This particular web: a week with George Eliot at Dickens Universe 2017

I at least have so much to do in unravelling certain human lots, and seeing how they were woven and interwoven, that all the light I can command must be concentrated on this particular web, and not dispersed over that tempting range of relevancies called the universe. (2.15.1)

In an academic world where we are accustomed to reading multiple works in tandem, where we have to juggle disparate eras, genres, and styles, the opportunity to spend an entire week alone with a single novel is as rare as it is rewarding. This year, for the first time in 36 years, the organisers of Dickens Universe chose to illuminate a single work outside of Dickens’ oeuvre. The spotlight was torn from Charles Dickens and refocused onto his contemporary, George Eliot: zooming in on her meticulous study of provincial life, the once infamous Middlemarch. The chosen text provided us with a sample frame teeming with microscopic particulars and idiosyncratic details –  revealing a work that through its focused myopia became known for its expansive influence.



The keynote papers each morning provided us with a centre of illumination with which to interpret Middlemarch: our thoughts and discussions arranging themselves, like the scratches of Eliot’s pier glass, in a series of concentric circles around each speaker’s provocative thesis. The cumulative effect of this was that each of us emerged at the conference’s close with a Venn diagram of overlapping interpretations of the novel that orbited around a constellation of different arguments.

My own thoughts centred around the concept of Middlemarch as text that, as Ruth Livesey put it, ‘flickers between particularity and universalism.’ Alongside Ruth’s talk on the middleness of Middlemarch, Summer Star’s examination of the significance of multitasking in Middlemarch as well as Helen Michie’s paper detailing the value of mid-page lexical forays helped me to foster new ways of thinking about my own work. Helen Michie’s paper, alighting on words such as ‘pilulous’ and ‘privacies,’ demonstrated how to refocus a text through the prism of a single word. – A methodology that yields surprisingly nuanced results and which, I hope, will inform my own research practice.

[Courtesy of Marissa Bolin – whose Deer watching skills surpass mine]

As Eliot Universe progressed it began to feel as though we had developed our own Middlemarch-esque microcosm, within the web-like redwood forest of Santa Cruz. As cohorts dining and dorming together we embraced a curious pseudo-provinciality. We adopted the same preoccupations: from how to pronounce various character’s names, to the oft heard question – is George Eliot funny (yes!). We shared a sense of collective disorientation, (‘are you lost too?’), and embarked on countless mutual quests (whether to find the Wi-Fi signal, bus stop, or a way to get into the cafeteria early.) Daily afternoon teas, ‘Post-Prandial Potations’, and graduate parties soon resembled Middlemarch’s whispering gallery, so a-buzz was the Eliot Universe hive-mind. Each of these informal events afforded us with the opportunity for countless fruitful discussions, as well as a healthy dose of gossip.  Whilst the various workshops encouraged us to pool our collective tips, resources and teaching horror stories.

At times, Dickens Universe feels rather like an exercise in placing academia under the microscope. The occupation can be observed in all its sprawling intensity – as the week progresses, and stories of past and present ‘universes’ are shared between meals, there is a sense that any barriers between the professor and the student have been broken down. It is hard to articulate the nature with which Dickens Universe manages to dispel the hierarchal nature of academia – where other conferences have not. So, I will do as Eliot might, and provide a small anecdote, from which the whole can be expanded. – A quote from renowned Victorianist George Levine, spoken on the last day of Eliot Universe – ‘If you want to get the Ladislaw backstory straight, I recommend Schmoop.”

If you find yourself, much like Eliot’s Lydgate, struggling to escape the hampering threadlike pressure of small social conditions, less the Universe swallow you whole. Then it is important to remember that it is quite impossible to do everything, and take some time to yourself and enjoy Santa Cruz. I myself did as Eliot would and ran away to explore the wonders of the shore at the aquarium – enjoying the opportunity to hold a starfish, stroke a sea anemone, and let time dilate within an undulating jellyfish’s watery whirl.


Dickens Universe, at its core, encourages us to emerge from the Californian redwoods and see the world beyond our own institutions, allowing us to learn from students and staff across the globe. So that we begin to perceive the larger web of scholarship, our own place in it, and how incalculably diffusive it has the potential to be.


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