Apr 01

Student Realizations: Pedagogy, Performance, and Illustrated Fiction

In this post I describe an exercise that helps students connect words and illustrations. I used it this semester in my “Disney’s Victorians” course, and it has a historical frame that is particularly appropriate for teaching a Victorian novel (especially Dickens). But it might be useful if you’re teaching any text that combines words and images — especially one that usually privileges the words.

The idea is a simple one: students, in small groups, stage a reading of a scene that corresponds to an illustration. They choose an appropriate moment in the passage, and when they get to that moment they “realize” the illustration, posing as the characters are posed and holding the pose for 30 seconds or so.

As I explain below, the idea came from a workshop with John Glavin, who has really interesting ideas about performance as interpretation. What students get from this exercise depends a lot on how you set it up, and so below I discuss some backgrounds and practicalities before getting to the payoffs.

Background: Pedagogy and Performance

New Royal Theatre 1858

The New Royal Theatre in 1858. From Wikimedia Commons.

Last summer I participated in a National Endowment for the Humanities summer seminar, “Performing Dickens,” led by Sharon Weltman and joined by a series of distinguished visiting faculty. Tracy Davis and Carolyn Williams shared their research on melodrama and some historical contexts for Victorian theatrical adaptations. When Jacky Bratton and Gilli Bush-Bailey visited, we staged a reading of a short scene from Dickens’s The Battle of Life. We tried it several different ways, and the experience helped put into practice some of the theoretical ideas Davis and Williams had introduced.

That focus on staging and embodied performance continued with John Glavin’s visit, which totally changed things for me. Glavin is interested in performance and adaptation as pedagogical and interpretive tools, as he discusses in After Dickens. During his visit, after a series of theatrical warm-ups and voice and body exercises, we engaged in the kind of performance he envisions. We each chose a minor character from Great Expectations, and then came up with different ways of “staging” the scene of Pip’s near-drowning, as the characters from Pip’s life flash before his eyes. We lay on our backs and passed “Pip” over our hands (as in, physically moved a body over our heads) as we each recited a line spoken by our chosen character; then we stood in a circle around “Pip,” moving back and forth and changing elevations to mimic the rocking of the waves as the submerged Pip is bombarded with lines he’d heard earlier in the novel.

If you know Great Expectations well, you can probably locate the scene of Pip’s near-drowning, as he attempts to escape with Magwitch and is overtaken by Compeyson. Here is how Dickens writes the scene:

“I had had to feel my way back among the shipping” by F. A. Fraser. Illustration for Great Expectations. Via Victorian Web.

In the same moment, I saw the steersman of the galley lay his hand on his prisoner’s shoulder, and saw that both boats were swinging round with the force of the tide, and saw that all hands on board the steamer were running forward quite frantically. Still in the same moment I saw the prisoner start up, lean across his captor, and pull the cloak from the neck of the shrinking sitter in the galley. Still in the same moment, I saw that the face disclosed, was the face of the other convict of long ago. Still in the same moment, I saw the face tilt backward with a white terror on it that I shall never forget, and heard a great cry on board the steamer and a loud splash in the water, and felt the boat sink from under me.

It was but for an instant that I seemed to struggle with a thousand mill-weirs and a thousand flashes of light; that instant past, I was taken on board the galley.

Where does it say Pip’s life flashed before his eyes, you ask? Well, it doesn’t. Or at least, we need some interpretive work: the exercise, having minor characters in the novel each speak a line, is an interpretation of those “thousand flashes of light.” It’s one that gives voice to minor characters, building on Alex Woloch’s The One vs. the Many (a title Glavin credited). And that’s the point — performance is a way of interpreting the novel that differs from, and complements, discussion.

Glavin calls After Dickens “a playwright’s book” (8), and I’m providing here an admittedly oversimplified version of what he has in mind: After Dickens builds on Jerzy Grotowski’s Poor Theatre to unpack the interplay between affect and critique, and the first part of the book contextualizes Dickens’s “refusal” of the stage. But I hope I’ve convinced you — as Glavin convinced me — of a basic point: the pedagogical possibilities of performance as an avenue for textual analysis.

