Barbara Franchi Report on Dickens Universe, 2-9 August 2014, University of California, Santa Cruz

Barbara Franchi is a PhD candidate and Assistant Lecturer at the School of English, University of Kent. Her doctoral project examines the tension between the material and the ideal in A. S. Byatt’s fiction, through the lens of intertextuality. Her research interests include Victorian and Neo-Victorian fiction, fairy tales and children’s literature, gender and queer studies, and contemporary British fiction. You can contact her via email at She tweets from @barbara_franchi and her blog can be found at

High Tea at Dickens Universe

Who would not enjoy a week on a lovely Californian campus, whilst sipping Earl Grey from 19th century cups, engaging in discussions on Dickens and meeting fellow-Victorianists from all over the world? As the University of Kent is a Dickens Project consortium member, the School of English sends a postgraduate representative every year. I was the lucky student who was selected for 2014, and my time in Santa Cruz proved very rewarding, informative, and fun, indeed.

This year’s Universe focused on Our Mutual Friend, Dickens’s last completed novel, which was published in installments between 1864 and 1865: as I enjoyed it very much, I was excited and curious to see how a week dedicated to this one book would be. After the long flight, spent mainly reading the secondary material recommended to Universe participants, I found myself in the beautiful setting of the Northern Californian landscape, with its great views on the ocean, lively beaches and luscious vegetation. The Santa Cruz campus is quite big: it can take up to an hour to walk across it on foot, and the buildings are all scattered around in the redwoods.

The Dickens Universe started on Saturday the 2nd with a welcome dinner for faculty and grad students on the patio of Porter College, where we enjoyed a wonderful view on the Monterey Bay, and the first of many Dickens-themed post-dinner parties. With the arrival of the non-academic participants, on Sunday the 3rd the Universe was officially opened with the first evening lecture, delivered by George Levine (Rutgers University). The following five days were a wonderful, though dense combination of morning and evening lectures, seminars on the novel and graduate students’ “jobs”: I attended a series of seminars on publication, moderated by Carolyn Williams (Rutgers University), where we got to discuss how to think of our writing as a work-in-progress for publication, how the selection and peer-review processes work and the important issue of “fitting” with one or another journal. Rae Greiner (University of Indiana), the editor of Victorian Studies, and Jonathan Grossman (UCLA), the editor of Nineteenth-Century Literature, also joined us for what was for me the most informative session of the series.

Finally, I also attended a professionalization session on the job market, led by Marlene Tromp (Arizona State University) and Ian Crawford (University of Delaware): the comparison we drew between American and British systems was productive, and the overall discussion made the whole topic of ‘life after the PhD’ sounds less daunting.

Other highlights were the less formal moments of the Universe: the Victorian teas, the cake party, the daily Post Prandial Potations (the renowned PPPs!) and the numerous other social events were excellent opportunities to meet new people, make new friends, and create new, fruitful connections. I enjoyed the discussions on the novel and other 19th-century authors with colleagues from the UK, the US, Australasia and Israel, and it was wonderful to see again people I had met at previous conferences. The networking opportunities of Dickens Universe are proving fruitful indeed, as projects for future conferences and panels with other Universe participants are already in progress!

One Social: Dancing

Also, with a group of other students we put in a bid for a series of 6 Dickens novels in a 1900 edition. And what a pleasant surprise it was, on the night of the auction, to hear our group name, Jenny Wren’s Dolls, called out to pick up the books! I could not have hoped for a better souvenir of the Universe than a beautifully turn of the century copy of Dombey and Son!

Meeting fellow Dickens enthusiasts

The overall impression I got from the Universe is that it is very different from anything I had experienced before: it is not a traditional conference, as it is residential, and it provided a good mix of academics, students and genuine Dickens fans. It has the flair of a special summer camp, with the bunk beds and the canteen food that the Santa Cruz colleges offered us, but it is also like a big book club, where Dickens’ characters were discussed all day and by everyone, as if they were alive and present in Santa Cruz with us. We all discussed on who was our favourite character: Jenny Wren came first, followed immediately by Eugene Wrayburn, although Helena Michie (Rice University) devoted an entire lecture to her love for Twemlow!

On Friday the 8th Dickens Universe came to its close – with the announcement, made by director John Jordan, that the 2015 edition will be dedicated to two Dickens books instead of one: Martin Chuzzlewit and American Notes. I look forward to reading these two novels, as I am eager to broaden my newly-discovered research interest for Dickens, and also in the hope that I will be able to follow next year’s Universe from home. As a non-Dickensian, I found the experience extremely interesting and productive, entertaining, and I was only pleased to rediscover so many crossings and resonances between Dickens and other novelists, both of the Nineteenth and the Twentieth century. The Dickens Universe is a precious opportunity for literary scholars of all stages to learn from one another and to share one’s passion for books with other readers. Its relaxed atmosphere and its special setting make it a real literary treat, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the 19th century and with a love for fiction.

Tweets for the conference can be found at: #DickensUniverse

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