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 ...