Background: Melodrama, Serial Fiction, and Illustration

My “Disney’s Victorians” course is about adaptation: we spent the first five weeks on Oliver Twist, looking at stage and film versions alongside the novel. By the time we got to Disney’s Oliver & Company, students had a range of other adaptations with which to compare it, and some historical contexts for thinking about those adaptations.

Playbill from May 21, 1838. From the British Library. Public domain.

Oliver Twist, of course, was published in monthly parts, in Bentley’s Miscellany. Michael Lund and Leigha McReynolds, among others, have written about the pedagogical possibilities for reading periodicals and serial fiction, and I took some advantage of the serial form to make a historical point. I assigned the novel through the May, 1838 installment, and then we read a theatrical adaptation from that month. Performed before the novel was finished, the play gave us a chance to talk about Victorian copyright law and adaptations, and Dickens’s discomfort seeing his unfinished novels on stage. As Forster writes, “in the middle of the first scene [Dickens] laid himself down in a corner of the box and never rose from it until the drop-scene fell” (152).

I also used this stage version to introduce some genre conventions, and for that I assigned portions of Carolyn Williams’s wonderful essay on “Melodrama,” from the Cambridge History of Victorian Literature. “In its most literal definition,” Williams writes, “melodrama consists of a combination of music and drama in which passages of music either alternate with passages of dramatic speech or subtend them almost continuously and in which speech and action are interrupted by moments of static pictorial composition, the tableaux” (193). The music prepared students for some later adaptations, but it was the tableaux on which we focused. In particular, I introduced them to the “realization,” the tableau that reproduces, on stage, a recognizable painting or illustration. As Martin Meisel notes, actors often “realized” the illustrations that accompanied the novel they were adapting. The theatrical adaptation of Oliver Twist in particular “capitalizes thoroughly on the vividness and familiarity of the plates” (253). By recreating these historical conventions, students link text to play to illustration, and develop a sense of how the Victorians experienced Oliver Twist.


George Cruikshank Oliver TwistThe exercise is fairly self-explanatory, but as with anything, an example never hurts. I chose the book’s most famous scene, Oliver asking for more, and Cruikshank’s accompanying illustration. I asked for a few volunteers, and assigned each a character. They read the character’s dialogue (I read the narration), and posed them as they are positioned in the image. Once students had seen what they would be doing, I split them into groups and assigned passages and illustrations. I wanted to be prescriptive: rather than letting them choose a scene and illustration, I told them which paragraph to start with, and where to end. For me, it was important that they pick a precise moment to stop speaking and hold the tableau. Choosing that moment was part of the interpretation, and I wanted to give them a finite set of paragraphs to choose from.

I had assigned the Norton edition, which includes some but not all of Cruikshank’s illustrations. To make up for this, I printed out the images I assigned to each group and distributed them in class. During their “performance,” I projected the image onto the screen in class, so that the “audience” could see the illustration next to the realization, and compare.

The Writings of Charles Dickens v4 p370 (engraving)We did this in class, as essentially a discussion activity. It takes enough time that a full class session could be devoted to it (our class meets just once a week, so this took up only a portion of our time). The paper assignment that followed asked students to write about a specific scene from Oliver Twist and an adaptation of that scene. Some students chose a Cruikshank illustration, and incorporated their conclusions from this exercise into their paper. Depending on your goals for the course, you might require students to do this, or use the activity simply to spark discussion.

I designed this exercise for Dickens, but it could certainly be used with other authors. It makes the most sense for illustrated novels, but needn’t be limited to them. When teaching classical texts, one might choose famous paintings. Historical texts might realize photographs. And for any book, students could consider book covers or movie posters that refer to particular scenes. Depending on your class, you might even take this further: a colleague suggested mixing media by having students take a picture of their realization, and even aging it with an Instagram filter.


As Meisel puts it, “The reading experience assumed in most of the serial fiction produced in the middle decades of the century was discontinuous … To read was to experience both picture and text” (53). The realizations exercise helps students recreate this experience, giving them a better understanding not only of Victorian theatrical convention but also the oft-ignored illustrations. It forces them to think about the act of transferring their attention from word to image.

