“You can look around and squint and imagine this still looks like it would have looked when Dickens was alive,” said Luther College English professor Amy Weldon, referring to the streets and buildings around the Charles Dickens Museum in London.
The museum is housed in the residence where the great 19th-century author wrote some of his most famous works. Using details Dickens gave in passages from Oliver Twist, she noted, you can still trace the path of the Artful Dodger as he led Oliver through the city’s streets for a lesson on picking pockets.
“[T]his unique place – London – collaborates imaginatively with all of us in a way that is magical.”
“That’s what I want to do for every writer we study in my course,” Weldon said. “Go to a place that can help students think about that writer and get up next to him or her in some way. That makes the writer, and his or her words, come to life.”
The course, Writing in London, will connect the works and lives of writers such as Dickens, William Blake, John Keats, Virginia Woolf, and George Orwell with places associated with them. Weldon will teach it in spring 2019 when she is visiting faculty director in London for the ACM London & Florence: Arts in Context program.
A prolific writer herself, Weldon’s essays, short fiction, creative nonfiction, and scholarly work have appeared in a wide range of magazines, journals, and edited collections, and she has two books set to come out this year. Along with teaching British Romanticism, creative writing, and contemporary literature at Luther, she leads a popular off-campus course during January term, titled In Frankenstein’s Footsteps: The Keats-Shelley Circle in London, Geneva, and Italy.
Writing in London will focus on creative nonfiction, a genre that Weldon has found to be welcoming to writers of all backgrounds and experience levels. The genre also draws on skills that are at the heart of the London & Florence program, such as curiosity, observation, analysis, and interpretation. Students will hone those skills during readings, discussion, and visiting sites throughout the city and in writing and workshopping drafts of their essays.
Syllabus for Writing in London
To prepare, Weldon has been collaborating with Andrew Kennedy, the London-based professor who teaches two classes for the program: London as Visual Text and Collecting the World in London. Kennedy’s courses, taught almost entirely on site in and around London, explore the city and nation’s history, culture, and heritage narratives through centuries of continuous economic, political, and social change.
The two professors are planning to bring their courses together for some joint site visits. For example, they might take students to the Imperial War Museum, a regular part of Kennedy’s museum studies course, to look at World War II propaganda and connect it to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four. They also expect to team up on an overnight trip to visit Monk’s House, the country home of 20th century novelist and essayist Virginia Woolf.
“I would be looking at what was going on in Virginia Woolf’s life, including her writing life, when she was living there,” Weldon said. “We would also talk about how Woolf, who struggled with depression and mental illness, found a very great solace and joy in walking.”
“When we visit Monk’s House, I just love the idea of walking with the students on the same walk that Virginia Woolf would have taken,” said Weldon. “For instance, she would often wake up and spend a few hours writing, then walk on a path across the South Downs to Charleston, which was her sister Vanessa Bell’s home. We’d do that with the students. Along the way, there are some Iron Age sites [dating back to when the Romans were in England] and a historic church that Andrew would talk about.”
“We would also talk about the idea of ‘the countryside’ in England and compare the city space with the rural space,” she noted, “so it would be a very meaningful visit for both his course and mine.”
The interaction of collaboration and place is what makes the London & Florence program so compelling, according to Weldon. “The students will be collaborating with me and Andrew and each other,” she said, “and then this unique place – London – collaborates imaginatively with all of us in a way that is magical.”