Drawn to Victorian prose
Close at hand on the crowded bookshelves that dominate Rowland McMaster's office is an edition of Chaucer's collected works that speaks volumes about McMaster's 35-year career as a teacher and scholar of English literature at the University of Alberta.
It has already made one trip to the bindery and wears a cheerful red cover, now taped and patched. Inside, the pages are loaded with marginalia, comments first written in pencil and then repeated in ink, as if to corroborate each notation. It reads like a diary, revealing something about the time, place and thoughts of the careful reader and writer who perused its pages.
"Chaucer is the most delightful course to teach," says McMaster, who received a 1993 Kaplan Award from the University in recognition of his distinguished research career. The professor, who gets into medieval character to treat students to Chaucer readings and even songs, boasts that "Chaucer is more performable and humorous than almost anybody in English literature — besides Dickens."
If McMaster seems to be sticking up for Charles Dickens, well, he's been doing it for most of his life. He has been drawn to Victorian prose, Dickens in particular, ever since he was a child captivated by some Dickens editions discovered in a late uncle's mouldy steamer trunk. But the Kaplan Award winner gravely recalls that while at the University of Toronto in 1949, he was told that Dickens was "a very bad thing, tasteless, perverse, unmodern." Nonetheless, he stuck to his own preference and chose the Victorian humorist as the subject of his doctorate, just as the intellectual tide was turning.
"Victorian studies really only started going in the '50s and '60s, then really became a major enterprise," McMaster explains. "Dickens is one of the biggest industries going on now in literature, but he wasn't when I started. At the time, people rather questioned why you were working on a stuffy old Victorian author."
Recalling how unfashionable Dickens once was, McMaster cites a research trip to England he made early in his career to study the extensive collection of notes Dickens made while writing each of his novels. It was like discovering a gold mine. "Hardly anybody had looked at the stuff. Dickens was so unremarkable that you could walk in the library, ask to look at one of the original manuscripts, and it was plunked down in front of you." He marvels that as a young scholar he was left alone in a room with material today considered priceless treasure and kept under lock and key.
The "stuffy old Victorian author" has endured, and so has McMaster's Dickens research. A student edition of Great Expectations that McMaster edited in 1965 is still in print and in use — complete with his original introduction. One authority has commented, "By 1962 [McMaster] had published five essays on Dickens that exerted more influence and authority than Rowland McMaster any half-dozen books." U of A English department chair Shirley Neuman says that 35 years after publication these essays are still frequently cited by scholars.
Neuman says that at least part of the reason McMaster's work has endured is because "he has always done intellectual history. As the discipline of Victorian studies has changed, it has expanded from a focus on textual analysis to include large cultural, intellectual and historical concerns. cerns. What Rowland has been doing all along is exactly like the very best scholarship being done today as the latest thing."
In recent years McMaster has applied a historical perspective to Dickens's contemporaries Thackeray and Trollope and, the politics, law, and intellectual and social cial milieu of their day. While writing Trollope and the Law, McMaster became such an expert in 19th-century legal history that Lord Patrick Devlin, a retired British Lord Justice of Appeal, wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that in the book McMaster "leaves no legal point without skilful elucidation."
McMaster's most recent work has been on Thackeray's The Newcomes. The U of A professor has written a book, Thackeray's Cultural Frame of Reference, as well as a historical introduction and literally thousands of annotations about this novel, sometimes described as "the richest of all Victorian fictions."
Throughout his career as an English scholar, McMaster has actively served his profession. He was an early president of the Association of Canadian University I Teachers of English, and in the mid-'80s, he was an acclaimed editor of the Association's journal, English Studies in Canada, a publication he had himself helped found in the early '70s.
A perennial keystone of the University's English department, McMaster arrived just as the idea of establishing graduate studies in English was coming to fruition, and was designated chair of the committee in charge of shaping the new program. "We put together a first-class program that exploded hugely in the '60s. People came from all over the world for it, and it was a terribly exciting time to be at the University," recalls McMaster.
McMaster taught one of the first graduate courses offered in English at the U of A, and that experience changed his life in an unexpected way. One of his first students was a talented scholar and athlete who went on to become the University's first English PhD graduate, a distinguished Victorian scholar, a Royal Society of Canada fellow, a Killam fellow, a Guggenheim fellow, the holder of a prestigious "university professor" appointment— and McMaster's wife (Juliet McMaster, who also teaches English at the University). In his Kaplan Award speech, McMaster joked: "Wherever we are there is a 24-hour-a-day staff meeting and scholarly discussion going on."
The McMasters' partnership is one factor that has kept them in Edmonton over the years. The constant infusion of talented scholars and students into the English department has also kept it an exciting place to be teaching and learning, McMaster says. "The fun of teaching keeps me here. There's no better job going than having all these brilliant young people around whom you can argue with."
A student of McMaster's long before she became English department chair, Shirley Neuman recalls, "For him, the distinction between teaching and research is entirely spurious. He's always taught through his research, and much of his research has sprung from his teaching."
This year will be McMaster's last as a full-time faculty member at the University, as he is slated for mandatory retirement in 1994. One English department colleague has said that "whatever benefits compulsory retirement may bring the University, in this case it brings unmitigated loss."
The jovial McMaster is noncommittal about his retirement plans and doesn't rule out the possibility that he might try his own hand at writing the Great Novel: "If you consider the great English novelists," he confides, "many of them were pretty long in the tooth when they started."'
Published Autumn 1993.