Ahem. Allow me to sprinkle some water on this review-drought by declaring, once again (and rather smugly) that I did read a ‘proper classic’ during my blog break. That is, Hard Times by Charles Dickens; giving a much-needed kick up the backside of my lazy reading habits.
This was the first, believe it or not, of the pristine novels from my Dickens spending spree last winter to be opened in earnest. My first Dickens novel (apart from A Christmas Carol, which each and every member of the Relish family devoured last year) in over a decade. Why did I choose Hard Times? Well, because Daddy Relish has fallen in love with the burlesque caricatures that are Thomas Gradgrind and Josiah Bounderby, because Dickens’ ‘Coketown’ was supposedly based on Preston and, well, let’s be honest, it’s the shortest of his novels by a good chunk. *Blush*
Fact, fact, fact; in his proper Utilitarian fashion, is all Thomas Gradgrind concerns himself with. Why live a life of frippery and fancy when you can concentrate on the sheer science of the matter in hand and thus be more efficient, profitable and successful in life? Believing his path to be the only one of any value, Gradgrind brings his own children, Louisa and Tom, and the adopted, willful, circus child Cecilia ‘Sissy’ Jupe up in a drab and loveless environment, to the detriment of all. Alongside Gradgrind we are introduced to the inimitable figure of Josiah Bounderby; the consummate self-made man and ‘Bully of Humility’, apparently dragged right up out of the gutter and, by his own force of will and personality, right into Fortune’s lap. We follow these unlikable men and watch, with the assistance of a supporting cast of enigmatic characters, as their way of life crumbles, in Dickens’ own moralistic fashion.
Rumour has it that Dickens’ social commentary punches through his narrative more so in Hard Times than in any of his other great novels, pitting the likes of Bounderby against the working classes whom he renames the ‘Hands’; the unfortunate Stephen Blackpool and his companion ‘Rachael’ being those among them who are given a voice by the author. We are presented with some huge, Engels-style concerns from the 19th century social commentator however, unlike Gaskell’s Mary Barton (her North and South, dealing with similar themes, was published at the same time as Hard Times) Dickens’ does this with panache; which worked with me and surely must have therefore pierced the psyche of his contemporary reader.
Although I found there were dips in the narrative from time to time (to be blamed on my low concentration span more than any lapse by the author), considering when this book was published (1854) Dickens’ prose and dialogue is natural, well-considered and witty. We’re dealing with a pro here after all ladies and gentleman.
Dickens’ political stances are clear, yes the condition of the working classes at the time was appalling and no, he didn’t agree with much of what the Utilitarian movement had to say for itself. But does he ram this down your throat? No. We are nudged and persuaded in an ever so gentle fashion through sheer entertainment. Bounderby is a monstrous, capitalist buffoon, supported by his ridiculous employee ‘Mrs Sparsit’, who was so achingly satirical and vivid in my mind that I was desperate for more.
The only really galling character (who unfortunately took up a lot of space on the page) was the honest, hard-working and, by all accounts, hard done by Stephen Blackpool. Allow me to demonstrate:
‘Weel, ma’am,’ said Stephen, making the best of it, with a smile; ‘when I ha’ finished off, I mun quit this part, and try another. Fortnet or misfortnet, a man can but try; there’s nowt to be done wi’out tryin’-cept laying down and dying.’
‘Thou changest me from bad to good. Thou mak’st me humbly wishfo’ to be more like thee, and fearfo’ to lose thee when life is ower, and a’ the muddle cleared awa’. Thou’rt an Angel;’
Eeeek! There are whole pages of this fake ‘Lancashire dialect’, and although I know it’s an attempt at authenticity and no doubt the ‘hands’ of Preston, Manchester, and other Northern mill towns at the time spoke a little bit like this, it struck me as rather patronising and was pretty tiresome to read on the way to work in the morning. And I’m as northern as they come! *Sigh* It also occurred to me that Stephen was the only person to speak in this irritating way in the entire novel. Not even fellow ‘hand’ Rachael went ‘tup Mill’, so, explain to me Mr Dickens, why oh why?!!!!!
Phew, rant over. Clearly overall this book rightly deserves its slim space on the classics shelf. It is, like most of Dickens’ novels, a true window into Victorian England, and really rather funny as well. This could also be a miserable book, but the beauty and skill of Dickens’ writing simply doesn’t allow for misery or boredom. (Unless Stephen Blackpool opens his mouth.) All I wanted was a little more Sissy. Cecilia Jupe is often cited as the heart of this novel, the heart to Gradgrind’s chunk of coal who comes to everyone’s rescue in the end. But does she? She is present in a mere fraction of chapters, the majority of them barely to say a few lines and could, I feel, have been much more pivotal to the story. She becomes a presence just in time for the end of the book and it makes me wonder whether Dickens intended for her to be such a major player in the first place and whether the romantics among us have afforded her more importance as time has gone by….hmmm…thought-provoking stuff.
If you appreciate anything deliciously old-fashioned, do pick up Charles Dickens if you haven’t done so already. There’s a reason he’s considered to be one of, if not the, greatest English writer of all time.