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Lear, Pickwick and Dr Charity

York daze

There are few plausible connections betweenKing Lear and The Pickwick Papers. Only one man seems to have found a bridge between the two. He was Dr Alan Charity, late of York University.  Alan Charity was a brilliant academic. It was said his doctoral thesis was so recondite that no-one else could understand it, not even him some years after it was written.

Dr Charity was aptly named. For apart from being a deeply erudite scholar who could quote enormous passages from The Prelude (which he frequently did), he was a lovely man. To me he seemed benevolent, witty and perpetually amused. Perhaps he was inwardly laughing at my habitual incompetence. He was also of a charitable disposition, for it was he that gave me access to York University.

On arrival for interview, I found myself outside a door which had FR Leavis on its nameplate. I waited, expecting some fierce interrogation from the angry patriarch of Eng. Lit. and was relieved instead to find a somewhat tired and dishevelled man waiting to interview me. He explained that FR Leavis was a visiting professor and spent most of his time in Cambridge. I subsequently attended a talk given by the great man shortly before his death. It was in a small room accompanied by two other people. We listened as he ranted for what seemed like several hours against the failings and impertinencies of other academics and critics, before he slumped back into his chair. But that is another story.

I doubt FR Leavis would have been kindly disposed to me. Dr Charity was in more amiable mode. I think he probably wanted to get home. We chatted in a general way about books for twenty minutes or so, and then he offered me a place. Not having anything else to do, I accepted.

Some months later I found myself outside Dr Charity’s office, waiting for an early morning tutorial. It was 10.00am. This was a problem. I have never been an early morning person and my first term at university was not a moment to begin. I was not profoundly ready for discussion of King Lear.

If Dr Charity’s first big mistake had been to offer me a place at York, his second obvious error was to offer me a glass of sherry. I was anyway barely sentient. The sherry rendered me catatonic. As it happens, Shakespeare was the reason I wished to study literature. Even before university I had read more or less the complete works, pretty much only The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry VIII having eluded me. Perhaps for understandable reasons, they still have. I was well acquainted with King Lear. I had much to say about the play. It was just unfortunate I was incapable of coherent speech or thought.

It didn’t take Alan long to assess the situation. ‘Let us see what light The Pickwick Papers can throw on King Lear,’ he announced. Sipping his sherry, he then read to me for the remaining hour of tutorial. I was entranced. Staggering from his office, I went straight to the university bookshop and bought a copy of Pickwick which I then read and later re-read many times.

Much has changed since then. I suspect that interview procedures are no longer so informal. I’m pretty sure tutors would be forbidden to drink sherry at 10.00am and I’m almost certain that Alan’s successors would have to write schemes of work and produce tutorial plans and tick a million bureaucratic boxes, before each encounter with a student. I doubt there is scope for an impromptu reading from The Pickwick Papers while notionally discussing King Lear. And with students paying thousands of pounds a year in tuition fees, they may rightly feel entitled to more rigour.

All of which is a shame, since that tutorial transformed my appreciation of Dickens. Having read Pickwick, over the next few years I went on to read all of his novels, re-reading favourites several times, as well the short stories and other works. Alan wouldn’t have been happy writing schemes of work or ticking boxes (or not drinking sherry, frankly), but what he communicated was a passion for literature, sharing his love for Wordsworth and Shakespeare and Dickens and a multitude of other writers. He was a lovely man and a great teacher. I owe him much and honour his memory.

PS. I emailed the alumni association to see if a photo of Alan could be found, but didn’t hear back. Instead, I’ve used a picture of me in student days. Sorry about that. If anyone has a picture of him, I’ll post it up.

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