My Dickens Confession
As a BYU English graduate, I had the opportunity last week to speak to a group of English majors. I always love speaking opportunities like that; it's quite different than discussing dialog or plotting at a writing conference. (It's also a bit weird to look out at the class, feeling like I just graduated, and realize that most of those in the audience are half my age. Ahem.)
In the intro that Brother Spotts, the academic advisor, gave for me, he mentioned that my senior course (a semester-long required class where you focus on one author) was on Charles Dickens. I was impressed; he had to research that one out.
I had a great time speaking to the class, and afterward, I had the urge to pull some Dickens off the shelf.
I absolutely loved my Dickens course. We didn't read the typical Great Expectations and such that most of us were already familiar with. Instead we read books like Our Mutual Friend and Bleak House. Our professor led fascinating classroom discussions that challenged me, revealed layered themes Dickens used again and again, and helped me think in new ways. In fact, some of the "tests" she gave were nothing but small groups discussing the reading with her listening in.
(Talking and giving my opinion? Now that's my kind of test.)
The same semester, I also took a general Victorian literature class. (I tended to gravitate toward literature written between the Romantic and Victorian eras any chance I got.)
I was also expecting my first child and therefore heinously exhausted. All. The. Time. I could fall asleep at the drop of a hat.
That semester, I also had more reading to do than any other, often 1,000+ pages a week (of small, itty bitty text). And I'm a slow reader.
More than once, I opened a novel to read my assignment, only to find myself waking up two hours later.
To get my reading in, I resorted to pacing our little apartment and reading aloud. I made slower progress that way, but hey, at least I didn't fall asleep.
Side note: My son turned out to be a natural, reading at age three and decoding at a fourth-grade level when in kindergarten (as the youngest in his class, no less). I've always wondered if hearing classic literature in utero helped his brain form extra connections or something.
Meanwhile, for my Victorian Lit class, we were to pick any book written during that era and write a 2-page paper on it. Very simple, right? Except that I simply had no time to read one more book. I almost cried when I heard the assignment. How could I possibly squeeze in anything else?
And then it dawned on me: I'd just finished Bleak House for my Dickens class, and hello, it's a Victorian novel. It's also something like a thousand pages long, has dozens of characters, and is one of Dickens's darker works. Not nearly as easy to read as Oliver Twist.
So I killed two birds with one stone by using the novel I'd just read for my senior course and writing about it for my 2-page Victorian Lit paper.
The class period after we turned our papers in, our professor wrote the titles of the novels we'd chosen and did hash marks for how many students picked each book. Most of the books had several hash marks next to them. But he paused significantly before writing one title (Bleak House) and turned to the class, eyes wide.
"Can you believe it? One student read Bleak House for this assignment. Bleak House!"
I sat there feeling a bit sheepish. He didn't identify me as the student who'd chosen it.
And I didn't dare admit why I'd written the paper on that book . . . especially since I'm pretty sure his admiration was the reason he gave me an A on it.