20th January 2012

I’ve just finished escorting twelve students from Saarland University and their professor, Dr. Bruno von Lutz, through the Charles Dickens Museum. The University was founded after WW2 by the French government and the University of Nancy. It now offers internationally acclaimed programs in Infomatics, nanotechnology, and biosciences, a bilingual French-German language base, and a unique certificate in European studies. The University has reached out to other higher education institutions around the world at which its students might take classes. For a few years Rice and Saarland exchanged faculty. Dr. von Lutz found out I was here and arranged this visit to the CDM so that we could renew our friendship and possibly arrange further exchanges between Saarland and the UK and the US. Another group of students will be coming over this summer to visit the Birthplace Museum at Portsmouth.

The students seems particularly interested in knowing how Doughty Street functioned: what it was like to live there, to work as a servant or, like Fred Dickens, as a factotum for his brother. They seemed interested in the dinners and entertainments the Dickenses provided for their guests, and in the kinds of work it took to run such a home, with eventually three babies, four adults, a cook, “tweenies,” and a groom in the stables.  They had seen a clip from Downton Abbey and learned about what the servants had to do to get the household up in the morning: rising before sunup, cleaning the fireplaces and restocking the coal, heating up the boiler and the stove, emptying the chamber pots, and so forth—tasks unimaginable today, and involving an intimacy between family and servants that would be difficult to sustain on both sides. They are taking a course on the construction of history (how does it get made, what is the relation between lived experience and the subsequent record, and so forth).  This week in London comes at the end of the course, but it is packed: they came from Lancaster Gate to Doughty Street by 10.00 a.m. this morning, then went off to the British Museum for the afternoon, and were to attend a lecture this evening.  Tomorrow, all day at the V&A.  And to keep fit, they all, including Dr. von Lutz, climbed the 178 stairs of the Russell Square Tube Station.

Next term (beginning in a few weeks) every member of the English faculty will teach a course on Dickens! Whatever the faculty member’s special fields of interest, somehow Dickens will be connected. And as a part of that observance of Dickens 2012, the University will bestow an honorary degree upon a very distinguished Dickensian, Professor Emeritus Edgar Rosenberg of Cornell University.  Dr. Rosenberg escaped from Germany before the war, and had a most illustrious career teaching comparative literature and Dickens. His Norton Critical Edition of Great Expectations is superbly informative on every aspect of the novel’s composition, reception, and subsequent interpretation. He came back to Germany a few years, and was so impressed with what he learned that he reclaimed his German citizenship. He will be another link in the long chain of reparations, one of them forged by Dickens with his portrayal of Riah in Our Mutual Friend, for the treatment of Jews in centuries past, and the synagogues in Saarland will play a key role in celebrating this event.

This is yet another of the unexpected ways in which Dickens continues to affect our lives and bring peoples of the world together.


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