An Interview with Professor Talia Schaffer

March 30, 2022

By Frances Laskey 



When Talia Schaffer came to give a lecture at the 2014 Dickens Universe, she was looking forward to giving a talk on her favorite Dickens novel, Our Mutual Friend, but could not possibly foresee what would follow.

In 2014, Talia was finalizing the manuscript for her book Romance’s Rival: Familiar Marriage in Victorian Fiction (2016, Oxford University Press). For that book she had been doing some research into communities of care and how they might affect our reading of the marriage plot. For her Universe talk, she decided to apply this research and reading to Our Mutual Friend, specifically Lizzie Hexam’s marriage to the thought-to-be-dying Eugene Wrayburn. In a recent conversation, Talia said she thought this would be a “one-off” talk, and that she had said all she felt she needed to say about communities of care in Romance’s Rival

The reception to her talk stunned her and changed her mind. She said she thought the talk had flopped as a deep silence descended when she finished. Then there was an explosion of applause, and throughout the rest of the Universe she had people coming up to her to say how much they had loved the talk and wanting to know more. Well, she thought, maybe there is more to say—a need to meet.

“A need to meet.” These words encapsulate a lot of what went into and comes out of her most recent book, Communities of Care: The Social Ethics of Victorian Fiction (2021, Princeton University Press). She immersed herself in researching the ethics of care, including spending a year as a Rockefeller Fellow at the University Center for Human Values at Princeton. She told me that her experience there was an exhilarating challenge as she was doing a deep dive into pure philosophy, a discipline that she assured me is very different in language—at a basic level words mean different things—and approach from literary theory and criticism. However, she felt it was important to introduce the field to her readers at a depth that would allow sophisticated analysis.

Talia calls the book a hybrid. A hybrid of literary criticism and a sort of manifesto; a hybrid of scholarly and popular writing. Her final chapter, which she fought to have included, considers how an ethics of care might look in academia, and even how it can inform our daily lives both professionally and personally. The central “mantra” of the book, which Talia says she has found herself increasingly living by, is that care is action rather than feeling, and that the focus of care must be “meeting the needs of the other,” and thinking deeply about what that need is, especially if it runs counter to what we want to do for someone.

In addition to writing a book she hadn’t expected to write and learning a philosophy that has impacted her in many ways, Talia couldn’t have imagined back in 2014 that she would be completing this book in a growing global pandemic when questions of care, community, and communities of care would become urgent and would be talked about in the news and on the street. It added urgency to her work that is not often felt in literary criticism.

As a last word for our Dickens Universe community, Talia said that Dickens is certainly the “master of the care community,” and suggested that as we read his novels we look for the communities that develop around caregiving—both successful and unsuccessful—considering care as action rather than feeling, and considering how the successful carers intuit and meet the needs of those they care for.