Charlotte Wadoux on the 38th Dickens Universe conference

Over the Pond

The Dickens Universe is quite unique in its style: a week-long conference that feels both like a summer camp and book club, regrouping Victorian aficionados from all over the world. For my part, it was my first time in the United States and I could not have wished for a better place to discover the country! My arrival on campus after an eleven-hour-long flight was quite magical (not only because of the jetlag): deers and wild turkeys welcomed me in the midst of the redwoods where the campus of UC Santa Cruz is located, overlooking the ocean. The arrival would not have been complete with a wonderful welcome dinner and the friendly words of Porf. John Jordan, “Master of the Universe”, warning us to pace ourselves in order to survive the week. This was a wise advice indeed, the Universe offering so many activities it is simply (and regretfully) impossible to attend each one of them.

“Sun and Shadow”

One element that struck me as I woke up on Sunday morning was to discover the campus shrouded by a most thick and Stephen King-like mist: you’d never imagine it’d be sunny two hours later! But the mist certainly did not stop our activities. We started with a general brainstorming on the novel around which this 38th Dickens Universe revolved: Little Dorrit. The Universe was officially launched and ideas came forth from graduates and faculty members alike. After a lovely stroll on campus, alternating between the sunny footpaths with a view on the ocean and the cool shade of the redwood trees, it was time for the first evening lecture: “Liquid Dorrit”, an exploration of the symbolism of liquidity  as well as the importance of cholera as a subtext for the novel. The week was punctuated by regular lectures, taking place in the morning, afternoon and evening. Their themes ranged from queer theory to counterfactuals and disability studies.

“The Pupil of the Marshalsea”

Monday started our daily routine of activities, and I was eager to start the faculty-led graduate seminar as well as the pedagogy workshop. The faculty-led seminars were for me the best part of the Universe: it was a great occasion to share ideas and comments on the novel with other graduates under the kind guidance of two faculty members. Throughout the week, our seminar made quite unexpected discoveries about the illustrations of the novel while discussing such issues as gender, animal abuse or the representation of the body.

One of the most interesting aspect of the Universe also is the possibility for graduates to attend a professionalisation workshop which we have to choose when registering (the activities offered are: pedagogy, co-teaching, publication, writing). I had the pleasure to meet Dr Michael Shaw, representing Kent’s faculty, who also convened the pedagogy workshop I attended. This workshop was the occasion to both discuss the challenges of teaching nineteenth-century fiction as well as to learn how to set up an Undergraduate Research assignment. This workshop was most fruitful and enabled me to reflect on my own methods when teaching.


My mornings being quite free before 10 am, I chose not to be idle and to attend one of the graduate-led seminars (an activity you’d have to do if signing in for the co-teaching workshop). This seminar is open to members of the general public, Road Scholars (older adults on educational trip), undergrads and pupils from local high schools. It was wonderful to be in the midst of such a crowd and see that we were all having something to share about the novel. The profusion of ideas emerging from this group was much revigorating: people from all horizons are still interested in and have something to say about literature!

This year Universe introduced a new project led by both prof John Bowen and Douglas Dodd (Victoria and Albert Museum) entitled “Deciphering Dickens”. The project is concerned with the transcription of Dickens’s manuscript of Little Dorrit and taking part in this project enabled me to discover a new aspect of Dickensian research: transcription. It is quite thrilling to have Dickens’s manuscript in your hands (well, on my tablet) and try to decipher his handwriting, the words behind the scribbles and, thereby, to try and trace the workings of his mind. The project is still open and will remain so for a year. It is accessible at .

“Fellow Travellers”

Wednesday. Half of our journey in Little Dorrit’s world is over and the pace of the Universe slows down a bit: today no faculty-led seminar for me but an excursion to the university’s farm. It feels like a school trip, listening to our guide who explains to us the way in which the farm promotes sustainable and organic agriculture.

The day ends on the traditional night out with the faculty members. “The UK contingent” repaired in a venue straight out of an Anne Rice novel. The city of Santa Cruz itself felt like walking into Lalaland, with its painted houses and shops and garlands of lightbulbs!

“Everybody’s Fault: a Dickensian Travesty”

One very lovely daily activity I haven’t mentioned so far is the Victorian Tea, starting at 3pm, complete with hot or iced fizzy tea, homemade biscuits and flowery tablecloths! It partakes of those many opportunities we have of networking, along with the meals we have together at the dining hall, the “Post Prandial Potations” (PPP) just before the evening lecture or the graduate parties in the common room.

But Thursday is above all about the farce and the Grand Party: a mix of great laughter, an incredible amount of cheeses and wine (as a French person I was quite delighted) and cakes!

“Little Dorrit’s Party”

The last day brings an end to daily activities and it was for me the occasion to enjoy a bit of free time going after (and finding) the legendary “banana slugs”, spending a wonderful time with my new American friends at the beach.

In the evening, prof Jordan announced next year’s novel: Barnaby Rudge before leaving the stage for the Dickens Project Fundraising Auction. The apex of the evening (and of the festival) was the Victorian Dance which was great fun (though quite exhaustive): a joyful communion before returning to the real world.

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