Charlotte Mathieson (University of Warwick)
Throughout 2012, the University of Warwick joined many institutions and organisations around the world in marking the bicentenary of Charles Dickens. Celebrating Dickens brought together researchers and students from the University to celebrate Dickens’s life and times, contributing audio and video podcasts, blogs, discussion points, a feature-length documentary and an interactive map, all of which was made available as a mobile App. The project was marked by the diverse range of content: literary scholars talked about their research into particular texts, historians, lawyers and health researchers gave insights into wider contexts of the Victorian era, students discussed their perspectives on novels they’d studied, practitioners spoke about adapting Dickens for stage and screen, and a number of contributors presented readings of extracts from the novels.
As an early career researcher, this was an exciting opportunity to present my research on Charles Dickens to a wider audience. My PhD research into journeys in the Victorian novel included a number of Dickens’s novels, and I adapted some of my work on Little Dorrit and Bleak House into two audio podcasts that explored these texts in the context of nineteenth-century travel practices. Although widely studied, these novels aren’t as well read among general audiences as some of Dickens’s other works, but recent TV adaptations had sparked more interest in these novels (Bleak House, 2005, and Little Dorrit, 2008, were both directed by Andrew Davies for the BBC, and Davies spoke about Dickens on Screen for Celebrating Dickens), so this was a good opportunity to build on this interest and situate the novels in a context that was less prominent in the TV adaptations. In turn, this also generated a spin-off podcast about “The Victorian Novels that TV forgot” for Warwick’s Knowledge Centre about the value and pitfalls of the TV canon.
One of the most exciting aspects of Celebrating Dickens was the opportunities that it opened up for new perspectives on Dickens via other cultural events throughout the year. A few miles down the road from the University of Warwick, Stratford-upon-Avon was celebrating the World Shakespeare Festival and in honour of Shakespeare’s birthday, Warwick joined forces with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust to make a short film about Dickens’s involvement with the Shakespeare birthplace. Dickens was instrumental in helping to raise funds to save the birthplace when it was put on sale in 1847, and writes about his visits to Stratford-upon-Avon and the surrounding local area in Nicholas Nickleby and Dombey and Son; the influence of Shakespeare is also apparent throughout many of Dickens’s novels, and of course he was also a great fan of theatricals and performing in general. The film was recorded at the Shakespeare Birthplace with the Rev. Dr Paul Edmondson and Professor Stanley Wells of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and we were fortunate to have access to Dickens artefacts from the Birthplace’s archives, including the visitor book signed by Dickens, correspondence about the sale, and playbills from the fund-raising performances. As well as providing a special opportunity to showcase this unique material and bring to light some of the lesser-known history of this well-known heritage site, the film played a valuable role in bringing the bicentenary celebrations into the local area, encouraging us to think beyond the London locations with which we more readily associate Dickens and giving local people a point of connection with the bicentenary.
Helping to stimulate local interest in the Dickens bicentenary was an important part of the Celebrating Dickens project, and in addition to the Stratford interest – What the Dickens would have become of the birthplace? asked the Stratford Observer – two radio appearances provided the opportunity to reflect on Dickens’s connections to Coventry and Warwickshire. On the morning of Dickens’s birthday, BBC Coventry and Warwickshire ran a piece about the bicentenary focusing on Dickens’s visit to Coventry in the 1860s, and I spoke on the show about this and Dickens’s Warwickshire visits, which included Warwick Castle, Kenilworth and Leamington Spa, with its famous pump rooms, all detailed in Dombey and Son. A month later, news that the mobile app had reached 10,000 downloads in its first month of release provided a further opportunity to speak about Dickens on BBC West Midlands. Each time, being asked to speak about why Dickens was a popular and important writer and why listeners should be interested in the bicentenary proved a useful exercise in reflecting on some of the bigger questions of Dickens 2012, and to think about the wider narratives that were being constructed through the public engagement activities taking place.
Celebrating Dickens provided an interesting and diverse set of perspectives on Dickens’s life and times, and I really enjoyed the way in which it got the University community and wider public talking about Dickens in new ways. The legacy of the project continues as a lasting resource on the website and app and, somewhat unexpectedly, the project has had a lasting impact on my research by opening up fruitful new directions for exploration. I now find myself co-authoring an article for a Shakespeare collection about the parallel representations of Dickens and Shakespeare in 2012, and the ideas about place, nation and canonicity touched upon in the Shakespeare-Dickens film and accompanying blog posts have developed my interest into literary tourism and neo-Victorian mobilities which I’m now starting to build into a new postdoctoral project. If there’s one thing that I’ve taken from this project it’s that public engagement is a reciprocal process, not just the product of research but also an opportunity to open up new perspectives on, and modes of understanding, the Victorians. I also hope that Dickens 2012 has opened up new ways of thinking about contemporary cultural engagement with the Victorian past, and that the legacy of Dickens 2012 will live on in future celebrations of other Victorian figures.
Charlotte Mathieson is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Study, University of Warwick. She researchers the mid-nineteenth century novel, with an interest in mobility, place and nation. She blogs on her website and tweets @cemathieson