Dickens Universe returns to campus

For four decades, the Dickens Universe filled UC Santa Cruz with a bustling community of scholars, students, and community members who socialized at Victorian tea parties, talked about books, and ended their evenings with “post-prandial potions”.

The Dickens Universe, now in its 41sst year, goes far beyond a traditional literary scholarly conference. It also functions as a festival, a book club and, in the words of New Yorker writer Jill Lepore, a “Dickens camp”.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the conference to hold online versions for 2020 and 2021, preserving the intellectual and community spirit of the Dickens universe while putting some of the joyful analog aspects on hold.

Last week, those in-person touches were back in full force on campus for the first time since 2019.

Dickens Universe co-director John Jordan, a UC Santa Cruz literature research professor, was beaming as he gazed out at the crowd during the opening discussion. “It’s very moving,” Jordan said to applause. “It’s wonderful to see so many old friends and newcomers.”

UC Santa Cruz Dean of Humanities Jasmine Alinder hailed the longevity and scope of the Dickens Universe at a Dickens Universe kick-off event.

“UCSC’s Humanities Division is dedicated to bringing the humanities to a wide range of audiences,” Alinder said. “Efforts like the Dickens Universe unite students, teachers, scholars, and community members.”

“Community reading of literature is a fundamental humanistic practice,” Alinder said. “It provides so many opportunities to connect, especially during a pandemic that has turned our lives upside down in so many ways.”

A story of two books

Five times in its history, the Dickens universe has focused on a book by Dickens in juxtaposition with a book by another author.

In this case, conference attendees did an in-depth reading of the Dickensian classic David Copperfieldfirst published as a serial in 1849 and 1850, and also dipped into Frances E. W. Harper’s 1892 novel Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted. They attended panels that juxtaposed Harper and Dickens, including one called “Read the race with/in Iola Leroy and David Copperfield.

Harper was known for her anti-slavery advocacy as well as her support for the temperance movement and women’s suffrage. The 19eAbolitionist and African-American writer of the -century William Still described her as “one of the most liberal contributors as well as one of the ablest defenders of the Underground Railroad and the slave trade.”

Orphaned at the age of three, Harper found inspiration in her abolitionist uncle, who established his own academy for black youth. In addition to her novels, she has published numerous journal articles, a collection of poetry and essays. Harper has also lectured extensively.

At Iola Leroy’s The main character is the daughter of a wealthy southern plantation owner. Her life is turned upside down when her African-American ancestry is discovered and she is returned to slavery.

The readings of a book by Dickens in conjunction with those by Harper are part of an important evolution within Victorian studies in recent years, said John Jordan. Jordan mentioned the increased emphasis of Victorian studies on world issues and the 19th.transatlantic relations of the last century, particularly with regard to issues of slavery and its legacy in Britain and North America.

“Victorian studies is becoming more and more involved in conversations about race in the Victorian era and in conversations about events taking place outside of England,” said Brigitte Fielder, associate professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and guest speaker at Dickens Universe.

“It’s an exciting opportunity to introduce Harper and some of her contemporaries to an audience who might not otherwise encounter her,” said 19 expert Fielder.e American literature of the century, especially African-American and female writers.

A careful reading of the two books allowed researchers and lecturers to use several different analytical approaches and methods. Helena Michie, Dickens Universe guest speaker, Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities at Rice University and director of Rice’s Center for Women, Gender and Sexuality, used the two books to show how Dickens and Harper responded to conventions involving the classic Victorian wedding plot. , with its traditions of “good” and “bad” suitors and marriage proposals.

Michie used the wedding plot to examine politics, racism, and agency in both books. The classic marriage plot, in books with a white protagonist, often serves as rakes and rivals as well as “internal obstacles” to a good marriage. In David Copperfield, the main character must sift through multiple crushes, as well as a reckless marriage cut short by the untimely death of his first wife, before marrying his beloved Agnes.

Although Copperfield faces many obstacles on the way to a good marriage, Marie, mother of Iola Leroy, has no agency. She has no choice when asked to consider a marriage proposal by wealthy slaver Eugene Leroy in Mississippi.

Michie pointed out a cruel irony that aggravates Mary’s helplessness.

“How can we think of tge marriage conspiracy when all of these assumptions about marriage are null and void, and when chattel slavery makes marriage impossible, when even after slavery ends, interracial marriage remains illegal? Michie said. “The two novels invoke larger structures in different ways that make it difficult to choose or, in the case of Iola Leroy, impossible.”

Writer Elizabeth Stacey of Monterey, who attended the conference, had never read Iola Leroy before. “I was blown away by the book,” Stacey said. “Lots of it felt very contemporary, especially the outspoken way she writes about race and feminist issues.”

Christian Lehman, who is on the Dickens Universe faculty and has Charles Dickens’ initials tattooed on his left bicep, spoke about the experience of reading the two novels together. The stark differences in their styles draw attention to Dickens and Harper’s craft choices, he said.

“Harper doesn’t do some Dickensian things like flowery repetition or the wild exuberance of different characters recognizable by their speech, and we realize that’s a choice, and that helps us understand the craft on that level,” said Lehmann.

Standing out from other Dickens readers

The seminars and lectures covered exciting topics, but the organizers also ensured that conference attendees had plenty of opportunities to socialize and relax.

Dickens readers filled lecture halls, munched on cookies, gave directions to confused people looking for hard-to-find classrooms, and talked about Dickens’ characters as if they were real people.

“I’m sorry for Uriah Heep!” said one participant, referring to the repugnant archvillain of David Copperfield. “I think he was treated badly all his life and didn’t have good role models. No wonder he doesn’t have a moral compass.

For some conference attendees, the Dickens universe was part of a strategy to cope with the COVID pandemic.

“It’s amazing to be here, and I’m meeting a lot of other seniors,” said Carolyn Oppenheim Schwartz, a conference attendee from Los Angeles County. “Apart from my cat, Izzy, what has gotten me through the pandemic is participating in Dickens Fellowships all over the world.”

Dickens Universe provides a sense of brotherhood and common purpose to readers who enjoy being among people who have read the author’s work in depth. Caitlin Croughan of Marin County, self-proclaimed Dickens fanatic, re-read David Copperfield and listened to the audiobook twice to prepare for the conference.

“That’s 56 hours of reading for the novel alone, but every time I listened I noticed new things,” Croughan said. “When people were dying, I cried openly, and when something absurd happened, I laughed out loud.”

The Dickens Project, which hosts the Dickens Universe each year, is also known for its outreach to high school students. Through its partnership with the USC Neighborhood University Initiative (NAI), the Dickens Project offers up to four scholarships each year for NAI high school students to study Dickens in the middle of the redwoods.

Jhe Friends of the Dickens Project funds scholarships and conferences throughout the year. As part of their commitment to securing the long-term future of the Dickens Project, the Friends have created an endowment with a goal of $1 million, more than half of which has already been donated or pledged.

Those wishing to help Friends raise funds for The Dickens Project can do so here.