Professor Rowland Mcmaster died in Edmonton, 20 July 2013. An erudite scholar and teacher of Victorian literature, and a loyal colleague and friend, he made exceptional contributions to scholarship on Dickens, Thackeray, and Trollope, to teaching, to the Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada, and to both the Association of Canadian University Teachers of English (as it then was) and English Studies in Canada.
Rowland was born on 5 December 1928 in Marrickville, a town of modest, red brick bungalows not far from Sydney, Australia. When he was three months old the family immigrated to Canada, settling in what is now Mississauga, where his career as our most attentive scholar of Dickens was set in motion the day he found, in an old trunk of his uncle’s, The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit and A Tale of Two Cities. “Since I’m a very slow reader,” he wrote, “I was still reading Dickens for my doctorate” (“Photographic Memory” 3). At one point when he was a teenager, that doctorate seemed beyond imagining, for his father, during a period of unemployment, moved the family to northern Ontario where both McMaster men worked in a sawmill. Rowland felt, he later recollected, “like David Copperfield in the blacking warehouse, as though all I had learned and hoped to learn were slipping away from me forever” (27). [End Page 31] The experience surely laid some of the groundwork for the great empathy he later brought to helping students faced with obstacles of others’ making.
Fortunately, the exile from learning proved short. In 1949, with a bursary from University College, he enrolled in Honour English Language and Literature at the University of Toronto. He graduated in 1953, standing first among all those in the program. He especially valued the rigor and structure of the program’s defined set of courses, historically laid out, with an emphasis on close study of texts. When studying eighteenth-century literature, he recollected, he would in the same year “also be reading eighteenth-century philosophy,… history, etc.” (“Editorial Review” 250). And he would be taking other honour subjects: “two years of honour philosophy, three years of Latin, and four years of French” (251). “The sense of coherence and relation was immensely stimulating” (250), he remembered, and stood in strong contrast to the later freedom of students “to have the same diluted general miscellany” (252). He was “hooked” (252). So “hooked” that he could recall with wry self-denigration that, in “an exquisitely painful session where [F. E. L. Priestley] took a slovenly essay of mine apart phrase by blundering phrase, I learned more about writing than at any other time in my education.” So “hooked” that he could even praise Professor Priestley for the “corrosiveness” of his remarks, understanding that it “went along with a perfectly friendly concern. It was in fact the sign of concern” (“The Canadian Scholar” 138).
So “hooked” that he went on to write an ma thesis on “Irony in Tennyson” and then his doctoral thesis, “Charles Dickens: A Study of the Imagery and Structure of His Novels.” He did so against the academic consensus in the 1950s that Dickens was “stuffy” and against the tendency of the time “to treat [Dickens’s imagery] as a tissue of eccentricities. No one would treat the imagery of a poem that way,” he observed before stating his own large ambition: to “examine the imagery of Dickens’ total vision with the same particularity and the same eye for meaningful patterns and recurrences that one would bring to the reading of poetry. To do this I shall take the whole body of Dickens’ work as constituting a consistent, unified vision” (“Charles Dickens” 2).
And so Rowland McMaster began to change the course of Dickens studies. He read with extraordinary attention and erudition. Always focused firmly on imagery and structure in the novels, and moving out from there to the high culture and the popular culture, the politics, the class system, the legal system, and the commerce of Victorian England, and to a lesser extent of Europe, he showed us how “integral” to Dickens’s vision were “horror” and...