2011 report on the Dickens Universe

Demelza Hookway

Each year Dickens Universe brings together readers of all sorts – Dickens enthusiasts, school pupils and teachers, undergraduates, postgraduates and academics – in order to spend a week discussing one novel by Dickens. In 2011, Great Expectations was the chosen novel, and at the inaugural lecture, Andrew Miller of Indiana University suggested that its first person narration invites readers to consider alternative interpretations of Pip's story. Dickens's thirteenth novel, Miller proposed, was concerned with fantasies of lives unled, unrealised selves and counterfactual possibilities: what has not happened, but could, would, or might have under differing conditions.

Of all the possible beginnings to the thirtieth annual Dickens Universe, held on the beautiful campus of the University of Santa Cruz, this seemed to be a very fitting one. It was to be an event full of diverse stories and different readings: encountered in the lecture halls and classrooms, but also at breakfast, taking walks through redwood trails and over Post-Prandial Potations. While the text in 2011 was Great Expectations, the subtext - that year, and I suspect, every year – was undoubtedly reading: what it means, personally and professionally, for a whole host of people, and also the hotly-contested issue of the best way to go about it.

As Jill Lepore wrote in her piece ‘Dickens in Eden' for the New Yorker, ‘there is very little time to sleep at Dickens camp'. But fuelled by cafeteria coffee, and the exquisite cakes and biscuits made by the Friends of the Dickens Project, it's impossible not to immerse yourself in the intellectual and social opportunities on offer. As a postgraduate student attending the conference from the UK, I was able to talk with fellow students and academics from across the US, and around the world, about their research and mine. In graduate student seminars (led by academics who are members of the Dickens Project consortium) we debated the issues raised by the lectures on Great Expectations and how these intersected with our own research interests. On bus rides down to the Santa Cruz beach boardwalk, and at afternoon tea and post-lecture drinks, we talked about the differences and similarities between the British and American systems (which first involved a course in translation: graduate student for postgraduate, dissertation for thesis, advisor for supervisor, and so on), the challenges and rewards of postgraduate study, and what had drawn us towards it in the first place.

The highlights of the lecture programme for me included Kathleen Frederickson (UC Davis) on the significance of Victorian debates about prehistory to Great Expectations – swamps and marshes as places outside of human control, of ‘unmanageable primordial ooze'; and Jonathan Grossman (UCLA) on the importance of networks of transportation in the novel, with the narrative looking back to the age of stage coaches from the age of railways and transatlantic crossings. I was lucky enough to co-teach a group, made up of undergraduates and Dickens enthusiasts (including Trude Hoffacker, who had been to Dickens Universe every year since it was founded in 1981). Co-teaching with a fellow postgraduate is a great way to observe someone else's style, and to hone your teaching skills. Not that our group needed much encouragement, either in picking out passages of the novel they wanted to read closely, or in offering their opinions on the lectures. What this conference does so effectively is bring together generalist and specialist readers of Dickens in a way that allows each to benefit from the other's approach. For someone starting out on an academic career, this is an invaluable experience. For any Victorianist, Dickens Universe is a great place to reflect, learn, and connect with like-minded people from around the world.