Dickens Universe to offer public talk by alumnus on new novel ‘The Spirit Photographer’

book cover The Spirit Photographer by Jon Varese
UC Santa Cruz alumnus Jon Michael Varese (Ph.D. Literature, 2011)
UC Santa Cruz alumnus Jon Michael Varese (Ph.D. Literature, 2011)

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 one of the leading sites for research on 19th-century British culture.

Each summer, the Dickens Universe program brings together scholars, teachers, students, and members of the general public for a week of intense study and festivities, usually focused on a novel by Charles Dickens.

2018 marks the 38th year of the annual gathering at UC Santa Cruz, and the event—which takes place the week of July 15-21—is nearly sold out.

But fear not. A special feature of this year's program is a free day—Tuesday, July 17—when the conference will be open without charge to members of the local community. Included among the many attractions will be the opportunity to experience a Victorian tea, as well as a presentation by UC Santa Cruz alumnus Jon Michael Varese (Ph.D. Literature, 2011), discussing his newly published debut novel, The Spirit Photographer.

Inspired by the spirit photography craze that swept the country during and after the Civil War, Varese’s novel explores post-Civil War America’s various challenges with regard to loss, slavery, hypocrisy, and racial injustice. Varese will be joined in conversation by Victorian photography scholar Daniel Novak, and a book signing will follow the event.

“Jon Varese is a long-time participant in the Dickens Project, beginning in 1997 when he first entered the Ph.D. program in literature at UCSC,” noted John Jordan, director and co-founder of the Dickens Project. “He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the serial publication of Victorian fiction, focusing on novels by Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and George Eliot. While finishing his dissertation, he worked as a technical writer in Silicon Valley and helped develop and maintain the Dickens Project website.”

“Having previously been the winner of a scholarship essay contest for high school students, he developed the idea to establish a similar scholarship program for the Dickens Project and helped raise money to get it off the ground,” Jordan added. “Eventually this program transformed into an ongoing relationship between the Project and a South Los Angeles high school that sends college-bound students from low income communities and their teachers every year to the annual Dickens Universe conference.”

Now employed full time in the high tech industry, Varese currently serves as the director of outreach for the Dickens Project. He has also continued his work as a literary scholar, focusing on Dickens. Varese edited and wrote the introduction for an edition of Great Expectations, and recently contributed a chapter on Nicholas Nickleby to the prestigious Oxford Handbook of Charles Dickens, which will be published in September.

The Spirit Photographer combines many of Jon's interests,” said Jordan. “An historical novel set in the 19th century, it showcases Jon's close familiarity with 19th century history and culture, including the history of photography and the legacy of slavery in post-Civil War America. The novel also reflects Jon's long immersion in Victorian literature. Its plot plays with themes and motifs familiar to readers of Dickens--ghosts, family secrets, and the return of repressed memories from the past. Like Little Dorrit, the featured novel at this year's Dickens Universe, it presents a powerful blend of realism and scenes of uncanny hallucination.”

Another special event at this year's Universe will be an opportunity for participants—including members of the general public--to do original research on Dickens. Jordan noted that representatives of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, where the manuscripts of Dickens's novels are housed, will screen pages from those manuscripts.

“Universe attendees will help to decipher Dickens's often crabbed and difficult handwriting, contributing eventually to a complete annotated transcription of those documents,” said Jordan. "'Deciphering Dickens,' as this event is called, will be led by Professor John Bowen of the University of York and Douglas Dodds, a Senior Curator at the V&A.”