10/20/2017 Staff Writer

Autumn Research Fair: Learning Why Writers Write What They Know

Time-honored advice for would-be authors is “write what you know.” Franklin & Marshall College senior Joseph Yamulla kept that in mind as he researched how location and place influenced the writings of 19th-century novelist Charles Dickens.

“Basically, when you think about Dickens, who he was and how he wrote, he was very much a reflection of his surroundings,” Yamulla said. “The city of London is definitely at the heart of what he wrote.”

Yamulla, from Hazleton, Pa., used a Marshall Fellows grant to fund “Location and Dislocation in Victorian Literature,” under the guidance of Professor of English Patricia O’Hara. 

  • Joseph Yarmulla traveled to London to study the places where writer Charles Dickens lived and worked. Image Credit: Deb Grove

“I’ve been working with Professor O’Hara,” Yamulla said. “We realized the best way to go about the research would be to go to London and get a sense of the location; visit some of the places that were extremely influential in his stories.”

Yamulla said O’Hara “helped me turn random ideas into a concrete project.” The Marshall Fellows grant made his summer trip to London possible.

An English literature major and Spanish minor, Yamulla spent two weeks doing research in London. He visited sites that spanned the novelist’s entire life, from fixtures of Dickens’ childhood to the office in which his first newspaper article was published.

“It was a chance to look at the sites from a perspective outside my own,” Yamulla said. “I could ‘go back in time’ a little bit.”

Yamulla visited the exclusive Inns of Court in London, where Dickens worked as a clerk from age 15. The experience gave the student some sense of what the author would later immortalize in such books as “Bleak House,” for example.

“What was it like to be in these extravagant legal Inns of Court, when half a mile down the road there was extreme poverty?” Yamulla asked. “It really gave me a sense of the disparity between rich and poor, and that was something that was really profound for him in his stories.”

  • The best of times -- novelist Charles Dickens at his writing desk in 1858. Image Credit: George Herbert Watkins

For Yamulla, traveling on his own — “definitely a little intimidating” — concentrated his experience and his research.

“What really verified my project as a whole was being ‘dislocated’ myself and going somewhere entirely foreign to me,” he said.

Traveling to the source of Dickens’ inspiration allowed him “to see things in a way that was not like looking at academic resources at home,” Yamulla said. “Really experiencing the influence of one massive place on somebody ... really helped me understand the foundations of Dickens and other writers of that era.”

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