Shakespeare’s Originality by John Kerrigan review – what the Bard pilfered and changed

Shakespeare inhabited a literary culture in which imitation was applauded. This erudite study teases out his alchemical transformations of what he had read or seen

For a long time, the sedulous student who wants to see Shakespeare in the act of creation has been able to go to the extracts contained in the eight fat volumes of Geoffrey Bullough’s Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. Here you can find the stories that he pilfered and changed. You can see how he twisted two completely separate tales together to make The Merchant of Venice, for example, or decided to kill Lear and Cordelia at the end of King Lear when in his chronicle source both survived, or made Othello Desdemona’s murderer, when in Cinthio’s original Italian story, it is Iago who does the deed. The volumes give a dizzying sense of the playwright’s narrative dexterity as you see him extracting ...

The Life and Opinions of Laurence Sterne: the first unapologetic literary celebrity

Tristram Shandy is one of the most funny and deliciously conversational novels ever written – produced by an obscure Yorkshire clergyman who relished his fame

Either you love it, or you really have missed something. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, to give it its full title, is one of the most inventive, idiosyncratic, funny and deliciously conversational novels ever written. Its author, Laurence Sterne, died 250 years ago on Sunday. An entirely obscure Yorkshire clergyman, known locally for the wit of his conversation and of the sermon that he occasionally gave in York Minster, he burst onto the literary scene in 1760, in his late 40s, with the first two volumes of this book (he added another seven volumes at intervals over the next seven years).

This 18th-century novel makes post-modern gimmickry look thin stuff, but it delighted Georgian readers

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The World Broke in Two by Bill Goldstein review – modernism’s annus mirabilis

The story of 1922, an extraordinary year in literature as told through the lives of four key writers, unsettles our notions of modernism

The annus mirabilis of literary modernism, 1922, saw the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses and TS Eliot’s The Waste Land. Virginia Woolf completed Jacob’s Room and began work in earnest on Mrs Dalloway. The first English translation of the opening volume of Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu was published (Proust died later the same year). Bill Goldstein’s book “tells the story of 1922”. It takes its title from a rueful comment made by Willa Cather in the mid-1930s about the effect on literary taste and value of two momentous publications in that year. Writing like her own suddenly seemed “backward”. Goldstein calls it a “literary apocalypse”.

His is not the first book to try to tell the story of this year, and is ...

Did Dickens invent Christmas? No, but he did reinvent the novel

A new film, The Man Who Invented Christmas, shows that how Charles Dickens wrote was just as important as the great works he penned

It is unusual to imagine Charles Dickens as a young man. A new film does just this. In The Man Who Invented Christmas, Dickens is not the bearded patriarch and arch-sentimentalist of Victorian culture, but a young chap startled by his sudden fame and with no confidence that it will last. Dan Stevens’s kinetic incarnation of Dickens is all anxious twitchiness, his youthful energy scarcely held in. He has written a sequence of bestsellers, but his last couple of books have been “flops”. Now, in 1843, he needs another hit. So – with the help of his bosom friend John Forster, an (invented) Irish maid, whose ghost stories told to his children he overhears, and his habit of spotting vivid characters among people he ...

We need robots to have morals. Could Shakespeare and Austen help? | John Mullan

Using great literature to teach ethics to machines is a dangerous game. The classics are a moral minefield

• John Mullan is professor of English literature at University College LondonWhen he wrote the stories in I, Robot in the 1940s, Isaac Asimov imagined a world in which robots do all humanity’s tedious or unpleasant jobs for them, but where their powers have to be restrained. They are programmed to obey three laws. A robot may not injure another human being, even through inaction; a robot must obey a human being (except to contradict the previous law); a robot must protect itself (unless this contradicts either of the previous laws). Unfortunately, scientists soon create a robot (Herbie) that understands the concept of “mental injury”. Like a character in a Thomas Hardy novel or an Ibsen play, the robot soon finds itself in a situation where truthfully answering a question put ...

The Transferred Life of George Eliot by Philip Davis review – how a novelist shared her wisdom

Eliot steps in to her narratives to unravel the contradictions of human behaviour. This study skilfully explores how in doing so she drew on her own experiencesSome great novelists are there in their novels. None is more present than George Eliot. Take a small example from The Mill on the Floss. Mr Tulliver, the mill owner, has well-nigh ruined himself by pursuing a doomed legal suit against a cleverer rival. Now he must get his wife to borrow some money from her affluent brother-in-law. Mr Tulliver would never have asked for anything from so poor-spirited a fellow for himself, but Bessy might do so if she liked.
It is precisely the proudest and most obstinate men who are the most liable to shift their position and contradict themselves in this sudden manner … Continue reading...

