‘Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!’Mr Thomas Gradgrind’s speech, the opening paragraph to Hard Times, is probably as famous as the novel itself. Published in 1854, Hard Times tells the story of a fictional Northern industrial town by the name of Coketown, and particularly of the Gradgrind family. Thomas Gradgrind brings up his children according to the strict precepts of Fact. But when Cecelia Jupe, the daughter of a circus performer, enters their lives, the Gradgrind children come into contact with a different, warmer, far more human world than the one they had thus far inhabited.
Hard Times was my first foray into Dickens’ novels proper – before I’d only read the odd short story and A Christmas Carol. The reason why I decided to read Hard Times for the Classics Circuit Duelling Authors tour is not because I’m #teamdickens rather than #teamausten, but because next month I’m going to see a stage adaptation of this novel by the same theatre company who did the production of A Christmas Carol I raved about last December. Hard Times will be performed at an old mill and will no doubt draw on Manchester’s industrial history. As I’m sure you can imagine, to say that I’m excited is an understatement.
But moving on to the novel itself: I quite enjoyed Hard Times for what it was, though while reading it I was well aware of what someone who is not a Dickens fan (or just not a fan of this novel) could take issue with. For example, the social commentary in the novel is obvious to the point of heavy-handedness, but then again what is now obvious did once did need to be said. Dickens’ points about the dehumanisation of the working classes and the precarious conditions they live under may seem very evident, but they’re made with real passion and heart. And if you expand the geographical circle you’re considering, they’re as valid now as they were a century and a half ago.
Having said that, I did find Dickens occasionally guilty of oversimplification – his portrayals of Trade unions or Utilitarians, for example, are not exactly rich in nuance. I think some of the things that make him such a vivid, engaging writer also work against him, and one of them is his tendency to illustrate his points through ethical black and whites. The same is true of the characterisation in Hard Times: the characters are certainly memorable, but they resemble types or caricatures more than real human beings. Furthermore, his women are all very stereotypically Victorian – angelic and sacrificing. He’s certainly no Wilkie Collins in that regard. Still, I have to say that the characterisation issues bothered me a lot less in Dickens than it probably would in any other author, which is a testament to how well he does what he sets out to do.
What I enjoyed the most about Hard Times was the fact that it’s ultimately a tribute to the imagination and the role it plays in making us human. I don’t buy into the diametrical opposition between the imagination on the one hand, and reason, fact or scientific-mindedness on the other that the novel presents, but the theme really spoke to me all the same. Again, Dickens managed to annoy me considerably less than any other author who did the exact same probably would. This doesn’t sound like much of a compliment, I know, but actually it is.
Last but not least, I absolutely loved his language, his humour, and his powerful satire. For example:
There was a library in Coketown, to which general access was easy. Mr. Gradgrind greatly tormented his mind about what the people read in this library: a point whereon little rivers of tabular statements periodically flowed into the howling ocean of tabular statements, which no diver ever got to any depth in and came up sane. It was a disheartening circumstance, but a melancholy fact, that even these readers persisted in wondering. They wondered about human nature, human passions, human hopes and fears, the struggles, triumphs and defeats, the cares and joys and sorrows, the lives and deaths of common men and women! They sometimes, after fifteen hours' work, sat down to read mere fables about men and women, more or less like themselves, and about children, more or less like their own. They took De Foe to their bosoms, instead of Euclid, and seemed to be on the whole more comforted by Goldsmith than by Cocker. Mr. Gradgrind was for ever working, in print and out of print, at this eccentric sum, and he never could make out how it yielded this unaccountable product.Hard Times may not have become my new favourite Victorian novel, but I think my experience with it bodes well for my future forays into Dickens. Now I only need to decide between Great Expectations and Bleak House.
In that charmed apartment, the most complicated social questions were cast up, got into exact totals, and finally settled - if those concerned could only have been brought to know it. As if an astronomical observatory should be made without any windows, and the astronomer within should arrange the starry universe solely by pen, ink, and paper, so Mr Gradgrind, in his Observatory (and there are many like it), had no need to cast an eye upon the teeming myriads of human beings around him, but could settle all their destinies on a slate, and wipe out all their tears with one dirty little bit of sponge.
‘I am sure we are constantly hearing, ma’am, till it becomes quite nauseous, concerning their wives and families,’ said Bitzer. ‘Why look at me, ma’am! I don't want a wife and family. Why should they?’
‘Because they are improvident,’ said Mrs. Sparsit.
‘Yes, ma’am,’ returned Bitzer, ‘that’s where it is. If they were more provident and less perverse, ma’am, what would they do? They would say, “While my hat covers my family,” or “while my bonnet covers my family,” - as the case might be, ma’am – “I have only one to feed, and that’s the person I most like to feed.”’
‘To be sure,’ assented Mrs. Sparsit, eating muffin.
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