The Oxford Companion to - or Bumper Book of - English Literature was first published in 1932 and updated in three subsequent editions and many reprints. It has now been extensively re-edited by Margaret Drabble, aided by an impressive list of experts. The original editor, Sir Paul Harvey, explained that his intention was to be useful to ordinary everyday readers. He offered the dates and brief biographies of a large number of English authors, listed the more important works of fiction, with sketches of their plots, and made a point of including American books and writers as 'an essential part of the literature of our language'. He also tried to elucidate recurrent allusions: for instance, to literary terms, wines, mythological figures, heroes, philosophers, musicians, actors, historical events and foreign authors of eminence. The result is necessarily a bit random. Harvey contains a lot of information one can feel little pain in lacking and little delight in possessing: for instance, the knowledge that Sir Archy MacSarcasm and Sir Pertinax MacSycophant come from a play by Charles Macklin, together with Sir Callagham O'Brallaghan. As it happens, this information is still to be found in the fifth edition, and I suppose it might be vital to somebody some day.
LRB 6 June 1985 | PDF Download