The Writings of Charles Dickens v4 p114 (engraving)Embodying the text also helps students consider movement and stasis, physical relationships between characters, and details in the text they might not otherwise notice. In the picture to the right, for example, Nancy and Sikes kidnap Oliver as he tries to return Mr. Brownlow’s books. Sikes is grabbing the books from Oliver’s hands, and the illustration emphasizes the crowd of people at the scene: performing it requires giving the women in that crowd a voice, highlighting the public nature of the scene that might get overshadowed by a focus on just Sikes, Nancy, and Oliver.

As the semester progressed we continued our discussion of which scenes are illustrated, and the fact that an illustrated scene is more likely to appear in later adaptations. After this exercise, students were more willing to go back and forth between the text and the image, and prepared for texts like Alice in Wonderland, which explicitly tells the reader, “look at the picture.”

Have you had students perform scenes in this manner? How do you encourage them to go back and forth between text and illustration? Do you have other ways to re-create for students a historically distant reading practice? Tell me about it!

Works Cited

Forster, John. The Life of Charles Dickens. London: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1980. 2 volumes.

Glavin, John. After Dickens: Reading, Adaptation, and Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Lund, Michael and Leigha McReynolds. “The Class as Periodical: A Contemporary ‘Humanities Lab.'” Pedagogy 9.2 (2009): 289-313.

Meisel, Martin. Realizations: Narrative, Pictorial, and Theatrical Arts in Nineteenth-Century England. Princeton University Press, 1983.

Williams, Carolyn. “Melodrama.”  The Cambridge History of Victorian Literature. Kate Flint, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 193-219.

Feb 11

Academic Summers

Like most professors, I don’t usually teach during the summers. But that doesn’t mean we don’t work. In fact, since so much time during the semester is taken up with planning classes, grading papers, and meetings (with students, committees, etc.), the summer might be when the most academic work gets done — if by academic work we mean designing new courses, researching, and writing.

If you are or know an academic, you’re probably reacting like those people in Geico commercials: everybody knows that.

As it turns out, the National Humanities Center and the National Endowment for the Humanities know that too. Both offer summer seminars for faculty, and last summer I had the privilege to attend two: a Jesse Ball duPont Summer Seminar for Liberal Arts Faculty, held at the National Humanities Center and led by Laurie Langbauer, and a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar at the University of California, Santa Cruz, led by Sharon Weltman.

Both were immensely valuable experiences, and I’m still reaping the benefits of those weeks in North Carolina and California. The seminars changed the course of my research. I was working on my book proposal during the NHC seminar, and thanks in part to feedback from Laurie and the other seminar participants, that paid off: my book has been accepted for publication by the University of Tennessee Press. At the NEH seminar I developed what had been an undergraduate class (“Disney’s Victorians”) into an article. That article will be part of a larger project in Victorian studies and children’s literature, but also building on adaptation studies and performance theory — fields I might not even have known about if it hadn’t been for Sharon and the other NEH summer scholars. The NEH seminar culminated in Dickens Universe, a week-long event open not just to scholars but to anyone interested in Dickens. I’ve since then increased my public humanities commitments (I gave a talk at the Orlando Public Library in August and another in December, and in a couple weeks I’ll be a guest judge for a Shakespeare competition).

Summer School, Windermere, England, 1943 (Wikimedia Commons). Sing-a-longs optional at NEH seminars.

Two of my three classes this semester were also directly shaped by those seminars. My literature and childhood course builds on materials from the NHC seminar, and includes texts I wouldn’t have thought to include, were it not for the multimedia and childhood studies approaches I learned at that seminar. The syllabus is varied: we just transitioned from Charlotte’s Web to Sapphire’s Push (Sapphire visited campus last week as part of Rollins’s Winter with the Writers series, so my class got to hear her speak, too). I also redesigned my “Disney’s Victorians” class completely: we’re starting with two case studies, Oliver Twist and Alice in Wonderland, and looking at stage adaptations, reviews, and film clips. Then students will work on group projects for the second half of the semester, ending with research-based creative projects. All this is grounded in the adaptation theory I read at the NEH seminar.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of both seminars was meeting like-minded scholars, with whom I’ve kept contact and will be collaborating. I’ll be presenting at this year’s Dickens Universe with others from the NEH seminar, and put together a panel for the Children’s Literature Association with participants from both seminars. Less formally, but no less importantly, I made good friends with those scholars.

