The 42nd Annual Dickens Universe: A Review

September 14, 2023

By Beth Penney 

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Even after reading A Tale of Two Cities countless times since high school, including several times in our Fellowship and at the Dickens Universe, this writer has to say that after attending the Universe at UC Santa Cruz from July 23-29 this summer, she feels that she finally understands this novel fully.

Another realization that took place this summer, while attending the week-long Universe after retiring from teaching English at Monterey Peninsula College for 33 years, was that your correspondent no longer has the energy or the motivation to compose a full-blown review of the week. So, rather than attempt to provide such a review this year, a more informal narrative of impressions of, and thoughts about, the Universe follows.

Such a narrative actually starts on July 1 of this year, when longtime friend and Universe supporter and attendee Trude Hoffacker passed away unexpectedly at 86. Trude was a fellow member of the Friends of the Dickens Project Board of Directors, and she had been present, hale, and hearty at a Zoom meeting of that board just two weeks before her death.

Attending the Universe without Trude was a singular experience; she was the only non-faculty person who had attended every single conference. Of course there are many other longtime friends who no longer attend, some of them due to distance and health and others due to other commitments. But losing Trude was like coming to the end of an era. Her nieces, Laura Berggren and Becky Stuchbery, from Colorado and Australia, respectively, were in attendance the first evening to listen to the accolades about Trude’s dedication to, and work for, the Dickens Project, and to hear the first evening’s lecture. The applause that followed the announcement that the week would be dedicated to Trude drew lengthy sustained applause.

That evening’s lecture set the stage for the week’s theme, which followed last year’s pattern of looking at Dickens’s work through a lens of 21st century issues and reminding us that many of these issues were, in fact, present in Dickens’s time. Catherine Robson of New York University, in her lecture “A Tale of Two Cities and Britain’s Island Fantasy,” reminded us that England, isn’t technically an “island”; it’s part of Great Britain, and the passages back and forth between England and France in the novel underscore this. But so, too, does the unmentioned increase in migrants and refugees coming to England at the time Dickens wrote this novel. Robson also found the Chapter 4 meeting of the adult Lucy and Mr. Lorry rife with suggestions of England’s dependency on products provided by enslaved people--Lorry sees Lucy in a pier glass “on the frame of which, a hospital procession of negro cupids, several headless and all cripples, were offering black baskets of Dead Sea fruit to black divinities of the feminine gender.” This mirror and its accompanying heavy mahogany furniture invoke the commerce among England, Europe, and the Caribbean, and “This path imposed massive harms--on people and their descendants,” Robson said.

Amy King of St. John’s University also explored this idea in her Monday evening lecture, adding the rum and sugar used in Sydney Carton’s drinking preparations. Her lecture, titled “A Tale of Two Islands? The Specter of Black Rebellion in A Tale of Two Cities,” gave shape to this “specter,” starting with a mention of Dickens’s “Nurse’s Stories” published in The Uncommercial Traveller nine months after A Tale. In these stories, two types of islands appear, she said, Crusoe-type islands in addition to frightening islands, as in “Chips and the Devil,” which provide a subtext for A Tale. Is she reading too much into small references in the text? “One must focus on what is unsaid and occluded,” King said. “London is shaped by colonial context, no matter how well the text occludes that fact.”

While this “colonial context” adds another dimension to Dickens’s writing, two other lectures, Renee Fox of UC Santa Cruz speaking on “Revolutionary Genres” and Catherine Gallagher of UC Berkeley speaking on “Historical Vengeance in A Tale of Two Cities,” were the most valuable in sorting out the novel itself. Both of these speakers talked about what else was going on in the world, both at the time the novel was written and before, opening people’s eyes to the sheer amount of revolutionary activity and its effect on England, and on Dickens. Fox talked specifically about Ireland, its revolutions, and its gothic literature, pointing out stories that sounded hauntingly familiar, including “The Croppy,” which contains a character named “Nanny the Knitter,” a “dark, mysterious, and vengeful woman.” And Gallagher treated the history of revolution, both in acts of redress and in acts of revenge. Revenge, she said, is a modern phenomenon. But “Two modes of redress have been present in this plot all along, but we don’t know it until Book III,” she pointed out, supporting her argument by presenting a timeline of the novel that started in 1762, when the Defarge family was menaced by the Evremondes.

There were numerous other lectures, some virtual--Nathalie Vanfasse spoke to us from Aix-Marseille Université on the translation of the novel, and Manu Samriti Chandler spoke to us from the Rutgers campus on Dickens’s universalism, arguing that the family is a miniature of the nation, and that while the middle-class nuclear family is a universalism, it’s also racialized, which speaks to English culture. In person, Andrew Miller of Johns Hopkins prefaced his talk, “Dickens’ Tones,” by saying that “the stuff we study” allows us to “go out throughout the world, and then come back,” after which he delivered an excellent traditional lecture on the tone in A Tale. “I find in Dickens a tone of real music,” he said. Yet even Miller admitted that he had planned to write about the novel in relation to today’s U.S. politics: the return of the cholera pandemic, the media (in A Tale, “media” other than paper), the courts, the banks and wealthy classes, “weaponized patriotism,” and mobs attacking institutions.

The week was punctuated by the traditional niceties that make this conference not just an academic one, but one that is open to all--daily afternoon teas, afternoon talks, the Thursday evening Grand Party, faculty-led workshops, graduate-student-led workshops, and this year, Madame Defarge’s Knitting Club, which met in the afternoons under the trees in the Stevenson College Plaza. Sandy Bieler of the Friends of the Dickens Project offered knitting lessons on needles printed with the Friends logo.

The Thursday evening farce, which precedes the Grand Party, has become a staple, started by John Glavin of Georgetown University and ably continued by Adam Abraham of Cornell College. This year, the farce was titled, “Tea for Two Cities: A Dickensian Travesty,” and as always, the production was fantastic--put together with people who had met each other only that week and had rehearsed for a couple of hours on four afternoons, using props that had to have been found in what people brought with them for a week-long academic conference. Eden Bart, a graduate student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was an unforgettable dancing, singing Madame Defarge, outshining all of the one-liners (“Oh, I just love the Evremonde Brothers”; “What a lovely pier glass”).

The 180 people in attendance ended the week on a high note, with the Victorian Dance, led by dance instructor Annie Laskey, and the week’s live auction, which brought more than $12,000. With a matching amount and the receipts from the silent auctions throughout the week, auctioneer Tim Clark of the Southern California Fellowship realized a total of $23,788, by far a new high. Director John Jordan made a plea to Thursday evening’s audience, citing the struggle to come back from the COVID years, the erosion of the Dickens Project’s consortium membership, the growth of STEM programs, and other reasons the Dickens Project’s funding is in need of support. We hope his entreaty will “go out throughout the world, and then come back.” Trude Hoffacker would definitely approve.