Our conference venue was a remarkably preserved Victorian theatre on the grounds of the Normansfield Hospital, a facility designed for the care of individuals with learning disabilities. It was founded in 1868 by Dr. Langdon Down, a Victorian physician after whom Down’s Syndrome was named. The hospital was not the sort of institution we normally picture when we think of a Victorian asylum; it was rather revolutionary in its approach, providing its patients with life-skills training. They learned how to cook, dress and care for themselves, and how to handle money. Some of the adult patients learned trade skills and some worked in the on-site farm. Patients had daily exercise and opportunities to participate in sports such as cycling, cricket, and tennis. They were taught crafts, music, and dancing.
The theatre, which opened in 1879, was part of this program. Plays were performed by the staff, with the patients either helping in the production or sitting in the audience. On Sundays, the room was used for services. Today, the Normansfield theatre is a Grade II* listed theatre, with the largest collection of fully restored Victorian scenery in the UK. The stage itself is only one of 2 theatres with the original Victorian side flaps still in working order.
The symposium began with three papers that explored Dickens's appropriation and incorporation of other existing literary and cultural materials into his own work. In "The Adaptive History Conjuring, Magic, and Mesmerism in Dickens," Martyn Smith (MA, Univ. of Buckingham) provided a brief history of Dickens's experience with magic and conjuring. He particularly noted the associations between conjuring and street crime in Dickens's novels. He also brought our attention to our continuing popular associations of Dickens with mesmerism, as in Miriam Margolyes's "Dickens in America" (2015) and "A (Sort of) Christmas Magic Show" (2016). In "Dickens and the Black Masks of History: Theatrical Revisionism in Hard Times and After," Sara Malton (Saint Mary's University) explored the invocation of blackface minstrelsy in Hard Times, arguing that Tom's plot trajectory echoes that of a fugitive slave. Tom's criminal fall is thus subtly but unmistakably raced in the novel, which was originally titled "Black and White." Megan Beech (University of Cambridge) gave the last paper on the panel: "'I cannot yet so separate the parts as to tell the story': Dickens's Self-Adaptation and the Making of His Performance Fictions." Beech examined the manuscript copies of Dickens's performance readings, observing how frequently Dickens edited and re-edited his texts for public performance. Beech concludes that there is never a final, authoritative performance text to be found and that these manuscripts, constantly in flux, offer valuable evidence of Dickens's compositional practice and creative processes.
The second panel was devoted to Edwn Drood and the rich history of efforts to complete the novel and solve its mystery. In "Edwin Drood on Screen," Pete Orford (University of Buckingam) provided an overview of Drood completions, noting the patterns that they followed in assembling a complete story. He observed that these completions often make Neville the romantic lead but struggle to decide just what sort of villain Jasper is. Camilla Ulleland Hoel (The Royal Norwegian Air Force Academy) discussed spiritualist approaches to completing Drood. She noted how "spiritualist" writers claimed authority for their "Dickensian" writing by claiming that it come directly from the spirit of Dickens himself. Working from such fascinating examples as The Spirit Pen Adventures of Bockley Wickleheap, her paper explored the ways in which these efforts define and draw upon particular notions of "Dickensian" (dying children, odd character names, particular rhetorical flourishes).
The third panel engaged latter-day adaptations of Dickens. Aleksandra Budrewicz (Pedagogical University of Krakow) considered Dickensian linguistic echoes in the work of Polish author Bolesław Prus. Budrewicz’s paper presented a provocative case for Prus’s intentional engagements with Dickens. In “Updating and Modernising Dickens: A Christmas Carol and Science Fiction,” Iren Boyarkina situated A Christmas Carol within the generic category of science fiction, arguing that the Carol exemplifies the core features of science fiction and, further, that Dickens’s use of dystopian visions in the story are motivated by the same impulses that motivate sci-fi dystopic writing: dissatisfaction with contemporary society. In the final paper of the day, Marty Gould (Brunel University) considered Richard Ganthony’s play A Message from Mars (1899) as an adaptation of A Christmas Carol. Gould placed Message within the larger history of Carol dramatizations.