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Michael Slater

Professor Michael Slater: An Oration to Welcome Him as Fellow of Birkbeck College, 8 March 2003

When he retired from Birkbeck's School of English and Humanities two years ago, Michael Slater had worked and taught continuously at Birkbeck for 36 years. When the Master before last swept into the English department for an inaugural tour of inspection, and enquired of us all how long we had taught here, Michael's economical reply was 'forever'. Michael counts his life not in coffee spoons, but in Masters of Birkbeck successively counted in and seen off.

Michael was brought up in Reading. He went up to Balliol College Oxford, after a stint of National Service, during which the Russian he learnt in the expectation of reading Pushkin and Dostoevsky was put to use in army intelligence in Berlin. (His own account of these years stresses by contrast the importance of his role as procurer of East German maidens for army dances on the other side of the Wall.) After graduation, he joined the legendary Geoffrey Tillotson as a research assistant in 1962, while he worked on his Oxford DPhil on the materials, the making and the public reception of Dickens's The Chimes. Three years later he joined the department of English as a lecturer.

Michael had by now began his long and continuing dedication to the work of Dickens. His work on The Chimes expanded into an edition of Dickens's Christmas Books for Penguin, which succeeded in drawing serious attention to these popular, but until then critically neglected works.

From the Christmas Dickens, Michael turned his attention to the rather more prickly question of Dickens's transatlantic dealings, in his 1970 book Dickens on America and the Americans. 1983 saw the appearance of his Dickens and Women, a major work, and the fruit of some years' research. It is a book which balances in exemplary fashion the humanity and curiosity of the biographer and the shrewdness of the critic.

Many critical fashions have flared and guttered during Michael's career. For a period, Dickens Studies, once the preserve of benign, Chestertonian consensus, became a war of all against all, the field churned by the advances of psychoanalysts, feminists, cultural materialists and hawkish, razor-wielding deconstructionists. Through all this, Michael has managed not only to remain open to and inquisitive about all these currents of thought, but also able to earn anew the respect of Dickensians of every denomination. Though utterly possessed by Dickens, he has never been possessive of him. He is widely acknowledged and admired as the most generous of scholars. Whether student or colleague, nobody who has ever come to Michael with a question about the nineteenth century has ever failed to be illuminated and amazed by what Michael has been able to give them. He is a walking wordhoard, a living dictionary of phrase and fable, whose brain and tongue brim with the language of literature.Before the phrase was ever dreamt of (though, since it is so oddly Dickensian I do not hesitate to bestow it on him) Michael has always been a veritable Search Engine.

Michael's study of Dickens has always been nourished by a deep and extensive knowledge of nineteenth-century theatre. An edition of Nicholas Nickleby produced in 1973 made Michael Slater the explicator in chief of the RSC's groundbreaking dramatisation of the novel in 1980. Thereafter, his intense responsiveness to and shrewd awareness of theatricality meant that he started to be regularly in demand from directors, producers and editors, to advise and comment on the many adaptations of Dickens's works which have so multiplied in recent decades.

Michael's interest in theatricality is much more than theoretical or historical. During the early 1980s, he set himself to reviving the Birkbeck Players, the college dramatic society which had flourished in the first half of the century, with the most ambitious epic productions mounted in the incongruous setting of the then Harkness Hall. In the first production of a sequence of medieval plays, Michael himself strutted and fretted in the role of a roaring, infanticidal but, I thought, always slightly baffled, Herod. My own first shy peep into the public gaze was in Michael's landmark revival of one of Dickens's less-known works, his hyperactive farce The Strange Gentleman. Michael's own skills as an adapter have ever been to the fore in the dramatisations of Dickens's works he has organised for Birkbeck's annual Dickens days. Only the unworthy ever harboured the low suspicion that the extracts might have been chosen in order to secure the most illustrious parts for himself. This awareness of this striking affinity between the nineteenth-century novelist and contemporary media led last year to the conference he organised on Dickens: Man For All Media at the Institute for English Studies. He is an alarmingly gifted mimic. The dread of being 'done' by Michael is only outweighed for many of his colleagues by the chagrin at not making it into his repertoire.

