Report on the 41st Dickens Universe

August 24, 2022

By Beth Penney  

Beth Penney. Photo by Dan White.

The 41st Annual Dickens Universe was attended by more than 200 international faculty members, graduate students, UC college-credit students, and members of the general public. The Universe, which every year has selected a Victorian novel or novels for study, has concentrated until now on English (British) works. As one conference speaker mentioned during the week, the  study of “comparative literature” has been, until recently, the comparison of northern European literatures. As with much else in our world, it’s time for a change. After two years of pandemic cancellations, the organizers were finally able to present the much-anticipated pairing of Dickens’s David Copperfield with Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted, an 1894 novel by a Black activist, writer, teacher, and speaker who was born to free Blacks and was raised by an abolitionist uncle and aunt.  

At face value, these two novels have little in common. But many of the talks and lectures  during the week focused on the fact that including African American writers, particularly women writers, in traditional “Victorian studies” is crucial; without it, scholars do not have a clear picture of the 19th century. Dickens wrote fifteen novels, so in forty years, even if we count the Christmas stories and one year reading just George Eliot’s Middlemarch in what was fondly dubbed “The Eliot Universe,” this conference has covered all of Dickens’ novels at least twice. Scholarship changes with time; new ideas are brought forth that change the readings of familiar  works, which facilitates re-reading and new understanding. And, as readers of Dickens know, his  lengthy multi-plot novels, which contain scores of distinct and memorable characters, always have something new to offer. Hence, having to read David Copperfield over and over again does not become mind-numbing. 

But Iola Leroy opened up new avenues for discussion of David Copperfield. Iola Leroy is also a multi-character, multi-plot novel, albeit less lengthy than Dickens’ book. It starts toward the end of the Civil War, introducing readers to a number of people who are enslaved (the current preferred term, rather than “slaves”), several of whom are light skinned. The title character is unnamed at the time of her introduction in the narrative—she is enslaved by a certainly less-than-ideal slave owner and comes to the attention of one of the other Black  characters. We discover later that Iola was born to a wealthy white father and a light skinned Black woman, and that she spent the first two decades of her life as a privileged white person. When her father died, a relative let it be known that the mother and her children were Black, and according to the laws of the time, they were remanded into slavery, Iola and her brother being  pulled unceremoniously from the Northern finishing schools they were attending. The novel ends  after the war, with some of the main characters, including Iola, having moved to the North and  then back to help their people in the South. Iola has chosen to live her life as Black rather than “pass” as white, and to devote herself to the plight of Black people during Reconstruction. Author Harper takes to her soapbox at this point, but as a number of both speakers and attendees noted, her fervent calls for change at the end of the novel could have been spoken on the floor of  the Jan. 6 Senate hearings that were going on at the same time as the UCSC conference; her voice is that current on the topic of human rights and responsibilities, and that prescient.  

So what does this have to do with David Copperfield, the behemoth novel that has been hailed down the decades as Dickens’s most autobiographical, most popular—the prototype for the bildungsroman? Iola Leroy is less a coming-of-age novel than a homily against racism. 

When set beside Dickens’ novel and analyzed for similarities and differences, the differences  win, no question. But there are surprising similarities, especially in the story of the Peggotty family, which makes its living fishing the sea off Yarmouth. David himself might be considered upper middle-class, but his school friend Steerforth is fully upper class, and this is what makes  David Copperfield a story of classism. Looked at against Iola Leroy, a new thesis emerges from Copperfield: those who attempt upward mobility in the British class system will not succeed—end of discussion. Emily Peggotty’s story as Steerforth’s cast-off devotee parallels Iola’s story as  cast-off white woman in many ways. 

The speakers at the Santa Cruz conference, all of whose talks contributed to this analysis, included longtime attendee Helena Michie of Rice University, Meredith McGill of Rutgers, Derrick Spires of Cornell, Brigitte Fielder of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Kimberly Snyder Manganeli of Clemson University, Nazera Sadiq Wright of the University of Kentucky, John Jordan of the University of California at Santa Cruz, Jacqueline Barrios of the University of Arizona, and others. Barrios, formerly of the James A. Foshay Learning Center in South L.A., has been instrumental in shepherding underserved students through the Learning Center’s Neighborhood Academic Initiative partnership with neighboring USC, which promises these  students a free ride for all four years at the University if they complete a program that starts in 6th grade and goes through 12th. Each year, the students in the program read the novels assigned for the Dickens Universe as part of their senior year AP English class, and first Barrios, then current coordinator Kate McFadden, lead them through “LitLabs Live,” which involves multimedia student projects that mirror what they have learned from the texts. Four of the students from this  program were in attendance at the conference, and they presented their projects, titled “LA Copperfield” and “Dear Iola, Love, South LA.” Two students also presented portions of papers written on the novels. The students are excellent speakers, and the Lit Labs, which Barrios hopes to replicate in Arizona, have been successful not only in giving these young people access to  traditional literature, but in allowing Dickens scholars another window through which to see  these works. Other young people at the conference included two community college essay contest winners, both from Santa Rosa Junior College, Kate Graham and Amber Herman. 

The conference offered attendees ideas and knowledge that they can take back to their classrooms and their lives. Added to the literary analysis this year was a firm grounding in  framing discussions about African American literature as an addition to 19th-century studies and  in how to go about drawing comparisons and contrasts with traditionally taught literature. The titles of some of the lectures are telling: “Blood and Choice: Rethinking the Marriage Plot through Iola Leroy,” by Helena Michie; “Research, Writing, and Pedagogy in the Remaking of  Victorian Studies,” presented by a four-person panel; and “White Mediocrity and Genre,” by Brigitte Fielder all offered insights into the future of teaching literature, and in the choices that  schools and instructors need to make to ensure that they are providing the broadest access to and understanding of literature to the greatest number of students.  

This conference has been called “Dickens Camp,” a combination conference and celebration, and a festival, and it has even been confused by some with the yearly San Francisco Great Dickens Christmas Fair put on by the same people who put on the long-running Renaissance Faire. The events that add a festival-like quality to the week included the Victorian Teas, offered Monday  through Thursday; the Post-Prandial Potations, which offer beer, wine, soft drinks, and  conversation before evening lectures; the Thursday evening Grand Party; the Friday evening Victorian Dance; to which many attendees arrive dressed in Victorian finery (how do they get it  all into their luggage?); and the annual Friends of the Dickens Project Auction. This year, the Auction drew more than $12,000 in bids for Dickens-based memorabilia, merchandise, and books. With matching donations, this total shot to $27,000. Other donations and matching  donations during the week meant a total of $53,000 collected. UCSC happened to be running a  Friends group contest that week, seeing which of the campus fund-raising groups could raise the  most money. The Friends of the Dickens Project won hands down. 

Next year’s novel will be A Tale of Two Cities. Dates for 2023 have not yet been announced, but the conference is usually held the last week of July, and registration usually opens in January. For more information about the Dickens Universe or about the Friends of the Dickens Project, go to