Reading is one of the best ways to travel anywhere from the comfort of your home. Whether you’re planning a trip or just dreaming about taking one sometime in the future, these best of England books (and the UK as a whole!) will take you to one of my favorite countries in the world.
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Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson is a well-traveled and hilarious travel writer who I adore. I’ve read most of his books from England and beyond and they’re all worth a read. This one is particularly great because he wasn’t just traveling to the UK – he lived there for many years.
Filled with the funny, sharp observations and the small but hilarious scrapes he gets himself into, you should read this very enjoyable book before traveling in England. Also you have to admire a man who is constantly writing about how he breakfasted well – that is travel goals and just general life ones. Buy it on Amazon.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
One of the best books on the history of England during the Tudor reign, Mantel dives into history from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, a fascinating self-made man who went from being the son of a butcher to one of the most trusted advisors of Henry VIII. Buy it on Amazon.
Mantel’s writing is beautiful and clear. The whole Wolf Hall trilogy is well worth your time, and once you finish Wolf Hall you can dive right into Bring Up the Bodies and The Mirror and the Light. They’re the kind of novels that you rejoice in how long they are, because you get to keep reading them and enjoying getting lost in their world.
If you’re a real lover of historical fiction and want some easy, light reading that goes even further into the world of the Tudors, you also cannot go wrong with the England books of Philippa Gregory. Her Tudor novels are great – start with The Other Boleyn Girl (not the movie, it was dreadful) and learn more about the women of the period. They’re fast reading and some of the best books about the UK to read on a beach or the plane for great storytelling and a feel for the major players of the Tudor dynasty.
All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot
If you’re looking to get out of London and head to other parts of England by book, this is a charming look at rural life in Yorkshire from the perspective of a new veterinarian in the 1930s. It’s based on Herriot’s real life doing the same thing, and it’s so cozy and cheerful and sweet.
I have a soft spot for this book about England (the first in a four-part series) because my grandfather loved it, and it reminds me of pulling it off the shelf and curling up in a big, scuffed, comfortable chair in front of the massive stone fireplace at my grandparents’ house.
There’s also a great old tv series based on the books, and a brand-new BBC one that’s supposed to be excellent as well. Read these, or watch them, by the fire on a rainy day with a cup of tea and it’s almost as good as being on the Yorkshire Dales yourself. Buy it on Amazon.
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
A classic English novel about the classes and religion in the run-up to WWII, Brideshead Revisited is one of the most quintessential books on England you can read. And it’s beautiful – Waugh was a fabulous writer and chronicler of his set and times. Buy it on Amazon.
This novel about a bored young man who falls in with a dissolute but charming gay son of an old English Catholic family, and then in with the family itself, is sweeping and romantic.
Waugh wrote several novels about his contemporaries – the Bright Young Things of the 1920s and beyond. Vile Bodies is great fun, and A Handful of Dust is an odd but very compelling tale of an old English estate and the people who are privileged and burdened with caring for it.
The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch
Murdoch is one of my favorite authors of all time – she was an exceptional philosopher as well as a prolific novelist – and this book set in England, on an unspecified part of the northern coast, won the Booker Prize.
An aging theater star retires to this hostile but beautiful coastline, and as in most Murdoch novels, chaos and interpersonal drama and tragedy as well as comedy ensue. It’s sad and beautiful and the descriptions of the sea alone are worth reading it for alone. Buy it on Amazon.
Honestly, if you’re looking for books to read before going to England, you can’t really go wrong with any of Murdoch’s novels. The Bell, The Unicorn, and The Nice and the Good are my particular favorites. Under the Net is her first novel and one of the best books to read before going to London as so much of it is set there – it gives you a real sense of the city.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Du Maurier was a master of the romantic novels about England and the surrounding British parts – her most famous work was set in Cornwall, which I have been dying to visit since my mother gave me this book as a teenager.
You may have heard of it – it’s a masterpiece about a young woman who marries a mysterious, wealthy older man on holiday and comes to his family estate where his recently-dead wife still seems to rule. It’s dramatic and romantic and just really good reading. (The recent Netflix adaptation, however, is terrible – skip it.) Buy it on Amazon.
Du Maurier’s other works are also worth reading if you liked Rebecca – Jamaica Inn and Frenchman’s Creek are also great, and she has quite a lot of enjoyable English countryside novels about sexy pirates and glamorous courtesans. You can go on a fabulous British adventure in any one of them without leaving your chair.
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
It’s impossible to go wrong with any Austen novel – Pride and Prejudice, her most famous work, is a classic English novel for a reason – but this one holds a particular place in my heart.
It’s about a pair of sisters trying to find love, but it’s also a wonderful exploration of complicated romantic feelings that is as accurate today as it was then. Buy it on Amazon.
And there are several great movie adaptations of her work too – the Keira Knightly Pride and Prejudice is gorgeous, the Gwyneth Paltrow Emma is perfect – but the movie version of Sense and Sensibility with Emma Thompson and Kate Winston is one of the best.
Wuthering Heights by Charlotte Bronte
This is one of my favorite books set in England, and it’s well-known and loved for a reason – it’s a banger. 13-year-old-me was enthralled with this tale of obsessive, destructive love on the moors in the north of England, and mid-30s me still adores it. Heathcliff is hot, guys, even if he does insane things like trying to climb into his lover’s coffin.
(TBH, the first time I set foot on a moor on my walk across England I sat down and waited for a handsome, love-crazed orphan to find me but it hasn’t happened (yet)).
Also there are several movie versions of this book – my favorite is the one with Tom Hardy that is just a combination of all of the sexiest things ever. Is this book a model of a healthy romantic relationship? Hell no. But those books are not fun to read – this one is. Buy it on Amazon.
The Best Books About England
I am a deep lover of British literature, so this list could have gone on forever and ever. But these are the best books about Britain, including England and other parts of the British Isles (like Scotland, or the Isle of Man) that I think you’ll enjoy.
Even if you’re just dreaming of a trip far in the future – that’s what I did for a long time before I finally got to travel to England! Happy reading and safe travels!
More posts about UK travel you might enjoy:
- The Best Undiscovered British Isle: The Isle of Man
- The Perfect Plan for 9 Days in Scotland
- Walking Alone Across England: The Hadrian’s Wall Path