The Dickens MA: A Student’s Experience

David Stockman successfully completed his MA in Charles Dickens Studies in 2017. His thesis ‘ Charles Dickens Hounds his publishers: Harassment and Intellectual Property 1835-1844’ examined Dickens increasingly stormy relationship with his publishers in his early career. Here he describes his experience of doing the MA in his own words.

I retired from being a lawyer at the age of 60. I had hated almost every day I had spent in my chosen profession, but a couple of years before the end I developed an unsophisticated interest in collecting the works of Charles Dickens and purchased, entirely through eBay, one or two early editions, always leather bound which I unadvisedly took to be the most desirable copies as they were easiest on the eye.

In a sense, this was an odd choice of author for me to make as, when in my youth I was studying for my A levels, Bleak House was one of my set books. I am ashamed, even at this distance, to admit that I found the title so repulsive that I never so much as opened it.

In my late 50s I remembered seeing, many years previously, a first edition of Pickwick Papers (minus its covers) sold for a fiver at an auction in Sussex and I vaguely thought I had been a bit of an idiot not to have bid for what I presumed was an object of value. By coincidence, at about the same time I read somewhere that somebody’s aunt had advised them against reading Pickwick as there was “too much drinking” in it. So I read it! By the time I actually retired I had read most of the novels, nothing of the rest, and had a modest collection of semi-invalid leather bound copies.

I decided that it would be a worthwhile use of my new leisure time to learn how to repair and rejuvenate my collection, so I enrolled on a bookbinding course at the London College of Printing. It was a very happy experience. At the end of the course I turned out to be a less than competent bookbinder despite the efforts of my charismatic instructor, but one supremely important truth was revealed to me by the course, and that is that, every day, bookbinders create things of lasting beauty and lawyers, for the most part, leave nothing tangible at the end of an entire career.

Dickens remained for me a writer whose books required an element of concentration at the outset, but which were closed with regret at the end. In short, I was becoming hooked. So I kept collecting books by and about Dickens and developed a half humorous relationship with the postman whereby, if my wife took delivery of the latest parcel, he would say, with extravagant pomposity, “I’m afraid it looks like another book, Mrs Stockman”, or if I took delivery, he would nod conspiratorially and say “Lucky it’s you, this feels like another book!”

I was by now a thorough-going Dickens buff and the days of my retirement were proving as blissfully happy as I could have wished, and then one day my wife drew my attention to an advertisement in the Spectator announcing that the University of Buckingham was planning to launch an M.A. course based around Dickens but not to be directly taught but to be by research. She suggested I might like to look into it. Don’t worry, I already had, but it was a delight to know from the outset that my wife thought it might suit me.

Well, it did suit me. I had met John Drew very briefly at a Dickens event at Lincoln’s Inn where my cousin was the invitee and I was just an adjunct, but I met him again at the University’s Bloomsbury premises to discuss the course and his cheerful enthusiasm convinced me that my rusty intellect could be sufficiently recommissioned to make having a go at the course worthwhile. I am so glad he did convince me. At last my Dickens interest became a resource, I met during the course some people who are charming and some who are eminent and many who are both. I was happier and more fulfilled than I had ever been before.

John Drew and Pete Orford drew out of me the scope of my studies and the shape and form of my written work. What a good and happy phrase is ‘By Research’ – it is true education – educo meaning ‘I draw out’ – not a putting in. They teach you to teach yourself and then they show you what use you can make of what you have learnt. And, dammit, they are years younger than me.

The University of Buckingham has library facilities in Buckingham and Bloomsbury premises where students may come and go as they please. They can also use the Dickens House Museum thanks to the relationship between the University and the Dickens Fellowship. The talks by outside experts take place at one or other of the last two venues, and whilst obviously the erudition of the speakers is impressive, the fact that they speak on Dickens Studies generally and not on a student’s personal project serves to make one feel part of a wider interest. You can have dinner afterwards so that, although you don’t live with your fellow students, you get to know them.

As I had the leisure and the support of my wife, I was able to telescope the course from two years to one and, by dint of this unfair advantage, I became the first graduate of the course, but I came out of it with an essay and a dissertation that I had worked hard but willingly to produce and I’m glad to say an enduring interest in Dickens. I still collect a bit, though I could actually have relied entirely on the University’s library. I still constantly read round the subject of Dickens and, unless I am much mistaken, I shall be doing so when I croak. My only regret is that I was a senior citizen when I reached my ‘Sketches by Boz’ phase – I wish I had met Michael Slater, John Drew, Pete Orford or someone like them when I was 20, then I wouldn’t have wasted all those years on the law. Instead, I would have been then what Buckingham has made me now – a Dickensian, and I bless them for it.

Published by Pete Orford

I'm course director of the MA in Charles Dickens Studies at the University of Buckingham in conjunction with the Dickens Museum in London. I am currently editing Pictures from Italy for the Oxford Dickens collection, and I'm Chief Investigator for The Drood Inquiry (www.droodinquiry.com). My book "The Mystery of Edwin Drood: Charles Dickens’s unfinished novel and our endless attempts to end it" was published by Pen and Sword Books in 2018.

3 thoughts on “The Dickens MA: A Student’s Experience

  1. It is interesting to see where we came across the course. I found it because I follow Judith Flanders on social media. She gave a brilliant seminar and very patiently signed all of my copies of her books.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. David was in the first cohort of our Dickens MA students, and like many of our students had a life-time enthusiasm for Dickens and wanted to know more. As you can see in the post, the seminars and opportunity to socialise with like-minded Dickensians was a real draw for David, allowing him to learn and discuss in a community of Dickens fans!

    Like

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