10 questions with Natalie McKnight

Sponsored by BYU Studies—Natalie McKnight is president of the Dickens Society and Dean of the College of General Studies at Boston University.

Welcome! Before we begin would you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you first became involved with the Dickens Society?

Hi!  I’m currently the President of the Dickens Society and a Humanities professor and Dean of the College of General Studies, Boston University.  I’ve published several books, book chapters and articles on Dickens and other Victorian authors, and I am currently working on an essay on “Christmas Fiction” for the Oxford Handbook on Christmas (Oxford University Press). 

I first became involved with the Dickens Society when I was a graduate student over 30 (!) years ago. I attended a couple of the annual Dickens dinners and was delighted to find a group of scholars who shared their love of Dickens so openly and created such strong camaraderie.

The Dickens Society in Belziers, France, in 2014. Photo provided by Dickens Society.

How are your teaching and administrative duties divided as Dean of General Studies at Boston University?

I only teach one-on-one Directed Studies now, since I have to travel a lot as Dean, which makes it hard for me to be around for regular MWF or T/TH classes.  But I love the one-on-one classes:  they offer me a chance to really get to know one student well and to tailor the studies to their interests. 

So, to answer your question, about 90% of my time is taken up with administrative duties, which include traveling to raise money and connect with alumni; going to London to check in on our students and faculty there (we have 500 students studying in London each summer);  participating in university wide meetings on strategic planning, hiring, policies, etc.; meeting with students, staff, and faculty at the college to deal with various concerns and initiatives; overseeing renovation projects, etc.

What is the secret to your capital campaign success? Do you take an innovative approach or is just good old-fashioned hard work?

If you mean my success as a fundraiser at the college, I’d say I’ve been lucky enough to work with a great team, and I believe in what I’m raising money for:  i.e. scholarships for students, funds for undergraduate research, building improvements. 

It’s challenging but also stimulating to find ways to connect the interests of alumni and parents to the projects we’re working on at BU.

And yes, good old fashioned hard work and persistence are key to any success, I think . . .

How does the typical father in Victorian fiction compare to the standard father on TV today? 

Interesting question. I’m not sure there IS a “typical” father in Dickens—or today. 

Dickens created his share of stand-offish fathers who are more wrapped up in their financial dealings than their fathering; but he also created some warm and endearing “hands-on” dads who seem more in line with current progressive models of fathering that advocate for involved dads and “co-parenting.” 

Think of Bob Cratchit.

Or Joe Gargery in GREAT EXPECTATIONS (a surrogate dad, as is often the case with the most positive representations of fathers in Dickens).

What is the Dickens Society?

The Dickens Society is a group of scholars from all over the world who share a love of Charles Dickens, and meet to discuss his works, life, and times. 

Many of our members are professors or graduate students in colleges and universities, but some are independent scholars.  Membership in the Society includes a subscription to THE DICKENS QUARTERLY, a journal which four times a year publishes articles and book reviews about Dickens and his contemporaries.

Our annual meeting (The Symposium) is usually held in June or July, and we host these at various institutions on both sides of the Atlantic. Last year our meeting was in Tubingen, Germany, so this year we needed to be on this side of the Atlantic, and are thrilled to be holding the Symposium in Salt Lake City.  Next year, it will be held in London.

Why should someone read Dickens? What tips do you have for someone who wants to start reading Dickens for the first time? 

People should read Dickens because he can immerse you in another time and place while enlightening you on aspects of human nature you might not have thought about.  And he’s vastly entertaining—he still makes me laugh out loud.

And weep.  Not many authors can do all that.

He was enormously popular in his own time, and I am pleased to see his popularity continuing 150 years after his death.

Tips for reading:  Dickens wrote in installments, and most critical editions of his novels (like Penguin, Norton) indicate which chapters appeared in which installments. That’s a good way to start out because it can be less overwhelming to approach shorter installments than to dive into a very long book.

And Dickens designed the installments to hook and hold readers’ attention and to build suspense, so the books can be more satisfying if approached that way.

Have you ever handled a first-edition Dickens book or newspaper serial?

Yes I have!  In the Special Collections rooms at Mugar Library at Boston University and at the Armstrong Browning Library at Baylor University.  And I am always moved when I get these opportunities.

A collection of rare Charles Dickens publications at Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Mugar Memorial Library, Boston University. Credit: JC Johnson.

How did you decide to hold the 2019 conference in Utah and what do attendees have to look forward to? Do you have to be a Dickens expert to attend? 

You do NOT have to be a Dickens expert to attend!  We will have some undergraduates and graduate students attending who are just starting their studies of Dickens, and we welcome others who are just beginning to be interested. 

We have a range of interesting papers being presented on topics such as Dickens and ghosts, Dickens and America, Dickens and madness, Mormon Emigrants, among many others; a Dickens dinner at the McCune Mansion; and tours of the Pioneer Memorial Museum and Red Butte Garden, not to mention fascinating conversations between sessions.

We decided on Salt Lake City because Leslie Simon, an Associate Professor at Utah Valley University, made the very kind offer to host the Symposium here, and we are very grateful!

Who are a few scholars you are looking forward to hearing from at this year’s conference? 

I have many long term friends who I am looking forward to seeing, of course—many of us go back several decades or longer—but I am also looking forward to meeting the undergraduate and graduate students—they always have such fresh perspectives, and they are our future, of course.

Charles Dickens, possibly by Endicott. Credit: Library of Congress.

What is the best Dickens stage adaptation (either play or musical) you have seen?

I think the best live performance I have ever seen was Gerald Charles Dickens doing his one-man Christmas Carol at the Omni Parker House in 1999 as part of the Dickens dinner and Symposium I hosted that year.

Gerald is the great-great grandson of Charles Dickens, and he is a phenomenal actor.  (I may have missed one “great” there . . . )

My favorite musical version is the film Scrooge, with Albert Finney as Scrooge.

Rank your Top 5 favorite Dickens novels. 

This is HARD!  And it changes for me, but here goes:

Barnaby Rudge (not many peoples’ favorite, but I love the gothic elements, and Barnaby, and Grip, the talking crow);

Great Expectations (also has great gothic elements and a heart-breaking story—maybe CD’s most self-aware novel);

Bleak House (so rich! So wild!);

Our Mutual Friend; and

Little Dorrit.

And of course I love A Christmas Carol, which everyone should read—there’s so much more there than any film or play version could ever do justice to, but it’s really a novella, not a novel.

This interview is made possible thanks to the generous sponsorship of BYU Studies.

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