Happy 50th birthday Adrian Mole

Sue Townsend’s teenager hit middle-age before our eyes, but alongside Harry Potter, Bridget Jones and Updike’s Rabbit, he is part of a tradition of characters aging with the reader Tempus fugit. Tomorrow, Adrian Mole is 50. We can be precise about this. In the book that introduced him to the world, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾, Sue Townsend’s famous diarist noted in his entry for 2 April 1981, “I am fourteen today! Got a track suit and a football from my father. (He is completely insensitive to my needs.)” When this first volume of his diaries was published in 1982 we found him nursing his unappreciated intellectual ambitions – “I saw Malcolm Muggeridge on the television last night, and I understood nearly every word” – and, above all, looking forward to growing older. His diary entry for his birthday ends with him looking ...

Brothers of the Quill: Oliver Goldsmith in Grub Street by Norma Clarke – review

A lively account of 18th-century London’s literary underworld centres on the author of The Vicar of Wakefield Oliver Goldsmith has always been a puzzle. So he was to his contemporaries, many of whom found him, as the actor David Garrick put it, “a mixture so odd” of contradictory qualities. Was he brilliant or foolish? The painter Joshua Reynolds recalled that Goldsmith like to argue from “false authorities” and talk humorous nonsense. Listeners never knew when to take him seriously. He is a puzzle to literary history too: he dabbled in this genre and that, producing no coherent body of work, yet managed to write a handful of small masterpieces. There is his brilliant comedy of social pretensions and mistaken identities She Stoops to Conquer, almost the only play of the 18th century apart from Sheridan’s work still to be staged and relished. There is his nostalgic, melancholy poem “The ...

Christmas chaos in literature, from Emma to Adrian Mole

Forget Dickensian happy endings, the real Christmas classics tell stories of fraught family gatherings, orgies of consumption and festivities for one, writes John Mullan All happy Christmases are the same, but all unhappy Christmases are unhappy after their own fashion. We can put up with the festive good cheer of the Cratchits in A Christmas Carol or Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy in Little Women, but what a discerning reader relishes is a really hellish Christmas. Writers know this perfectly well and have always revelled in Christmases gone badly wrong. What better occasion could there be for the release of long-suppressed resentment or anger or despair that make for satisfying drama? The mismatch between merry pretensions and grim reality is often comic. No wonder that Bridget Jones’s Diary begins in the aftermath of one Christmas and heads towards a second, even worse, Christmas, in its last chapter. (Though no ...

Christmas and the British by Martin Johnes review – how celebrations changed

Ruling-class hypocrisy, bestselling aftershave and ‘bah, humbug’ misanthropy in a wide-ranging survey of our festive past How has the experience of Christmas changed for the British over the past century? Despite the blurry photographs in this book, which make the Britain of the 1950s or 20s look impossibly distant, Martin Johnes’s method of research has the effect of making it seem a remarkably stable festival. Johnes has undertaken a great deal of reading, especially of old newspapers, but also of memoirs and novels and diaries, and has evidently compiled some equivalent of a card index to important topics. The book is a gathering together of what he has found, with little attention to chronology. There are sections on consumerism, the family, rituals, religion and so on. In a typical paragraph, Rider Haggard’s splenetic diary entry from Christmas Day 1920 complaining of a world “flaming with every sort of wickedness” sits ...

Jane Austen, the Secret Radical by Helena Kelly review – have we got Austen all wrong?

The writer of Pride and Prejudice and Emma was politically engaged and no conservative, argues this confident book. Unfortunately, it ignores the ways she was truly radicalHave we been getting Jane Austen wrong for all these years? Helena Kelly thinks so. She sets out to show us how Austen’s novels have been “so thoroughly, so almost universally, misunderstood”. They have been accepted as safe, escapist, conservative. To many they have apparently offered “a blissful, almost drugged-up break from reality”. But Kelly will pierce the “haze of preconceptions” obscuring Austen’s fiction. She will show us that, far from giving us “demure dramas in drawing rooms”, Austen used her novels to “examine the great issues of her day”. She will teach us to “read Jane’s novels … as she intended”. Her confidence that she has a special knowledge of these intentions is signalled in the opening section of each of her ...

Does Love & Friendship improve on Jane Austen’s ending?

Whit Stillman’s latest film is based on a little-known novella written early in Austen’s career. Will it work on screen, and is it worth reading today? Director Whit Stillman began his film career with Metropolitan, a contemporary courtship tale set in Manhattan but shot through with allusions to Jane Austen’s novels. Now, with his new film Love and Friendship, out next week, he gives us his version of a story by Austen, though one that is little known. He has adapted a novella – or, more accurately, a sharply curtailed novel – called Lady Susan, which Austen probably wrote in the mid-1790s, when she was 19 or 20. Confusingly, however, he has taken the film’s title from an entirely unrelated parody of fashionable sentimental fiction that she wrote when she was 14. Neither of these tales was published in her lifetime, and neither was intended for publication. Lady Susan promises ...