The decade before Michael's retirement saw him furiously at work on a number of great projects. One of these was his editing of Dickens's voluminous journalistic writings for the magnificent 4-volume Dent Uniform Edition of Dickens's Journalism. The first volume of this appeared in 1994, and the other three followed at two-yearly intervals. This was no ordinary editorial job. Many of the pieces in the collection were being republished for the first or second time since their first appearance. Dickens was saturated in the everyday life of his time, and making sense of how he responded to these contemporary circumstances required Michael to follow him in all his multifarious passions, curiosities and enthusiasms, whether this was mesmerism, industrial politics, pugilism or pedestrian contests. or boxing. Michael made himself - and here I borrow a phrase from Carlyle for which I know he himself has a fondness - a 'Professor of Things in General', or, as Joyce has someone call Leopold Bloom, an 'Anythingarian'. Dickens has never had a better editor than Michael Slater, who bundles up together Dickens's own qualities: expansiveness and curiosity and limitless appetite for what he calls 'the amusements of the people', along with an extraordinary meticulousness and ferocious perfectionism, all of this irrigated by a deep conviction of the humanising power of laughter. As is fitting for an admirer of Edward Lear, that most melancholy of Victorian humorists, Michael takes the ludicrous extremely seriously.

During the 1990s, Michael also oversaw as general editor a complete new edition of Dickens's works published by Dent, which set new standards in the editing of nineteenth-century texts for general readers, standards secured very largely by Michael's own quiet, but undeflectable insistence on getting it right.

But I think that what will have given him most satisfaction in recent years will have been the bringing to completion of his marvellous biography of Douglas Jerrold, published last year. This is more than a fascinating recovery of the life and career of a man who, along with Dickens and Thackeray, formed the most celebrated comic triumvirate of the Victorian era. It is, as Michael had always hoped it would be, an important contribution to the cultural history of this period, through a life of one of its most representative and defining writers. In it, Michael can claim to have invented a new kind of crtical writing: let us call it 'cultural biography'. Michael continues his association with the School of English and Humanities as Emeritus Professor of Victorian Literature, as well as his close association with the University Library. Clearly having no intention to spend his retirement amid his nine bean-rows, or walking alone in the bee-loud glade, he has now coolly embarked on a biography of Dickens.

Michael Slater is one of the most highly-regarded scholars of nineteenth-century literature in the world today. He has held most of the important offices in the Dickens world. From 1958 to 1977 he edited The Dickensian. He has served as President both of the International Dickens Fellowship and of the Dickens Society of America, and has always been extremely actively involved in the affairs of Dickens House Museum. He has taught and lectured in the US, across Europe, Australasia and the Far East.

He has often entertained his colleagues with evocations of the legendary era of Geoffrey Tillotson that reigned when he joined the college. But over the more than three decades that he spent in the college, it was really Michael who made the Department a legendary place in which to work and study. He has touched and transformed the lives of literally thousands of students. It is only since he has been gone that we have recognised how much of the School and the College have been shaped and sustained by his presence and style.

A quaint tradition seems to have grown up among orators at Birkbeck, namely that shortly after having shuffled off the cares of one's oratorical office, one can expect to be invited to become the subject, the oratee, if I may be permitted the word, of one's successor. It is in any case highly satisfactory to have Michael, who was himself the College Orator from 1998-2000, sitting here as the subject of my attentions today. Having been set upon by my agents in Torrington Place earlier today and bundled into the back of a white Transit van he has been delivered to the very chair towards which he has himself launched so much finely-wrought praise and so many shafts of wit. Michael brought to bear on this job all the huge measure of his Keatsian 'negative capability', in entering so generously and energetically into the intellectual worlds of his subjects. I learned from him an immeasurable amount about what Auden called the 'art of praise', and it is sweet indeed to give Arthur today a taste of his Excalibur. Barbara Hardy one warned me that it was useless to invite anyone with any pretensions to performance or anecdote to dinner with Michael, as the ensuing humiliation could only wreck their self-esteem. All the more reason then that I should hasten to give way to my insuperable predecessor, and allow him to deliver the retaliation he has no doubt been quietly preparing, as I welcome him as Fellow of Birkbeck College.