely related to the real London.
Jan. 27th, 2015 09:27 pm (UTC)
When I read the title of your post, I was thinking of suggesting Lord of the Rings as a joke. Doesn't seem at all funny after reading the post body.
Jan. 27th, 2015 09:42 pm (UTC)
Before opening any of the cuts, the first titles to come to mind: Nineteen Eighty-Four, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice/Sense and Sensibility/Emma (etc), Animal Farm, Jane Eyre, Howards End, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure, The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin, the real world bits of the Narnia series, and Winnie the Pooh.

Your rephrased question probably rules out Perrin (David Nobbs captures a particular kind of Englishness like no one else writing now, though), and while I obviously do think of the Orwells as being set in England I take your point.

Edited at 2015-01-27 09:44 pm (UTC)
Jan. 28th, 2015 07:01 am (UTC)
Interesting. I think your post also illustrates the importance of time period and social circle.

For me, the first book which sprung to mind for England was Dracula, some of which is set near where I live.

For Scotland, my first thought was Trainspotting.
Jan. 28th, 2015 07:13 am (UTC)
For Scotland, ditto! Trainspotting, the Rebus novels, Complicity, The Crow Road. It takes a beat or two before older novels like Kidnapped/Catriona come to mind.

(My background is EngLit. What surprises me about my own list is that only one of them is even partially set in my home city, and I own lots of books set there e.g. An Instance of the Fingerpost, The Moving Toyshop, Zuleika Dobson, and the hilariously bad To Say Nothing Of The Dog.)
Jan. 28th, 2015 09:13 am (UTC)
Ah yes, Rebus, a good choice.

And for Northern Ireland Colin Bateman's Cycle Of Violence or Divorcing Jack
For a different taste of England, some Cornish-lit, such as anything by Daphne du Maurier
And for Wales... I'm going to have to say Malcolm Pryce' Last Tango in Aberystwyth. Sorry ;)
Jan. 28th, 2015 11:37 am (UTC)
Ah, The Dark Is Rising sequence does double duty for Wales and Cornwall as far as I'm concerned. (And the second in the series for England, come to think of it, since it's set moderately near where I grew up.)
Jan. 28th, 2015 05:46 pm (UTC)
Cornwall part of England? There are a few Cornish folks who'd balk at that label.
Jan. 29th, 2015 02:08 pm (UTC)
...Brideshead Revisited, The Golden Compass/Northern Lights, Gaudy Night, and A Discovery of Witches are the top four books tagged "Oxford" on both LT and GR.

The Golden Compass/Northern Lights is way ahead on ownership,
Jan. 28th, 2015 11:13 am (UTC)
For Scotland my first thought was Kidnapped. I'm crossing my fingers for the Three Musketeers being the answer for France.
Jan. 28th, 2015 10:57 pm (UTC)
Speaking of which, Robinson Crusoe starts out in England (Bristol). But Great Expectations must surely be pretty high up there (probably the most famous Dickens).
Jan. 29th, 2015 01:16 am (UTC)
I would expect David Copperfield, Oliver Twist and maybe A Tale of Two Cities to be better-known than Great Expectations.

A Christmas Carol overwhelms them all, but I suppose it doesn't reach novel length.

This N-Gram reveals that my intuition is messed up. OT and DC were on top for much of my lifetime (when I would have formed opinions about their relative popularity), but their relative frequency started declining in the 1970s. For some reason GE has been climbing almost steadily ever since it was published, passing ATo2C around 1950, surpassing OT and DC during the Thatcher years.

I'm astonished to see ACC near the bottom of this chart! Thought it was MUCH more popular. Still think more people can give you an account of its plot.
Jan. 29th, 2015 01:17 am (UTC)
I'll try to embed the N-Gram here, but I don't think that works.

Jan. 29th, 2015 08:30 am (UTC)
GE has been taught in secondary schools in the last 30 years whereas I'm not so sure about the others you name. That may have a fair amount to do with it.
Feb. 2nd, 2015 11:06 pm (UTC)
Although was reading your comment from beginning to end, the first thing I thought of when I saw "ACC" was Lois Bujold's A Civil Campaign.
Feb. 3rd, 2015 01:04 am (UTC)
To me, "ACC" would reflexively trigger "Arthur Charles Clarke." Even though I have read a whole lot of Bujold.
Jan. 28th, 2015 10:58 pm (UTC)
Of course I meant Treasure Island, not Robinson Crusoe. D'oh.
Jan. 28th, 2015 03:22 pm (UTC)
Dracula was the first one that came to mind for me as well.
Jan. 28th, 2015 07:07 am (UTC)
Reggie Perrin. Oh yes.

I spent three years doing the Reggie Perrin pointless commute into a ridiculous job in Central London. I somewhat unwisely started reading the book on the train. It made it much harder to take my life seriously.
Jan. 28th, 2015 08:02 am (UTC)
I would think that either Alice In Wonderland or The Lion, The Which and the Wardrobe would be the overall most popular. Harry Potter has only been selling a lot of books for a decade or so, both of those books have been known and selling for decades.
Jan. 28th, 2015 08:36 am (UTC)
Chronicles of Narnia: 120million
Harry Potter: 450 million

Or individually:
The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe: 85 million
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone: 107 million


Apparently there are no reliable sales figures for Alice in Wonderland. Which is a shame.
Feb. 2nd, 2015 11:08 pm (UTC)
The Alice books are not set in England, except for a line to a couple of paragraphs at each end of each. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe only somewhat more so.
Jan. 28th, 2015 08:12 am (UTC)
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner doesn't count, being a short story, and you asked for novels.

So I'd suggest Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, by Alan Sillitoe: it captures Nottingham and the life of industrial England rather well.
Jan. 28th, 2015 11:39 am (UTC)
On similar grounds, This Sporting Life by David Storey.
Jan. 28th, 2015 05:43 pm (UTC)
Same reason Sherlock Holmes' adventures are reduced to The Hound of the Baskervilles.
Jan. 28th, 2015 09:37 am (UTC)
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Jan. 28th, 2015 10:28 am (UTC)

What about books of *games of thrones* !?! Well if i am an englishman i will vote for it 1000 times d=(´▽`)=b

Jan. 28th, 2015 05:40 pm (UTC)
Ye gods. I expected to see at least one novel by Charles Dickens, and I echo halloween_jill's surprise that Arthur Conan Doyle didn't make the shortlist.

Plus, the goons couldn't even get the title of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone right.

Jan. 29th, 2015 01:43 pm (UTC)
Don't worry, we'll get a Dickens one in a future entry....
( 29 comments — Leave a comment )

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