How the (Dickens) Universe Changed My Life

July 13, 2022

By Frances Laskey, Friends of the Dickens Project Board Member 

conference-2006.jpg“What made you move to Wisconsin?”

Since moving to Madison, WI from Northern California 12 years ago, I have had some version of this question dozens, if not hundreds, of times. Since my interlocutor usually starts from the position that I must have been crazy to leave the earthly paradise that is California, I feel that a slightly crazy-sounding response is fair:

“Dickens made me do it.”

To be more specific, it is the Dickens Universe that I have to thank for having unsettled my settled ways and set me on the path that resulted in leaving my native California, after almost 50 years, and moving to Madison. And here’s how it happened.

Those of you who have experienced the Universe—the before-times, in-person Universe—know without my telling you how amazing, intense, and all-engrossing it is. Those who haven’t, well, my powers of description can’t possibly do it justice. It is exhilerating, exhausting, and magic. My first Universe, in 2006 (Nicholas Nickleby), blew me away. It wasn’t just the beautiful setting, the intriguing lectures, or the community built by those thrice-daily treks from Kresge down to College 8 and back for meals. It was the intellectual atmosphere; it was spending a week with people who read—Dickens, certainly, but a wide range of other authors, periods, genres. An atmosphere of inquiry and a love of literature. I was hooked.

The next summer (Pickwick Papers) had the same effect. And as I was sitting in my office trying to concentrate on benefits spreadsheets during the difficult period of re-entry into the real world after “Dickens Camp,” I realized I wanted—needed!—something closer to that other life than the one that had been so satisfactory to me up to that point, working at a small business in Oakland as the HR and IT manager.

What to do? At first I had no thought of academia—didn’t see myself as a scholar or a teacher. But while I was revolving various ideas I decided one thing I could (I hoped) do was go back to school and get a Master’s degree. My BA (25 years earlier) had been in French, but I wanted to enhance my critical reading skills, with a vague idea of going into editing. 

I was fortunate enough to be accepted into the Mills College MA program. I loved being in school again, learning how to approach literature as a scholar rather than a casual reader. I also found that I loved teaching—a thing I never expected. With strong encouragement from my professors, I took the plunge: took the GREs and applied to PhD programs. I was accepted to the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and with the support and encouragement from a husband whom I was uprooting for a rather quixotic adventure, off we went to the Midwest, and here we’ll stay.

I didn’t complete the PhD for a variety of reasons, but I found a home in the UW Madison business school, teaching workplace communication. I found a vocation in teaching, and am able to bring my many years in the private sector into the classroom. I do, still, much to my students’ astonishment, occasionally find a way to insert Dickens into the discussion.

It took just five years from my first Universe to my arrival in Madison. Without the Universe, things would have rolled on as they had been. Therefore I can truly say that the Dickens Universe changed my life—and I am more than grateful to it!