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Retired Professor Gives CSUN a Dickens of a Bequest

His world-class collection involving the English author will go to his former employer.

November 11, 2003|Patricia Ward Biederman | Times Staff Writer

Harry Stone has loved and collected the books of Charles Dickens and related material since he was a teenager. And on Monday, Cal State Northridge announced that the retired English professor was giving his collection of all things Dickens -- described as one of the three or four best in the world -- to the university.

"It's an extraordinary collection," said Susan Curzon, dean of the Oviatt Library, where the collection will reside. "We feel very privileged that Dr. Stone is entrusting his collection to us. It is a treasure for researchers and a treat for everyone."

The collection includes first editions of Dickens' novels, both as they appeared in monthly installments and in bound versions, letters, proof sheets corrected by Dickens, books about the literary giant and his work, volumes from his personal library (some with his distinctive lion bookplate), photographs, foreign language versions of his work, and even dolls and figurines inspired by his teeming universe of characters.

The library staff is cataloging the thousands of items in the collection, Curzon said. Selected items are on exhibit at the library through Nov. 26.

Among them is a letter Dickens wrote to Charles Collins, married to Dickens' daughter, Kate, asking for the current address of his brother, novelist Wilkie Collins. The letter bears Dickens' elaborate signature, signed with a flourish worthy of the Victorian icon that Dickens had become.

A specialist in Victorian literature, Stone, 77, taught at CSUN from 1960 until he retired in 1992.

Under the terms of his bequest, the collection will remain with the Westside resident until his death, then move to the university.

Northridge officials did not reveal the dollar value of the collection. But Nat Des Marais, a cataloger at the Heritage Book Shop in West Hollywood, said first editions of Dickens' novels command premium prices.

"We had a 'Bleak House' recently that sold for $150,000," Des Marais said, explaining that Dickens had changed the chapter titles throughout the volume in his own hand.

Stone credited his father, Bernard Stone, an Oxford University graduate, with encouraging his love of literature, especially Dickens.

Stone said he grew up in a house whose library included a complete set of Dickens, author of "David Copperfield," "Oliver Twist" and other classics characterized by sprawling casts of characters and descriptions so vivid that readers can all but smell and taste them.

Stone said he was in thrall to Dickens before he could read, thanks to the compelling illustrations.

Like other great writers, Stone said, Dickens is as relevant today as he was during his lifetime (1812-1870).

"He touched upon the basics of life," Stone said. "That's what any really, really towering figure does. Anyone in any time can read him and relate to him."

Among Stone's favorites by Dickens is "Great Expectations."

It is one of those books, he said, that serves as a touchstone for readers. A person reads it in high school "in one way," Stone said, "and then he reads it 10 years later in a different way. It seems like a different book because he is different."

A noted scholar, Stone has written or edited nine books on Dickens, including "The Night Side of Dickens: Cannibalism, Passion, Necessity."

Stone said he wrote this 1994 examination of Dickens' dark side as a corrective to the simplistic, upbeat view many people have of the writer, whose early traumas included his father's imprisonment for debt.

"When most people think of Dickens, they think of 'A Christmas Carol' and ho ho ho and a sentimental writer and things of that sort. But there's another Dickens too," Stone said.

Stone, who wrote his doctoral dissertation at UCLA on Dickens' reading, has studied the popular literature, often luridly illustrated, that fascinated Dickens from childhood and found its way, transmogrified by genius, into his work.

References to cannibalism are "all over the place" in the Dickens' canon, Stone said, because "it was something that horrified and terrified and disgusted him and, at the same time, fascinated and obsessed him."

In describing a less-than-sunny Dickens, Stone would have pleased Kate Dickens, who wrote to George Bernard Shaw: "If you could make the public understand that my father was not a jolly, jocose gentleman walking about the earth with a plum pudding and a bowl of punch you would greatly oblige me."

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