So if you’re an academic and can spare a few weeks this summer, I highly recommend these opportunities. Applications for this year’s NEH summer seminars are due in March. The duPont fellowships have internal deadlines, but the NHC is hosting a Summer Institute in Digital Textual Studies; applications due February 20th.

Jan 28

After Dickens World

A few years ago I reviewed Juliet John’s Dickens and Mass Culture (2010). In her last chapter John discusses Dickens World, a Dickens-themed attraction located in Chatham, about an hour outside of London, where Dickens spent part of his childhood. I’ve wanted to visit ever since I learned such a place existed, and lately even more so: much of the initial media coverage accused Dickens World of “Disneyfying” Dickens, an accusation relevant to my current research about Disney and the Victorians (and Dickens and Disney). So when I traveled to London with my wife and in-laws, I talked them into going.

I’m working on a more formal article about Dickens World, but here I’ll just describe what Dickens World used to be and my own somewhat surreal experience visiting Dickens World in its post-bankruptcy, redefined form.

What Was Dickens World?

Dickens World, Chatham, Kent - geograph.org.uk - 927514.jpg

The parking lot of Dickens World in 2008 (image from Wikipedia Commons)

A history of Dickens World could be written through journalists’ puns and allusions. In 2007 a writer for the Toronto Star had “great expectations” for the site (though the BBC printed that allusion with a question mark).

When it opened, Dickens World was essentially a small theme park (though they carefully avoided that phrase). It was — and still is — located in the Chatham docks, in what is essentially a warehouse. Guests would guide themselves through several Dickens-themed attractions. These included:

  • A Great Expectations-themed boat ride through a Victorian sewer (York Memberly reports being warned of “brown fish”), billed as the highlight of the attraction;
  • A “haunted house,” initially advertised as Scrooge’s but changed, before opening, to “the haunted house of 1859”;
  • A 4D biographical movie at Peggotty’s boathouse;
  • Dotheboys Schoolhouse, featuring a test on Dickens’s life and works and an actor playing a scolding schoolmaster;
  • “Fagin’s den,” a “McDonald’s-style playground” with (as Marty Gould and Rebecca Mitchell point out) a “wildly inappropriate title” (“Worst of Times” 292);
  • A restaurant, The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters;
  • And a gift shop, the (deliberately?) misspelled Olde Curiosity Shoppe.

In 2012 Dickens World made Time‘s list of the ten weirdest theme parks, and by 2013 nobody referred to “great expectations,” even with a question mark. Reporters instead pointed out Hard Times for Dickens World. Somehow a boat trip through a sewer and being yelled at by a Victorian schoolteacher weren’t as popular as originally envisioned.

Dickens World Today

Dickens World Ltd., the company that operates the site, went bankrupt in 2013. Since then, the attractions I listed above have been replaced with “an interactive guided tour experience that takes visitors back in time to Victorian/Dickensian England.” The boat ride is completely gone, though the remnants of some of the other attractions are still there. The website bills the tour as “a fun and educational experience for all ages,” but it hasn’t been that successful. As Lam Thuy Vo puts it, “Few people, it seems, want to experience poverty through a theme park”.

Perhaps as a response to the low tourist turnout, in December Dickens World was transformed into Santa’s village. The gimmick is that child visitors are helping Santa get ready for Christmas: elves let visitors color in pictures, play a carnival game, and visit Santa. (Dickens is notably absent from all those experiences, despite the myriad opportunities for a Dickensian Christmas attraction).

Courtyard, small version

The Dickens World courtyard, decorated for Christmas and empty of crowds. The well-lit room to the right of the Christmas tree is “Fagin’s Den.”

