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English Literature


Getting Started

Starting Points

Find background information about authors & works, context in literary movements, culture, and history, and important scholarship.

How Literature is Arranged in BC Libraries

This guide includes resources for finding both primary and secondary sources. When you are searching in the library, it's important to know that Library of Congress call numbers are arranged first by geography:

  • English Literature: PR
  • American Literature: PS
  • All other literatures: PA-PQ, PT
  • Works about literature in general: PN

... and then within those areas by general chronological period. Within chronological periods, works are listed alphabetically by author, and shelved along with critical commentary about their works.

Literary Eras

Eras in English literature are often identified by a mix of categories, with their beginnings and endings marked by historical events (e.g. the Norman invasion in 1066) or by reigns (e.g., Elizabethan or Victorian) or by artistic movements (e.g., modernism). Sometimes resources are named simply by centuries. This brief table should help you identify year ranges of eras.

Era Years Examples*
Old English or Anglo-Saxon c450-1066 Beowulf, Caedmon's Hymn
Middle English, Medieval, or Anglo-Norman 1066-1500 Geoffrey Chaucer, Sir Gawain & the Green Knight
Renaissance or Early Modern (often split into Elizabethan, Jacobean, and late) 1500-1660 William Shakespeare, The King James Bible, Robert Herrick
Restoration 1660-1700 John Milton, Aphra Behn, John Dryden

18th Century (or Age of Reason), often divided into Augustan and Age of Sensibility


Augustan: Alexander Pope, Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift


Age of Sensibility: Samuel Johnson, Laurence Sterne, Anne Radcliffe, Jane Austen

Romantic (also early 19th C. or Regency) 1798-1837 William Blake, William Wordsworth, Mary Shelley, Samuel Coleridge, Jane Austen, John Keats, Washington Irving
Victorian 1837-1901 George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, the Brontë sisters, Alfred Lord Tennyson,  Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, Henry James, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman
Modernist 1901-c1939 Joseph Conrad, W.B. Yeats, J.M Synge, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, W.H. Auden, Robert Frost, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Katherine Anne Porter, Ralph Ellison
Postmodern & Post-colonial, sometimes also contemporary or Post-45 c1940- Samuel Beckett, Thomas Pynchon, Joseph Heller, George Orwell, Muriel Spark, Colm Tóibín, Tom Stoppard, Paul Muldoon, Katherine Mansfield, R.K. Narayan, Chinua Achebe, J.M. Coetzee, Derek Walcott, Anne Carson

*These examples (and year ranges) are meant to be illustrative, not authoritative or absolute. There are many debates about the upper and lower limits of literary eras, and who belongs where.

Primary & Secondary Sources

Whether a source is primary or secondary depends less on its format than on its distance from the object of study. 


A primary source is a first-hand account of the object of study; it is reported by a person who directly experienced, witnessed, or created it. Here are some things often used as primary sources: diaries, memoirs & autobiographies, letters, original manuscripts, interviews, photos, & videos, and articles by scientists publishing their own research. A novel, short story, essay or poem is also a primary source, when the object of study is the literary work itself. Think of a primary source as data.


A secondary source can be an interpretation of--or commentary or criticism on--the object of study. The author, such as a journalist or scholar, relies on other people's first-hand accounts. For instance, a literary interpretation of the novel Moby Dick is a secondary source about Moby Dick, as is a history text that draws on Melville's diaries. Think of a secondary source as analysis of or reporting on data.

Because primary or secondary are relative to the object of study and not absolute categories, a source that might be secondary in one context could be primary in another. For example, a newspaper editorial about Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech that you use as a source for analysis of the speech would be a secondary source, but the same article used as evidence in a paper about how King was represented in the press would be primary.

Note: Primary & secondary are not a measure of how credible a source is. Both primary and secondary sources can vary in their credibility or authority: just as a primary source can be limited in perspective or heavily biased, a secondary source could represent primary sources incompletely or out of context. On the other hand, a primary source could establish the truth of an event, or a secondary source could assemble a wide body of primary sources with differing perspectives to create a comprehensive account.

Subject Librarian

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Steve Runge
Senior Liaison for English Literature & Asian Studies
O'Neill Library 314
Boston College
140 Commonwealth Avenue
Chestnut Hill, MA 02467