The essay is a graduation of the speaking voice - the discursive mode, par excellence - and the best English essayists have, over the past 400 years, built a version of the form that is spectacular, humane, stylish and vernacular. Since the death of Orwell, we are used to hearing that life has become too busy and the media too congested for the quietly mind-altering essay to work its magic on the average British reader, but the times are argumentative and the essay has returned with a well-polished vengeance. The novel and the drama may continue to dominate, but the fleet-footed essay - the four-minute mile of English literature - is awakening a new generation to the fun of good writing, the cut and thrust of intellectual engagement.
The French are happier to speak of the intellect than are the British, which is sometimes surprising, given the way British essayists invented a form of writing in which the pulse of personality and the beat of society can be felt in the rhythm of good English prose.
Earlier generations of novelists and playwrights often saw themselves as being goaded into creative action by the spirited efforts of their period's great essayists. It was Francis Bacon, England's first great essayist, who wrote that "knowledge is power"; his essays provided Shakespeare with a perfect sounding board for searching ideas on the nature of human experience.
Here's the beginning of Bacon's essay "Of Ambition". Could it not serve as an epigraph to everything Shakespeare wrote? "Ambition is like choler; which is an humour that maketh men active, earnest, full of alacrity, and stirring, if it be not stopped. But if it be stopped, and cannot have his way, it becometh adust, and thereby malign and venomous."
It is hard to think of Dickens's novels without the dark essays of Thomas Carlyle. Can one envision Oscar Wilde without Pater and Ruskin? What would the work of Wordsworth and Coleridge have been without the ambient, emancipating zeal of William Hazlitt? When I think of the great British writers of the past 200 years I consider many of them to have been correspondents in an argument about selfhood and society, much of that argument stirred into being by the great essayists.
Just as the French cannot think of Flaubert's experiments in psychological realism without first thinking of Rousseau's beautiful Confessions, the English cannot imagine the works of Jane Austen without Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women. George Eliot's novels are, as much as anything, compendiums of ripostes to the great English essays of the day, and no less good for that.
I grew up believing that significant essayists were the great pollinators and the best journals were the majestic hives of the culture. You only have to turn on the news now to see how the great essayists are eternally with us: a discussion of the credit crunch on the Today programme is using terms coined by Adam Smith; a report on population growth in the Telegraph is a living response to Thomas Malthus's famous essay of 1798. Arguments about revolution still grapple with Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke; disputes about God are forever engaged with David Hume and Charles Darwin. It may be that the English essay is our most actively present literary vehicle: our attachment to the best of what has been done in that form only deepens by the hour.
The modern essay can be a piece of work as personal as a love letter, as world-altering as a policy, capturing the spirit of the age in words that can seem to clear the air for new ways of living. Yet some of the best essays act like whispers for your ears alone: Hazlitt on the pleasure of hating is like the most entertaining kind of private pal, and the same can be said for Orwell.
Here's the latter on a good cup of tea: "There is also the mysterious social etiquette surrounding the teapot (why is it considered vulgar to drink out of your saucer, for instance?) and much might be written about the subsidiary uses of tea leaves, such as telling fortunes, predicting the arrival of visitors, feeding rabbits, healing burns and sweeping the carpet. It is worth paying attention to such details as warming the pot and using water that is really boiling, so as to make quite sure of wringing out of one's ration the 20 good, strong cups of that two ounces, properly handled, ought to represent."
Orwell's prose is as warm as the thing he describes, as comforting as a well-made cup of tea, and he showed himself a master of this particularly British form of address.
Montaigne may have invented it, but it was writers in English who have succeeded over the years in shaping its place on the common tongue. During the Second World War, VS Pritchett submitted an essay a week to the New Statesman, and readers could still find him, in late old age, unfurling essays about the paintings of Pissarro or the passions of Zola.
I felt my way through the library stacks when I was young, eager to pick up those essays and tune into some of the most beautiful conversation ever to happen in Britain. And in the end that is what the essay gives you - a word in your ear and a thought before bedtime, all the better to speed your dreams and awaken your appetite for life.
- 'The Atlantic Ocean: Essays on Britain and America' by Andrew O'Hagan is published by Faber & Faber on June 5 at £20, and is available from Telegraph Books (0870 428 4112; books.telegraph.co.uk) for £18 + £1.25 p&p.
List of notable or famous essayists from England, with bios and photos, including the top essayists born in England and even some popular essayists who immigrated to England. If you're trying to find out the names of famous English essayists then this list is the perfect resource for you. These essayists are among the most prominent in their field, and information about each well-known essayist from England is included when available.
List includes Christopher Hitchens, Nicola Griffith and more.
This historic essayists from England list can help answer the questions "Who are some English essayists of note?" and "Who are the most famous essayists from England?" These prominent essayists of England may or may not be currently alive, but what they all have in common is that they're all respected English essayists.Use this list of renowned English essayists to discover some new essayists that you aren't familiar with. Don't forget to share this list by clicking one of the social media icons at the top or bottom of the page. (10 items)
Christopher Eric Hitchens was an Anglo-American author, literary critic and journalist. He contributed to New Statesman, The Nation, The Atlantic, London Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, Slate and Vanity Fair. Hitchens was the author, co-author, editor and co-editor of over thirty ...more
Age: Died at 62 (1949-2011)
Birthplace: Portsmouth, United Kingdom
#8 on History's Greatest Essayistssee more on Christopher Hitchens
Dorothy Leigh Sayers was a renowned English crime writer, poet, playwright, essayist, translator and Christian humanist. She was also a student of classical and modern languages. She is best known for her mysteries, a series of novels and short stories set between the First and Second World Wars ...more
Age: Died at 64 (1893-1957)
Birthplace: Oxford, United Kingdom
#21 on The Best Female Authors of All Time
#22 on The Best Crime Authors
#35 on The Greatest Female Novelists Ever
#11 on The Best Mystery Authorssee more on Dorothy L. Sayers
Eric Arthur Blair (25 June 1903 21 January 1950), better known by his psuedonymGeorge Orwell, was an English author. His work is marked by a profound conscientiousness of social injustice, an intense dislike of totalitarianism, and a passion for clarity in language.His two most popular works are ...more
Age: Died at 47 (1903-1950)
Birthplace: Motihari, India
#8 on The Best Novelists of All Time
#8 on The Best Science-Fiction Authors
#7 on The Best Writers of All Time
#33 on Historical Figures You Most Want to Bring Back from the Deadsee more on George Orwell
Joseph Addison was an English essayist, poet, playwright, and politician. He was the eldest son of The Reverend Lancelot Addison. His name is usually remembered alongside that of his long-standing friend, Richard Steele, with whom he founded The Spectator magazine. ...more
Age: Died at 47 (1672-1719)
Birthplace: Milston, United Kingdom
#27 on History's Greatest Essayistssee more on Joseph Addison