Dickens Universe returns to campus

Long-time Dickens Universe attendee and Friends of the Dickens Project board member Beth Penney served up tea and good humor at the conference. Photos by Dan White.
Conference attendee Caitlin Croughan (left) chats with Christian Lehmann, who is part of the Dickens Universe faculty, and has the initials of Charles Dickens tattooed on his left bicep.

For four decades, the Dickens Universe has filled UC Santa Cruz with a bustling community of scholars, students, and community members who socialized at Victorian teas, talked about books, and wrapped up their evenings with “post-prandial potations.” 

The Dickens Universe, now in its 41st 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 forced the conference to hold online versions for 2020 and 2021, preserving the Dickens Universe’s intellectual and community spirit while putting some of the joyous analog aspects on hold. 

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

Dickens Universe co-Director John Jordan, a research professor of literature at UC Santa Cruz, was beaming as he looked out at the crowd at the opening discussion. “This is very emotional,’’ Jordan said to loud applause. “It is wonderful to see so many old friends and newcomers.” 

UC Santa Cruz Humanities Dean Jasmine Alinder praised the Dickens Universe’s longevity and reach at a kick-off event for the Dickens Universe. 

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

“Reading literature in community is a foundational humanistic practice,’’ Alinder said. “This provides so many opportunities for connection particularly during a pandemic that has upended our lives in so many ways.” 

A tale 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-goers did a deep read of the Dickens classic David Copperfield, first published in serial form in 1849 and 1850, and also delved into Frances E. W. Harper’s 1892 novel Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted. They attended panels that juxtaposed Harper and Dickens, including one called “Reading 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 19th-century African American abolitionist and writer William Still described her as "one of the most liberal contributors as well as one of the ablest advocates for the Underground Railroad and the slave."

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 published many newspaper articles, poetry collection and essays. Harper also lectured widely. 

Iola Leroy’s title character is the daughter of a wealthy southern plantation owner. Her life is thrown into turmoil when her African American ancestry is discovered and she is remanded into slavery. 

The readings of a Dickens book in conjunction with Harper’s is part of an important evolution within Victorian Studies in recent years, John Jordan said. Jordan mentioned Victorian Studies’ increased focus on global issues and 19th.-century transatlantic relations, especially with respect to issues of slavery and its legacy in both Britain and North America. 

 “Victorian Studies is becoming more invested in conversations about race in the Victorian era and in conversations about things taking place outside of England,” said Brigitte Fielder, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and a featured speaker at Dickens Universe.

“This is an exciting opportunity to introduce Harper and some of her contemporaries to an audience who may not otherwise encounter her,” said Fielder, an expert in 19th century American literature, especially African American and women writers.

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

Michie used the marriage plot to examine politics, racism, and agency in both books. The classic marriage plot, in books with a white protagonist, often serves up rakes and rivals as well as “internal obstacles” to a good marriage. In David Copperfield, the title character has to sift through multiple crushes, as well as an unwise marriage cut short by his first wife’s untimely death, before he marries his beloved Agnes.

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

Michie pointed out a cruel irony that compounds Marie’s powerlessness.

“How can we think about tge marriage plot when all these assumptions about marriage are null and void, and when chattel slavery makes marriage impossible, when even after the end of slavery interracial marriage remains illegal?” Michie said. “Both novels in different ways invoke bigger structures that make choice difficult, or, in the case of Iola Leroy, impossible.” 

The writer Elizabeth Stacey of Monterey, who attended the conference, had never read Iola Leroy before. “I was blown away by the book,” Stacey said. “Large parts of it seemed very contemporary, especially the frank way she writes about racial and feminist issues.” 

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

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

Cutting loose with other Dickens readers

The seminars and lectures delved into heady topics, but the organizers also made sure that the conference-goers had plenty of opportunities to socialize and cut loose. 

Dickens readers packed lecture halls, nibbled cookies, gave directions to befuddled people searching for hard-to-find classrooms, and spoke about Dickens characters as if they were real people.

“I feel sorry for Uriah Heep!” said one attendee, referring to the loathsome archvillain from David Copperfield. “I think he was treated badly all his life and had no good role models. No wonder he lacked a moral compass.”

For some conference-goers, the Dickens Universe was part of a COVID pandemic coping strategy. 

“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. “Aside from my cat, Izzy, the thing that got me through the pandemic was attending Dickens fellowships all over the world.”

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

“That is 56 hours of reading just for the novel, but every time I listened, I noticed new things,” Croughan said. “When people died, I openly wept, 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 Academic Initiative (NAI), the Dickens Project offers up to four scholarships each year for NAI high school students to study Dickens amid the redwoods. 

The Friends of the Dickens Project provides funding for scholarships and conferences throughout the year. As part of their commitment to insuring the long-term future of the Dickens Project, the Friends have established an Endowment with a goal of $1 million, of which more than one half has already been donated or pledged. 

Those who wish to help the Friends raise funds for the Dickens Project may do so here.