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Community reading project presents serial Great Expectations

Victorian novelist Charles Dickens first published Great Expectations as a serial in his weekly magazine, All the Year Round, in an effort to boost flagging circulation. He was in luck; readers were instantly hooked.

That was 142 years ago. Now, thanks to a grant from the Stanford President's Fund, the largely bygone thrill of the serial novel will be revived this winter when Great Expectations appears again in weekly installments as part of "Discovering Dickens: A Community Reading Project."

Organized by Stanford Continuing Studies and the Alumni Association, in partnership with University Communications, University Libraries, the Palo Alto Weekly, and the Drama and English departments, the initiative will give people an opportunity to read Great Expectations the way the Victorians did.

Participation is free and open to the public.

Chapters 1-4 are scheduled to appear Dec. 4 in Stanford Report and Dec. 6 in the Palo Alto Weekly. Both publications will carry the second installment, too; the Weekly will publish the third. The remaining installments will be mailed each week -- at no cost -- to interested readers and posted on the web at Sign up for the mailings by visiting the website or by calling (650) 724-2933. (The first three installments also will be available via the mailings and on the web.)

"It's a very creative idea, and a way to get the community involved with Stanford and an interesting project," said Gordon Earle, vice president for public affairs. "It involves parents; it involves kids; it's fun; it's intellectually stimulating; and it introduces families -- or reintroduces them -- to one of the great writers of the English language."

The serial will be published in its original typestyle -- it will, in fact, consist of facsimile pages from the University Libraries' All the Year Round issues featuring Great Expectations. The libraries' extensive holdings of Dickens material also will provide maps, illustrations of the novel and background notes, which will be posted on the website and, in a less expansive form, appear in the mailed installments.

In addition, actor Marco Barricelli of the American Conservatory Theater has agreed to read the first several chapters of the novel at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 8 in Dinkelspiel Auditorium. The event is free and open to the public. During intermission, event-goers can partake of Victorian refreshments -- including mulled wine (adults only) -- in the lobby.

Project organizers say December is a fitting month to introduce the serial: Not only did the first installment of the novel appear in December 1860, but families often come together around the holidays, and Dickens' dramatic style makes his works excellent for reading aloud. Indeed, Dickens himself was famous for his public readings. As some organizers see it, "Discovering Dickens" will give Peninsula families the opportunity to gather in their living rooms or around their hearths to re-enact this popular Victorian entertainment.

"As a kid, I was reading these goofy serialized things that the L.A. Times would publish at Christmastime," said Linda Paulson, director of the Master of Liberal Arts Program, who proposed the initiative. "There was just something about the suspense that obviously appealed to me, and I assume appealed to a lot of people. Certainly the Victorians were working with this desire of having something revealed slowly. This was the sitcom for the 19th century."

Tale of dreams, disillusionment

Great Expectations is a Bildungsroman -- that is, a novel about the psychological and moral development of a character as he or she grows up, such as Charlotte Brontė's Jane Eyre. But unlike Brontė, Dickens inspirits even the gothic elements of his novel with a combination of humor and a remarkably agile prose style; Great Expectations wears a wry smile from start to finish.

First of all, it's difficult to take the protagonist, Pip, too seriously; he's remarkably passive and possesses a middling intellect. But the combination makes him a wonderfully comic observer of life, and Dickens treats most of his characters -- unpleasant, strange or naļve -- with a generosity of spirit.

If you first read the novel as a hormone-addled youth, prone to romantic flights of fancy -- in other words, if you read it as a teen-ager -- you may have vowed never to forgive Dickens for that maddeningly equivocal final scene, which, depending on your mood, is as hopeful as a half-smile or as hopeless as a cold shower.

In fact, there are two known endings. Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton, a well-respected novelist of the Victorian era, convinced Dickens to ditch the original finale, which some prominent critics and writers -- including George Bernard Shaw -- would later argue was more in tune with the book's disposition. In any case, "Discovering Dickens" participants will have the opportunity to read both endings and decide for themselves.

Great Expectations sports a sleek and nimble narrative, unlike many of Dickens' longer novels, which are rich but sometimes flirt with monotony. "It's categorically the best of his short novels," according to Paulson.


By John Sanford

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