Novels That Shaped Our World

To tie in with the BBC 100 Novels That Shaped Our World list we have organised a series of events and workshops to inspire people to read some of the amazing books that feature on the list.

‘The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe’ by C. S. Lewis

Here are just a few examples from our collections that came to mind when we thought of four of the BBC Novels themes – Adventure; Life, Death and Other Worlds; Crime and Conflict; and Rule Breakers.


The much loved His Dark Materials trilogy earns a place in the Adventure category and we’ve enjoyed looking at some of the real life inspiration behind the books. For example, the aeronaut Lee Scoresby is named after the 19th century whaler and arctic explorer William Scoresby. He was born in the village of Cropton, near Pickering in Yorkshire, the son of successful whaler and adventurer, William Scoresby Senior. He even stowed away at the age of 10 or 11 for his first arctic adventure (this reminded us of something Lyra from His Dark Materials would do!). He later became a leading scientific observer of the polar regions and pushed further north than others before him.

In our collections we have the Seven log-books concerning the Arctic voyages of captain William Scoresby, Senior, of Whitby, England, published in 1917. It is an enormous seven volumes of expedition log books and introductory booklet containing portraits of the explorers, senior and junior William Scoresby, folding maps and charts. This is one of the most important works on whaling and far northern exploration to be printed but it was only limited to 300 copies and was mainly being distributed to libraries. This makes it incredibly rare and a really special item to read.

Life, Death and Other Worlds

There are so many wonderful books in this category, including Frankenstein, The Road and A Game of Thrones but we have chosen a book that offered a new way of looking at our universe and other worlds in the 18th century.

Thomas Wright’s An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe (1750) contains mezzotint engravings, likely based on his own drawings, that depict the position and movement of celestial bodies and the clusters of stars that make up the galaxies. His insights into the Milky Way predated Caroline and William Herschel’s work and was “the first to correctly postulate that clusters of starry nebulae were in fact galaxies too distant for us to discern clearly, and that the luminous blur of the Milky Way was simply an optical effect caused by our immersion in it.”[1] There is something mesmerising about the plate ‘A Finite View of Infinity’ of endless eyes that depict the ‘unlimited plenum of creations’.

“I own I can never look upon the Stars without wondering why the whole World does not become Astronomers”

– Thomas Wright (1750)

Crime and Conflict

It’s no surprise that Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is included in the Novels That Shaped Our World list. The Sherlock Holmes short stories were first published in the UK in The Strand Magazine and quickly became its most popular series. Editions featuring Sherlock Holmes were eagerly snapped up by readers, with queues forming outside the magazine office and news stands. Sidney Paget illustrated the stories and is responsible for creating the image of Holmes that we all know so well. Paget is credited with giving the deerstalker cap and cape to Holmes, details which weren’t included in Conan Doyle’s text. The depiction of Sherlock Holmes in The Strand is said to have had a major influence on detective stories in fiction, television and film ever since.

Sherlock Holmes in ‘The Strand Magazine’

Fans were left devaststed when Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Holmes in 1893. However, in 1903 Holmes was resurrected and again appeared monthly in The Strand Magazine.

Rule Breakers

Orlando by Virginia Woolf features in the Rule Breakers category and describes the adventures of a poet who alternates between being a man and woman throughout the centuries. We have lots of real life examples of people who challenged gender boundaries, such as the female pirates featured in this blog post, to the male impersonator Vesta Tilley, star of the Music Hall era. Another interesting example is Hannah Snell, who features in A Gentleman’s Magazine (1750). After being deserted by her husband whilst pregnant she disguised herself as a man and became a soldier. With the British Royal Marines she travelled as far as India. When she returned to England in 1750 and her identity was revealed she became a sensation, performing military drills and ballads in her uniform. She was also granted her military pension and honourably discharged.

Hannah Snell, the female soldier, in The Gentleman’s Magazine (1750)

[1] A Finite View of Infinity: Stargazing in Getty’s Rare Book Collections | Getty Iris

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