Researching reading: Behind Dickens Day 2015

This post was contributed by Dr Ben Winyard, digital publications officer at Birkbeck, University of London. Dr Winyard has been a co-organiser of Birkbeck’s Dickens Day event since 2005, and is one of the organisers behind the current Dickens reading project at the College

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens

Birkbeck is a world-renowned centre for Dickens studies and, over the past 40 years, it has nurtured, trained and housed some of the most luminary Dickensian scholars.

In 1986, the preeminent Dickens scholar Michael Slater, now Emeritus Professor, established Dickens Day, a one-day event at Birkbeck to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Dickens’s first novel, The Pickwick Papers (1836). Birkbeck contained no less than four distinguished Dickensians scholars at the time – Steven Connor, Barbara Hardy, Andrew Sanders and Michael Slater – so a day to celebrate and discuss all things Dickensian was a natural proposition.

The enduring format of the Day – scholars and aficionados speaking to a general and academic audience, rounded off with dramatised readings – was established from the outset and, following the first Day’s success, an Oliver Twist day followed in 1987 with proceeding events considering each of Dickens’s novels in chronological order. After we reached The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Dickens’s last, semi-completed novel), the format shifted to a thematic one and we have since considered themes as diverse as history, popular culture, conviviality, feeling, science and adaptations of Dickens’s work.

Now in its 29th year, Dickens Day continues to attract a uniquely mixed audience of high-profile academics, researchers, students at all levels of study, members of the Dickens Fellowship, and enthusiasts and fans. The Day, which is now jointly run by Birkbeck, the University of Cardiff and the Dickens Fellowship, is well known for its convivial, welcoming atmosphere; postgraduate students and early career academics, in particular, are warmly invited to submit paper proposals.

Dickens Day 2015 — Reading

This year’s event will look at reading and readers in Dickens’s work, a fruitful subject considering how often the act of reading, and its associated objects – books, newspapers, diaries, and all manner of printed material, from wills to adverts, playbills to tailors’ bills – occur in Dickens’s novels.

Reading is a powerful, transformative experience in Dickens – for good and bad. We might consider, for example, David Copperfield’s lonely devouring of the eighteenth-century epistolary and picaresque novels of Fielding, Smollett and Stern. David says of his childhood that ‘reading was my only and my constant comfort’, a source of emotional succour and nurturing in an emotional stultifying household, run with domineering cruelty by David’s loathsome stepfather Mr Murdstone.

For Oliver Twist, though, reading the Newgate Calendar, with its gothic, melodramatic and fantastically bloodthirsty tales of criminal violence, has disturbing physiological effects, with the pages turning red with gore and its words ringing in his ears.

There are more touching, tutelary scenes of reading, though, in Great Expectations, when Pip patiently teaches illiterate, gentle-hearted Joe to read. Other novels, such as Bleak House, are absolutely stuffed with paper and the paraphernalia of reading: think of the hoarder Krook, almost buried alive by the piles of scrap paper he obsessively collects (he isn’t killed by his tottering piles of paper, but instead spontaneously combusts); or the law-stationery shop of Mr Snagsby; or the endless bundles of papers relating to the interminable case of Jarndyce versus Jarndyce. More humorously, we might consider Mr Pickwick’s innocent request to his landlady, Mrs Bardell, for ‘Chops and Tomata sauce’ for dinner, which is deliberately misread as risqué and salacious during his trial for breach of promise to marry her.

Our Mutual Friend — Reading project

BookReading Dickens also had a profound effect on his readers and the theme for this year’s Dickens Day was chosen because it dovetails with a reading experiment at Birkbeck, which has been following Our Mutual Friend (1864–65) in its original monthly parts from April 2014 to November 2015.

Our Mutual Friend also contains fascinating scenes of reading: we might think of the bitter, mercenary Silas Wegg, posing as a man of letters and reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall aloud to the kind-hearted, illiterate Noddy Boffin, who wishes to improve himself after coming into fortunate possession of the lucrative dust heaps at the heart of the novel’s symbolic economy; or Bella Wilfer, newly married, perplexedly pouring over manuals of domestic management and cookery.

Each month, we read a digital scan of the original monthly part, while an accompanying WordPress blog features a guest post and acts as a virtual reading group for any readers to contribute to. All of Dickens’s novels were serialised and his readers encountered his work in a variety of formats. Our Mutual Friend was published in nineteen monthly parts of thirty-two pages, each costing one shilling, and featuring two illustrations by Marcus Stone and, astonishingly, over seventy pages of advertisements.

Multimedia Dickens

Dickens continued to innovate and experiment in what we might call multimedia publishing, issuing his novels within the pages of journals, in weekly and monthly parts, and in single volume form. As Dickens’s novels are increasing made available online in their original formats, digitalisation constitutes another multimedia mode of disseminating Dickens to a mass audience, to accompany the Victorian formats and the cinematic, televisual, and radio adaptations of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Dickens’s readers have always consumed his work in a variety of media formats, with new technologies of reproduction, circulation and broadcasting disseminating Dickens’s stories to new readers.

We also know that Dickens enjoyed, and worked hard to deepen and cultivate, a special, intense, and transformative relationship with his readers. Consider, for example, his famous public readings, which he partly undertook for financial reasons, but also to strengthen the close bond he felt with his readers.

For Dickens, fiction enacted the radical potential of imaginative work to create sympathy and build and strengthen the emotional and social bonds that bind together disparate peoples. Events such as Dickens Day, and projects such as the Our Mutual Friend reading experiment, testify to the continued ability of Dickens’s novels to bring people together and forge communities.

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