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Nov 29th
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Dynamic Dickens

film2New film has a special connection to UCSC-based Dickens Project

A new film directed by Ralph Fiennes looks at the private life of author Charles Dickens, an author with a special resonation here in Santa Cruz.

The Invisible Woman (three and a half stars out of four, see Film Guide), which opens locally on Friday, Jan. 24 is the true story of the British author’s longtime affair with actress Nelly Ternan, who was 27 years younger than him. It’s based on Claire Tomalin’s 1990 book of the same name. Tomalin is an acclaimed biographer who has also written extensively about writers Mary Wollstonecraft, Thomas Hardy, Samuel Pepys and Jane Austen.

Ternan and Dickens met in 1857, when she was 18 and appearing in a production of Wilkie Collins’ play “The Frozen Deep.” Dickens, then 45, oversaw the production. He was married with 10 children at the time, and he later separated from his wife to be with Ternan. As a supposedly proper Victorian gentleman, he couldn’t divorce his wife and so Ternan instead remained his “invisible woman.”

For locals, seeing this movie is an appropriate precursor to this year’s Dickens Universe, the annual conference held each August at the  UC Santa Cruz campus. It’s kind of like a summer camp for Dickens lovers. Each year, the conference focuses on a different work by the author; for 2014, organizers have selected “Our Mutual Friend.” It’s the last book Dickens wrote before he died, and it’s the book he was writing while involved with Ternan.

“It’s weirdly coincidental,” JoAnna Rottke says of the book choice.

Rottke, program coordinator for The Dickens Project, says this year’s book was selected about two years ago without knowing that the movie would be coming out.

“Our Mutual Friend” also happens to be her personal favorite of Dickens’ literary canon, she says.

The Dickens Project, which hosts the conference, is a consortium comprised of several universities and housed at UCSC. It’s what’s considered a multi-campus research unit of the University of California system, and its research activities have been supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the U.S. Department of Education, the California Council for the Humanities, the California Arts Council, the Exxon Education Foundation, dues from member schools and private gifts.

Last year’s Dickens Universe attracted more than 250 participants; including 110 faculty members and graduate students, the largest number since its inception. The summer event was first held in 1981, Rottke says.

Online registration for this year’s universe opens this month, though registration for consortium member graduate students and faculty doesn’t start until March 1. The weeklong event is open to all, but participants must read “Our Mutual Friend” before attending and must have an appreciation for Dickens, of course. This year’s Dickens Universe will be held from Aug. 3 to Aug. 8. More information is available online at

Until then, however, locals can get their Dickens fix with The Invisible Woman.  The Nickelodeon Theatre will be hosting a special screening of the film at at 6:50 p.m on Jan. 30. Titled “An Evening With the Dickens Project,” the screening will be accompanied by a discussion with representatives from the organization.  The panelists will be UCSC faculty members John Jordan, Murray Baumgarten, Jessica Kuskey and Nirshan Perera, who recently earned his doctorate from the university.  Admission to the event will be the regular ticket price. The film will run at the theater beginning Jan. 24.            

Building links between community organizations and our local independent movie theaters is incredibly important to the folks who run the Nickelodeon, Aptos Cinema and Del Mar Theatre, says Ike Jablon, director of marketing and special events for the theaters.  In particular, whenever there is a chance to make a connection between a film the theaters are screening and the university is especially important, Jablon says.

“We’re really trying to make those community connections,” says Jablon.

The Invisible Woman just so happened to tie in perfectly with this year’s Dickens Universe. Dickens is considered one of the greatest writers in history, and his novels have captivated scholars and readers alike. His own life, however, has held perhaps equal fascination.

In speaking with the Los Angeles Times last month about the film, Fiennes called Dickens “a man of contradictions.”

“There is a sort of boyishness to him, a boyish energy. I think he could be domineering and then he had a sort of madcap quality to him as well, combined with this manic, furious work ethic,” says Fiennes in Susan King’s Dec. 28, 2013 piece. “His energy for work was terrifying. He was unstoppable.” 

“An Evening With The Dickens Project—screening of “The Invisible Woman” followed by discussion—unfolds at 6:50 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 30 at The Nickelodeon Theatre, 210 Lincoln St., Santa Cruz. Tickets: $10.50 general admission, $7.50 for students/seniors. For more information, visit

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