Whatever next? How plot grips us, from Dickens to Line of Duty

How do the best stories work? John Mullan examines what today’s TV dramatists can learn from the masters of the trade How we love plots – and how we look down our noses at them. Our plot hunger can be measured by the current provision of lavish, plot-heavy TV drama. First there were all those Scandi-noir murder mysteries. Now the BBC’s prime Sunday night slot is given over to one elaborately plotted thriller (Undercover) after another (The Night Manager). No longer satisfied with the mere whodunnit, the prime-time audience can satisfy its plot hunger with the elaborate conspiracy narrative of the BBC’s Line of Duty or the psychological indeterminacy of ITV’s Marcella (is the detective herself a killer?). TV drama, especially the one-off mini-series, is where we can go for the special pleasures of plot. Yet plot lovers who are also novel readers might think ...

Figures of Catastrophe by Francis Mulhern review – reasons to be cheerless

A short but intense study of fiction by a stalwart of the left draws EM Forster, John Fowles and Ruth Rendell into its gloomy prognosisIn the late 1970s, Francis Mulhern’s The Moment of Scrutiny was mandatory if daunting reading for English Literature students who wanted to think of themselves as socialists. In dense but eloquent Marxist prose, Mulhern wrestled with the legacy of FR Leavis and tried to marry the rigour of Leavisite literary criticism with a commitment to the class struggle that Leavis sadly lacked. Mulhern was still in his mid‑20s and seemed a confident prodigy of leftist learning. Surely he would become a leading cultural prophet? In the years the followed he wrote for and edited the New Left Review, and taught in the US and Britain, but faded from even academic notoriety. Where the unaccountable tendency of the working classes to vote Conservative rather than agitating for socialism spurred ...

Literary mash-ups: why stop at Pride and Prejudice and Zombies?

We’ve had Little Women and Werewolves and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, but the possibilities are endless …When a complimentary copy of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies arrived in 2009, along with a publisher’s letter intimating that as an Austen scholar I might relish this latest testimony to her influence, I assumed the book would disappear as rapidly as most other specimens of contemporary Austeneana. But I was wrong. Seth Grahame-Smith’s introduction of “ultraviolent zombie mayhem to Austen’s literary classic soon hit the New York Times bestseller list. Now it is a film (pictured) with Lily James moving on from her turn as Natasha in the BBC’s War and Peace to playing Elizabeth Bennet as an adept zombie-slayer. Is the literary mash-up a passing fad or a fertile new genre? The art of mashing up involves putting together two completely incongruous genres, only to discover that something in the high-cultural ...

How Jane Austen’s Emma changed the face of fiction

The story of a self-deluded heroine in a small village, Jane Austen’s Emma hardly seems revolutionary. But, 200 years after it was first published, John Mullan argues that it belongs alongside the works of Flaubert, Joyce and Woolf as one of the great experimental novels

In January 1814, Jane Austen sat down to write a revolutionary novel. Emma, the book she composed over the next year, was to change the shape of what is possible in fiction. Perhaps it seems odd to call Austen “revolutionary” – certainly few of the other great pioneers in the history of the English novel have thought so. From Charlotte Brontë, who found only “neat borders” and elegant confinement in her fiction, to DH Lawrence, who called her “English in the bad, mean, snobbish sense of the word”, many thought her limited to the small world and small concerns of her characters. Some of the ...

Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life by Jonathan Bate review – sex and self-deception

He had ‘sex as strong as it comes’, Sylvia Plath said, and there’s plenty of bed-hopping, as well as torment, in this scrupulous and lucid biography

As Jonathan Bate acknowledges in the last chapter of his biography of Ted Hughes, the poet liked to say that literary biographers were “vampiric”, and that famous authors should act together to frustrate their researches. But Hughes did not follow his own doctrine. He took care to preserve thousands of his manuscripts, including journals and letters. Some he sold to Coca-Cola-endowed Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, whose plentiful funds helped make his last years affluent. Many others he left to the British Library, a rich trove for a biographer. He can hardly have wanted them left unread.

The main service that Bate has done is to read this huge mass of material with a scholar’s ability to date and arrange it. His biography is ...

Georgian Menagerie: Exotic Animals in Eighteenth-Century London by Christopher Plumb – review

Lions on Tottenham Court Road, camels on the Strand … England’s capital once teemed with beasts

There was a peculiar hazard to riding a horse down the Strand in late 18th-century London. As you passed Exeter Exchange your steed might well be startled and rear at the roars of the lions and tigers caged in the menagerie there. The writer Charles Lamb, at his lodgings in Temple Lane, said he liked to hear the big cats as he walked home after an evening’s socialising. The roaring was one of the sounds of the city. As Christopher Plumb’s richly anecdotal history shows, Georgian Britain – and particularly Georgian London – was, surprisingly, thronged with exotic animals. This was the era in which Britain became the world’s leading imperial power, and exotic fauna was “the bounty of empire”. Britons were fascinated by the beasts the colonialists sent home.

Before the zoological gardens ...