tumblr_m28hunkihb1rqmm3jo1_1280On Thursday afternoon I was talking to three recently retired friends each of whom was relishing their new found freedom and specifically how they could now take their own time over what they did and when they did it.  I smiled benignly and decided that I wouldn’t spoil their pleasure by pointing out that seven years into my own retirement I have realised that if you let that mañana feeling go too far you are heading for disaster.   

When I first retired I wrote here regularly and read analytically even when I was also reading for pleasure.  However, over those intervening years I have gradually become what on a kind day I know to be intellectually less rigorous and on a more honest day, downright lazy.  When I look back on what I was capable of I have to say that I don’t like what I have become.

So, in an attempt to pull back some of that lost ground, I am about to start a distance learning course built around the novels of Charles Dickens, a writer who, in all my years studying and teaching literature, I have never had to work on.

Reading the City : The Life and Writing of Charles Dickens is a term long course run by the University of Exeter and during the coming twelve weeks I am going to be looking at my three favourite Dickens’ novels, Bleak House, Little Dorrit,  and  Our Mutual Friend along with the much earlier work, Oliver Twist.  I always think Dickens is at his best when he is writing about London. It is probably why those first three books appeal to me so much.  If ever an author captured the essence of a city as accurately as he did the characters who populate his works it has to be Dickens.  The passage about the London fog near the beginning of Bleak House has to be one of the greatest pieces of prose ever written.

First, however, I have to master what the university calls its ‘learning environment’.  Every HE institution has one and I’m quite used to the concept. The problem is that every one I encounter is different.  So I’ve set aside a couple of hours tomorrow morning – the first day of ‘term’ – to play around and see what I can make of Exeter’s.  If you hear a news item to the effect that the university’s entire computer system has been sabotaged you will know who to hold responsible.


21 thoughts on “

  1. I think this is a large-scale version of what can happen on sabbaticals! Somehow the absence of obligations and deadlines and other distractions saps, rather than fosters, focus. Why should it be that I often get more writing done when I am busier with other things than when I have all the time in the world for it? I like the sound of that class a lot. I sometimes dream of offering a Study Abroad class for Dalhousie students along those lines: what fun it would be to shepherd them to London and walk the actual streets …

    1. Yes, Rohan, that is exactly right. When I was writing while at work I used to set myself a section to write each morning before I started anything else and I could usually get a chapter/article written each half term. I rarely got through as much when I had time to myself.
      You should definitely try and make your dream a reality. You can still find some of Dickens’s streets in London. Finding Shakespeare’s is more difficult.

  2. I know that mañana feeling only too well! I think you have to have a plan and stick to it as it’s all too easy to drift … for example this morning I fully intended to write about the book I’ve just finished and instead here I am reading your blog (and others). I like the sound of your course very much. Of those books I haven’t read Little Dorrit, I was put off by a friend who found it hard going, so I’ll be interested to read your thoughts on it. At the moment I’m reading The Old Curiosity Shop, which I know isn’t one of your favourites, and so far (100 pages in) I am enjoying it. Glad to see you back on the blog, by the way.

    1. Thanks Margaret. This time I intend to stay back. And you are so right about needing a definite plan. I think I have one. The course this term will give me some indication as to whether or not it is a realistic one.

  3. Good for you! The course sounds fascinating — Bleak House is my favourite Dickens and the other two come in close to that, though I’m not so keen on Oliver Twist. Hope you will be updating us as you go along.

    1. I’m in the middle of re-reading ‘Oliver Twist’ at the moment and you can really tell it is an early novel. I keep wanting to shake Dickens and say just tell the story and stop commenting all the time. I can draw my own conclusions about the social scandals you are describing. I shall definitely keep you abreast of what is happening as I shall need sounding boards outside the course itself.

    1. I think that is the most beautiful passage in all Dickens and linguistically it is remarkable. The structure echoes the meaning absolutely. Perhaps when we get to the novel I shall write about that. I didn’t have a Dickens at A Level nor at any time in my various university lives. Looking back it seems incredible that that should be the case.

  4. The timing of this was perfect since I am right now in the process of deciding what I want to do with my time post retirement in a year or so from now (I hope) and how to keep the brain from becoming mush. I was toying with the idea of a final module with the OU but their course fees have shot up so started to look for alternatives yesterday. Exeter offers some very interesting modules in addition to the one you are taking and they are not extraordinarily expensive either. I’ll be interested to see how you get on with this….

    1. What is really frightening, Karen, is how slowly the lethargy creeps up on you. I have suddenly looked at where I am in comparison with where I was only a couple of years ago and not only am I horrified but I also have no idea how I have managed to get into such a position. I think it’s partly because no one is holding me to account for the quality of my thinking any longer.

      Yes, university fees are frightening now. I did wonder about doing a degree in a subject area relatively new to me, but that would be £27000 over three years and there is simply no way that I could afford it. At one time there would have been no problem because I would have been able to immerse myself in extramural work at the local university. Alas, those days are long gone. Exeter is one of only a handful of universities that offer anything at all. I thought if this course went well then I would also do their January module on Dorothy L Sayers. Apart from anything else, that would mean that I could legitimately lock myself away over Christmas and read right through the Peter Wimsey books. Then I might look at one of the Oxford courses after Easter which have an assessed element to them and are therefore rather more taxing.

  5. I’ve been thinking about retiring after another year and three-quarters, when my youngest graduates from college. Every so often, another of my friends who has already done it tells me another cautionary tale, and I appreciate that.
    Hope the Dickens course is fun.

  6. What fun! I hope you enjoy the class. I do love Dickens and have just realized I have not read anything by him this year. I’ve been trying to read one book a year. Not much time left. I’ll have to do a shorter book. Maybe Oliver Twist, that’s short for Dickens isn’t it? And I haven’t read it yet, then when you talk about it here I will be on top of things!

    From someone for whom retirement is 20 years away at least, I wold love to worry about my brain turning to mush!

    1. Yes, Oliver Twist is relatively short in comparison with some of the others. It’s also early and it really shows, I think. Dickens hasn’t learnt how to keep his own voice out of the narrative. Please believe me, you do not want a mushy brain. It is as near to self-loathing as I have ever come.

  7. Good idea. It’s akin to what happened to my French – I genuinely don’t understand how I got to A level standard then it almost all disappeared again. I hope you enjoy the Dickens course and look forward to hearing about it. Good luck with the Learning Environment!

  8. I’d love to join you for this class if only I had time and was close to Exeter, that is! Enjoy and let us know about what you learn! (I feel that when you have a clear goal and that you share it to other people, you’re more prone to stick to it)

    1. You don’t need to live near Exeter, Smithereens, as the course is online. The farthest participant as far as I can see is from Argentina. However, you do need time. Like all of these things the work takes far longer than the tutor estimates.

  9. I must say I don’t find you intellectually lazy at all! But if this means you will be blogging more regularly, good.:) My husband has enjoyed online courses, though the one I tried, at Harvard, of all places, was like Goodreads: no deadlines and everyone seemed to be posting about different books. I love Dickens and hope this course will turn out.

    1. Online courses are definitely a mixed bunch, Kat. So far this seems to have been well thought through and the comments on other courses run by the same university are all very positive (although they may have weeded out those that weren’t :-)). Oxford also run a good few. Theirs are rather more demanding though because there is an assessed element to each one.

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