Dickens. Where to start? How to put my adoration into articulate words? To put it simply, I think Dickens is a genius. My first experience of reading Dickens came when I was probably much too young and naive. There was a weekly magazine series in which every week you were given a book Charles Dickens had written. My Nan very kindly subscribed to this rather overpriced product, knowing how much I adored reading, but perhaps unknowingly sparking a lifelong passion. Whilst the majority of the plot and underlying themes may have been too accomplished for my juvenile head to comprehend, it is surely a testament to the power of Dickens that I still fell head over heels for this Victorian writer. The words, the language, the characters, the grim realities, the comedic elements, the satire. Every single word, every single sentence was so masterfully crafted. Needless to say, I have a definite case of writer’s envy. This passion is something that has continued to bloom in abundance, and I will one day have read his entire lengthy back catalogue. After my boyfriend recently surprised me with the stunning Penguin English Library cover of Hard Times, a novel which I had not then read, my next reading choice required no contemplation.
As I have found with all of Dickens works, he is the perfect writer to analysis, critique and explore. I will not, however, make this post into an academic study, but rather a review of the lighter kind. After all, if given free rein, who knows where I would stop!
Hard Times is probably one of Dickens’s lesser known novels. I certainly went into this novel with no real knowledge of what to expect, which quite often I prefer. The book itself is set within the fictitious industrial town of Coketown, and the opening scenes take place within Mr Gradgrind’s School, where facts and realities are the only things deemed worthy of any value. Sissy Jupe, the daughter of a man working in a travelling circus, is first seen attending this school, where she is woefully embarrassed and chastised for her lack of knowledge in suiting with Gradgrind’s lifestyle and teachings. Yet within the initial chapters, Sissy’s father, wanting better for her, abandons his young daughter, who is charitably taken in by Mr Gradgrind on the conditions that she never talk of her circus upbringing. What follows is a study of not only Mr Gradgrind’s views and the dangerous effect it has upon his children, Lousia and Tom, but it is also a look at the other members of the town, and how life in an industrialised community can be. From the wealthy and ‘self-made’ business man, Josiah Bounderby, to the humble and honest Mill worker, Stephen Blackpool, a man haunted by his drunken wife and the victim of a society. Dickens certainly does what he does best, and brings a multitude of diverse characters and voices into a vibrant life.
The novel follows a classical tripartite structure, dividing the work into three books; Sowing, Reaping and Garnering. This device produces a clear feeling of development, especially with the use of the agricultural seasons, and we gain a sense of some sort of impeding grand event looming ever closer. The first chapter is extremely short, a mere one and a half pages, but it does an excellent job of establishing the story, and the author’s critique of Utilitarianism. We are introduced to Thomas Gradgrind, a man described as a ‘canon loaded to the muzzle with facts, and prepared to blow’ his pupils ‘clean out of the regions of childhood at one discharge’ p. 5. Not only does Dickens critique the ways in which the preciousness of childhood is ruined by members of society such as Gradgrind, but he also shows his unique flare for creating such richly envisioned characters.
As you can probably see, I loved the characterisation within this book. I honestly feel it is one of Dickens’s many great strengths, and highly admire his ability to caricature both people and objects. For example, the house Mr Gradgrind resides in is named ‘Stone Lodge’, which is just another lovely little detail reflecting this man’s unmovable resolve. Likewise, Mr Bounderby, the business man who constantly reminds the world that he was abandoned by his mother and lifted himself from the gutter into the self-made man he is today, is a hilarious, exaggerated example of the hypocrisies people are capable of. Reading any of Dickens’s works, you cannot help but feel that he had truly studied and understood people to a fantastic degree.
Another little detail I really appreciated (although not from Dickens himself) was the way in which the artwork of this Penguin English Library edition incorporates themes from the actual story. In chapter two, the children are taught how only factual things will be tolerated. For example, there cannot be horses situated on wallpaper, and it is not a factual representation to state that horses can climb walls. Having an assemblage of horses climbing up the cover of this book was a lovely manifestation of the story, and an ironic call to attention of the sheer absurdity of this life so encumbered by facts.
Charles Dickens was a writer who was absolutely aware of the society in which he lived, and a man more than willing to critique what he found to be ridiculous or unfair. This was actually what I wrote my dissertation on, and is a topic I could warble on for hours about. The biggest critique within this book is definitely that of Utilitarianism. In the juxtaposed characters of Sissy, the uneducated but free circus child, and Gradgrind’s daughter, Lousia, a girl held down by facts and expectations, we clearly see how different ways of thinking and living can mould people. In Sissy, Dickens shows that people hold their own individual character and personalities, and that compassion and love are to be valued just as highly, if not more so, than the numerous facts of the world. Dickens critiques how children can be caged by the Victorian society, just as he had also rebelled against the caging of women within the domestic sphere (think Nancy).
Dickens also places great importance within this text to the idea of industrialism. The inhabitants of Coketown make their living through daily manual toil, yet the novel suggests that this is not necessarily the way society should value themselves, Bounderby being a hypocritical example. Just like the regularity of the machines are kept running daily, so does the way in which Gradgrind and his school try to methodically instill within their pupils the ‘correct’ way of thinking. Yet readers will see how well that works out for him, and indeed, perhaps the same warning is implied towards the industrailised town. The opening paragraph of chapter fourteen I found extremely interesting:
‘Time went on in Coketown like its own machinery: so much material wrought up, so much fuel consumed, so many powers worn out, so much money made. But, less inexorable than iron, steel, and brass, it brought its varying seasons even into that wilderness of smoke and brick, and made the only stand that ever was made in the place against its direful uniformity’ p. 101.
The importance and power placed on the natural environment, specifically the seasons, really shows a battle between what is natural and what is man made. The continued lexical set of industry (‘fuel’, ‘money’, ‘steel’, ‘brick’) should overwhelm the entire town, yet through the murky scenes, the seasons hold their own, and Dickens shows the great fortitude of nature.
Something which I did find rather irksome was the emphasis on this editions blurb upon Sissy Jupe. Not knowing much about the story, I went into this novel believing that Sissy was a central figure, when in reality she is kept absent or in the background for a large proportion of the book. I would argue that Louisa, Gradgrind’s daughter, is more of a prominent figure within the text. Sissy definitely felt like more of a tool, a springboard from which to launch the story and establish the family, and a symbol of everything which goes against Gradgrind and his utilitarianism.
In many ways, I do not feel that novel is as well crafted as various other works from Dickens. There are lots of offshoots within the story, imparting the feeling that there is not necessarily a central plot line. Whilst Dickens’s works do have a habit of things coincidentally working out to a positive result, I did feel that some of the events within this were almost too staged, and I could almost glimpse Dickens himself choreographing the outcomes. My main example of this would be when Stephen Blackpool is missing, and Sissy and Rachael decide to go for a walk, only to find the missing Stephen injured down an old mine shaft (of course). Additionally, I have to admit that it was rather strange reading one of his novels that is actually not set within London. Dickens is now so completely synonymous with the grim, murky streets of London that I did feel slightly lost as I tried to adapt to the different surroundings.
Despite some small areas which I had light issues with, I did enjoy this book. Let’s be honest, it is Charles Dickens, and I highly doubt I will ever encounter a book I do not enjoy from him. As always, he exhibits within this book his great talent in making his audience aware, and also care, about the larger social issues being both obviously and discreetly discussed, whilst providing an entertaining plot and richly envisioned characters.
Publisher: Penguin English Library