2012 report on the Dickens Universe

Jude Piesse

I was lucky enough to attend Dickens Universe 2012 as a postgraduate representative to Exeter’s Centre for Victorian Studies. Dickens Universe is the most significant gathering for Dickens scholars and enthusiasts in the world, and 2012 perhaps the most exciting year of all in which to participate. The bicentenary itinerary focussed on what is arguably Dickens’s greatest novel, Bleak House, and attracted the most attendees since the conference began. The schedule included a range of lectures, seminars, and workshops, which were interspersed with numerous social events. Overall, the 2012 Universe provided fantastic opportunities for anyone working in the field of Victorian Studies, and was an especially valuable resource for a student of Dickens.

"Every masterly fiction"

If Bleak House is Dickens’s most “masterly fiction,” then it is not surprising that the text continues to generate a particularly wide range of accomplished critical readings from leading scholars in the field. Highlights for me included Catherine Robson’s lecture “What Esther Knows About Sex: Bleak House and Indifferent Parent(s),” which inventively argued that the novel’s famous method of double narration dramatizes an interplay between the irresponsible, generative impulses of an indifferent universe and the innocent child characters who must live with the consequences. Tricia Lootens and Jason Rudy gave an illuminating joint presentation on “Dickens’s Poetry/Poetry’s Dickens” which explored Bleak House’s overlooked interrelations with affective poetry and the legacy of slavery, while Allen MacDuffe’s “Dickens’s Energy Crisis: Bleak House” made a compelling case for the novel’s preoccupation with themes of energy expenditure, exhaustibility, and sustainability. One new highlight for 2012 was a series of book panel events, in which authors of recently published books on Dickens engaged with peers who had prepared responses to the text. The results were stimulating and rewarding, and provided an opportunity to hear scholars participating in lively intellectual debate that was sometimes underscored by a productive sense of difference.

Amused and instructed

As Dickens stressed, learning is often best leavened with entertainment, and Dickens Universe takes this approach to heart. The highlight of this year’s amusements was provided by Universe stalwart Miriam Margoyles’s excellent one-woman show “Dickens’ Women.” Hearing Miriam give voice to Mrs. Gamp and Miss Havisham was a wonderful way of experiencing Dickens’s flair for theatricality and the utilization of melodramatic modes. The Universe also incorporates a host of more formal learning opportunities for its graduate participants, including a daily graduate seminar in which students discuss the novel in company with faculty members and highly useful professional development sessions on themes such as the MLA job market. The feedback I received at the daily graduate writing workshop also undoubtedly strengthened my PhD thesis as a whole.

"What is the connexion?"

One of the most stimulating aspects of the Universe is the way in which it draws together a truly disparate crowd of people. The Universe succeeds in being both a phenomenally successful model of public engagement and a social gathering of old and new friends. During the course of my stay, I was able to meet and talk with high school teachers, recent retirees, leading academics, and innumerable PhD students – often about Bleak House, but also about topics as diverse as the merits of Berliner donuts, which contemporary songs would work in a hypothetical Bleak House musical, the difference between a plain and a prairie, and exactly what to do if attacked by a campus mountain lion. Two trips to Santa Cruz to see the sea-lions, visit the shops, and ask for the ‘I Am Fulfilled’ salad at the local vegan cafe provided further memorable connections and experiences.

Sun everywhere...

A sunny Californian campus has many advantages over its counterparts in the UK as a site for a concentrated period of studying Bleak House in August. Beyond this, however, reading Dickens in Santa Cruz also underscores the fact that Dickens has always been a globally popular author, whose work has spread far beyond the confines of the English nation and academy. I have gained much from learning more about American readers’ perspectives on the novel, including the fascination with Victorian London demonstrated by many of the Universe participants and the aptitude for theoretical approaches to Bleak House demonstrated by US graduate students in seminars. Dickens’s Bleak House may betray reservations about the rapidly globalizing world of the 1850s which forms its implicit backdrop, but it is heartening to see that its own reach continues to extend beyond the confines of nation and period to generate new discussions, responses, and debates.