The Perils of Reading: or, Dickensomania; or, How Even the Best English Majors Can Sometimes Lose It. Illustrated. In Eleven Parts.
On the evening of Thursday, May 11, 2006, a strange group of persons were photographed in a Northfield garden.
They look happy. But looks are deceiving. Those bright eyes and smiling faces are actually the expressions of advanced delusion. These seniors have spent the last semester reading thousands of pages of Dickens (in English 391). They have absorbed Dickens. And Dickens has absorbed them. Quite simply, they've turned into Dickens' characters. Let us look more closely.
Here, from Great Expectations, is the jilted Miss Havisham, on a rare trip out of her spider-infested bridal chamber, holding the flame that was to consume her. By her side stands the ice-hearted Estella. At one time these two answered to the names of Sarah Vechik and Katie Montei.
Caught prancing under Linden trees are two Infant Phenomena, aging child actresses in Vincent Crummles' theatrical troupe in Nicholas Nickleby, kept small in stature by too little sleep and too much gin. Note the hectic stage smiles on their faces. Could these really be Meghan Cieslick and Emily Moen?
Momentarily not gushing her mincing chatter, muffled by crab apple blossom, looms the tender face of Flora Finching (from Little Dorrit), formerly known as Cate Gronchala. Mr. F's Aunt lurks unseen in the background.
No wonder these two look so startled: Joe Gargery (left, from Great Expectations) and Mr. Micawber (right, from David Copperfield) had never met before, and Meredith Norquest and Anna Grelson are cross-dressing. Joe has a smudge of soot on his cheek from the smithy; Mr. Micawber still has "the handle of a hastily-concealed fork sticking out of the bosom of his coat, as if he had stabbed himself."
"O Rose, thou art sick!" The scarred Rosa Dartle (David Copperfield) would agree. She solemnly grasps a rose briar, oblivious to the pain of so doing. Her name used to be Lauren Benson. Come back Lauren!
What's that in his/her left hand? Keys? Jingling keys? Mr. Jingle? Pickwick Papers? "Low arch-dangerous-family on top of coach-five children-mother, tall lady-named Andrea-eating sandwiches-all good-forgot the arch-crash-knock-children look round-mother's head off-sandwich in her hand-no mouth to put it in-head of a family off-shocking, shocking."
"Janet! Donkies!" cries out Betsy Trotwood to her maid in David Copperfield, but here Janet chases away human intruders, as she holds an elegant pose only a trained dancer such as Alex DeLosSantos could assume.
A climax in David Copperfield is the storm at sea during which the noble Ham Peggotty is drowned while trying to rescue the seducer Steerforth from his wrecked boat. Thinking himself Ham, Kevin Rusk has a compulsion to be sprayed by garden hoses.
Furtive, wild-eyed, driven, pursued, cast out-yes, that's the poor fallen Martha, from David Copperfield. Or it could be the feisty Sarah Estill looking through an arch in a hedge of Canadian hemlock?
Jake Erickson, one of the nicest guys you could hope to meet, friendly, courteous, considerate, has here-painful to behold-been metamorphosized into a grimacing Mr. Chivery, the turnkey in the Marshalsea prison in Little Dorrit. "Turn the key"-get it?
These pictures make melancholy viewing. But the news is not all bad. The first step to recovery is to admit the problem. After initial denial, all these majors have admitted their condition. Improvement is now under way. With luck, they will all answer to their real names by Commencement. If you meet any of them, greet them gently, shake their hand, do not stare at their clothes, wish them well, do not mention Dickens, and, above all, never, ever, in their presence say the word "Quiz."
Arthur Clennam (formerly Jonathan Hill)