Dickens Universe thriving at UC Santa Cruz

017 Dickens Universe street banner in downtown Santa Cruz
2017 Dickens Universe street banner in downtown Santa Cruz (designed by Kenia Coyoy)
John Jordan, director and co-founder of the Dickens Project, shown with new UC Santa Cruz
John Jordan, director and co-founder of the Dickens Project, shown with new UC Santa Cruz Campus Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Marlene Tromp, who had previously attended the Dickens Universe as a faculty representative from Arizona State, where she taught before, but now comes in her capacity as a professor of literature at UC Santa Cruz. (Photo by Sarah Caldwell)
A lecture by John Jordan at this year's Dickens Universe
A lecture by John Jordan at this year's Dickens Universe (Photo by Sarah Caldwell)

Nearly 300 people attended the Dickens Universe this year--a unique weeklong event held each summer among the redwood trees at UC Santa Cruz.

The Dickens Universe combines elements of a research symposium, arts festival, book club, and summer camp all rolled into one big, unforgettable week of intellectual celebration.

It brings together a wide array of participants including international scholars, college faculty, high school teachers, students, and members of the general public for a week of study and socializing at the UCSC campus.

The Dickens Universe is the signature event of The Dickens Project, a scholarly consortium headquartered at UC Santa Cruz that consists of members from different universities across the United States and around the globe. It is internationally recognized as the premier center for Dickens studies in the world and is one of the leading sites for research on 19th-century British culture.

“The Project continues to grow in membership--now 47 colleges and universities that range from Israel to Australia and include ones in Canada and the U.K., said John Jordan, director and co-founder of the Dickens Project. "Attendance remains strong and this year we had a larger number of faculty than ever before.”

New member institutions that recently joined include the University of Haifa (Israel), the University of Georgia, the University of Pennsylvania, and Southern Methodist University. Faculty and graduate students from these schools were in attendance this year at the Dickens Universe.

“What attracts people is the high quality of the program--lectures by world class scholars along with many opportunities for small group discussion,” Jordan noted. “And issues raised by Victorian novels remain pertinent today, such as social reform, class, gender, marriage, personal relationships, and personal ethics.”

The Dickens Universe always offers a week of total immersion in the world of Victorian fiction, usually focused on a novel by Charles Dickens. But this year marked the first time a work by Dickens was not featured. Instead, the spotlight was on Middlemarch by George Eliot.

A pen name, George Eliot was actually Mary Anne Evans, who wrote under a male name so that bias against her gender would not diminish her standing as an author or influence the reception of her work.

“The ‘swerve’ from Dickens to George Eliot proved very successful,” said Jordan. “Participants were unanimous in their appreciation of Middlemarch as one of the great 19th-century novels. Comparisons between Dickens and Eliot continued throughout the week.”

“The choice of Middlemarch has attracted new participants,” he added. "A few people who are dedicated Dickens loyalists may have stayed away, but they will be pleased to know that we will return to Dickens in 2018 when the featured novel will be Little Dorrit.”

A special event in connection with Middlemarch this year was a staged reading of a play, "A Most Dangerous Woman" by playwright Cathy Templesman, based on the life of author George Eliot and performed by members of the Santa Cruz Shakespeare company.

Another highlight was a presentation by students and teachers from the NAI (Neighborhood Academic Initiative) in Los Angeles, describing their remarkable experience of teaching and studying Middlemarch in a South LA high school.

“This week of focusing on George Eliot in relation to Charles Dickens’s life advanced our understanding of the importance of the Victorian world in shaping modern society and the modern imagination--and especially the role of women in contemporary life,” noted UCSC emeritus English and comparative literature professor Murray Baumgarten, a co-founder of the Dickens Project. “And all of this emerged in the company of major scholars, old friends, and new ones who we hope will continue to work with us in the future.”

Jordan noted that The Dickens Project additionally has just been awarded a $124,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to host a four-week seminar for school teachers on campus next summer as part of its ongoing outreach program.

The title of the seminar will be “Why Literature Matters: Voices from Nineteenth-Century American and British Literature.”