We visited a couple days after Christmas, when the “help Santa’s elves get ready” theme made even less sense. Fong, Gould, and Mitchell describe entering Dickens World on the second floor, over a rickety suspension bridge — that’s been done away with, and we entered through the gift shop on the first floor. The elves were upbeat and initially committed to the theme — despite the fact that my wife Kate, my mother in law, and I were the only ones there. We politely declined the coloring books, and wandered somewhat aimlessly through the Dickensian facades until one of actors very kindly agreed to put aside his elf costume and instead take us on the non-seasonal tour. We were grateful.

blacking factory, small version

A facade of Warren’s Blacking Manufactury, with a Christmas display below.

The tour consists of a walk through Camden Town, where our guide explained how many families would live in one room; Marshalsea prison, with a similar focus on cramped spaces and general Victorian bleakness; the haunted house, where he showed off the “Pepper’s Ghost” trick; and Dotheboys schoolhouse, where he donned a black cloak and played the roll of domineering schoolmaster (I got to write write lines on a chalkboard). If the usual tour is 90 minutes, ours was somewhat abbreviated.

Kate best characterized our overall experience at Dickens World: like being on Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean, when it breaks down and the lights come on. The spectacle is still there, but the enchantment is gone.

John ends Dickens and Mass Culture by pondering the future:

The success or failure of Dickens World, both economically and culturally, will tell us a great deal about whether or not Dickens’s inclusive vision for the amusements of the people remains viable in the twenty-first century, and about the extent to which Dickens still amuses the people. (289)

It’s a fairly safe bet that the legacy of Dickens World will be “failure” rather than “success” — whether that means Dickens no longer amuses the people is perhaps another question (and one I’ll be thinking about as I think about Dickens World in more scholarly ways). But there has been an upside: besides John, several other very smart Victorianists have written about Dickens World, including Ryan Fong, Alison Booth, Marty Gould, Rebecca Mitchell, Alexis Easley and Kathryn Hughes. All wrote before 2013, when the site went bankrupt, but even at its peak, Dickens World didn’t seem destined for success (it opened in 2007, right before the global recession).

Dickens World’s failure, though, doesn’t spell the end of the literary theme park. I live in Orlando, where in July 2014 Universal Studios opened an expansion of its Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Based on the opening, the chances slim that it will close down all the rides and become a 90-minute tour of Diagon Alley.

Works Cited and Further Reading

Anderson, Sam. “The World of Charles Dickens, Complete with Pizza Hut.The New York Times, February 7th 2012.

Booth, Alison. “Time Travel in Dickens’ World.” Literary Tourism and Nineteenth-Century Culture. Nicola J. Watson, ed. Palgrave, 2009.

Easley, Alexis. Literary Celebrity, Gender, and Victorian Authorship, 1850-1914. University of Delaware, 2011.

Fong, Ryan. “Uncommercial Travels in Dullborough Town, or My Journey to Dickens World and Dickens’s World.” Dickens Universe, 2012. (Ryan generously shared the manuscript of his talk)

Glavin, John. After Dickens: Reading, Adaptation, and Performance. Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Gould, Marty and Rebecca N. Mitchell. “It Was the Worst of Times: A Visit to Dickens World.” Victorian Literature and Culture 38 (2010), 287-318.

Gould, Marty and Rebecca N. Mitchell. “Understanding the Literary Theme Park: Dickens World as Adaptation.” Neo-Victorian Studies 3.2 (2010), pages 145-171.

Hughes, Kathryn. “Dickens World and Dickens’s World.” Journal of Victorian Culture 15.3 (December 2010), 388-393.

Huntley, Dana. “Visiting in Dickens World.” British Heritage 29.4 (Sep. 2008), pp. 42-5.

John, Juliet. Dickens and Mass Culture. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Memberly, York. “Great expectations for newly opened Dickens World.” Toronto Star February 3, 2008.

Price, Chris. “Hard Times for Dickens World investors after Dickens World Ltd.Kent Online October 10, 2013.

Vo, Lam Thuy. “Launched to great expectations, Dickens theme park falls on hard times.Al Jazeera America December 16, 2014.