By Sabrina Schoch and Reba Ouimet
At last year’s Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada conference, we were fortunate enough to have the opportunity for a discussion with Dr. Julianne Smith, a speaker at the conference and the recipient of the 2004 Innovative Teaching Award, Center for Teaching & Learning, from Pepperdine University. Dr. Smith sat down and talked with us about lost manuscripts, different adaptations of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, and her address at the conference. We were interested in discovering how she describes Victorian studies to undergraduate students and in finding out what she thinks is the best way to introduce these studies to students. Dr. Smith explained her teaching philosophy in regards to Victorian literature: “I think the best way to introduce Victorian studies to undergraduates is to talk about the things that you’re excited about yourself, and so I love the context and history of the period…. I talk about the weird and wonderful things the Victorians did, and then with those in mind, [I] begin to look at the text…. I rely on my own interests and ability to convey interest.”
In addition to inquiring about Dr. Smith’s teaching methods, we also asked about her address at the VSAWC conference. Dr. Smith’s current research concerns the unpublished manuscripts of plays
, and she acknowledged that “no one has done much analysis on [these plays nor has anyone taken] those plays into the scholarly conversation to look at how they add to or shape the reception of Bleak House itself as a novel.”
We noted that “Jane Eyre changed the way the story [of Bleak House] is being told” and asked whether the Bleak House adaptations have had the same effect. Dr. Smith responded, “Bleak House changes, and because Bleak House is a novel that doesn’t identify a central character in its title, even the first reviewers ask[ed] questions and tried to figure out whose story [it is], and the theatrical adaptations tend to identify a central character and tell that story.”
Not only does the original story lack a central character but the resulting adaptations, the changes in perspectives, and the competing characters also reveal what and who interested the Victorians most. Nobody particularly cares about Esther, the “sometimes” protagonist; Joe and Lady Dedlocke compete for the starring role. Much like today’s readers, the Victorians were most interested in the tragic characters and melodrama.
We then touched briefly on the BBC adaptation of Bleak House, and Dr. Smith stated that the BBC version “compares shifting class focus on how we receive Bleak House and interpret it, versus how the Victorians did.”
Finally, we asked Dr. Smith if she was aware of any exciting new directions in which Victorian studies could go. “Well for me,” she said, “when I started grad school in the mid ’90s, all of the technology and ways of searching online publications, or even searching the British library catalogue online, was … new and exciting. I didn’t realize the implications of this at the time, and things have really gotten better from there…. Access to those texts, [which] have been so obscure and remote for most scholars, has changed everything. Expectations are higher for students now.”
Dr. Smith is an associate professor of English at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. She holds a PhD from Texas Christan University, and both a master and bachelor of arts from Abilene Christian University. Her academic interests include gender, religion, Victorian women writers, and Victorian theatre. She is currently working on “Victorian Drama in the 1850s and the Transformation of Literary Consciousness,“ to be published shortly in Victorian Transformations.