HARD TIMES BY CHARLES DICKENS. (1854)
A BOOK REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©
I loved this book when I had to study it in school, just like I loved every other book of Dickens’s when I read it. Does that make me unusual, being a female person who likes Dickens and now reads him voluntarily, for pleasure, and not just because I have to answer exam questions on him? I don’t know, all I know is that I dig him. His understanding of the social mores of his day are really quite extraordinary.
Not only that though, but he’s endlessly funny as well, especially when it comes to depicting characters who have a highly inflated sense of their own importance. Characters like Mr. Bumble, the ‘porochial’ Beadle in OLIVER TWIST, which I read for Christmas this year, or Mr. Bounderby in HARD TIMES. We’ll get to him- old Bounders- in a minute, lol.
First let me introduce you to a Mr. Thomas Gradgrind, one of the leading lights not only of HARD TIMES, but also of Coketown, the grim, smog-wreathed fictional industrial town in Victorian England where the novel is set. Here’s what Dickens says about Mr. Gradgrind:
‘Thomas Gradgrind, Sir. A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over… With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, Sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic. You might hope to get some other nonsensical belief into the head of George Gradgrind, or Augustus Gradgrind, or John Gradgrind, or Joseph Gradgrind (all suppositious, non-existent persons), but into the head of Thomas Gradgrind- no, Sir!’
It’s important to understand how pragmatically practical, hard, cold and fact-based is Mr. Gradgrind’s belief system, or else nothing that follows will make sense. He eschews all fun and fancy, supposition and wonder, and he brings up his two eldest children, Louisa and Tom, under the yoke of the same harsh belief system.
They may privately long for some fun and fancy, but they know better, much better than to ask for it. They would only be directed straight back to their studies of fact-based sciences and mathematics. They are steeped in ‘ologies,’ you might say. Biology and bacteriology and etymology and every other ‘ology’ you might care to name.
‘Run along and be something-ological directly,’ their invalid mother tells them when they become too tiresome. Mrs. Gradgrind, who recedes into her bundle of shawls when life becomes too much for her (as it frequently does), is completely unable to cope with or comprehend her husband’s strict belief system.
It goes over her head, she is baffled by it. She worries all the time, perhaps, that she ‘will never hear the last of it.’ It’s not until the very end of her days that she has the courage to question even slightly the wisdom of the fact-based upbringing that was forced upon her children by their father. If only she’d acquired the courage sooner…!
The aforementioned Mr. Bounderby- Josiah Bounderby of Coketown, by Jove!- is the best friend of Mr. Gradgrind’s and a prominent local landowner and business-owner in Coketown to boot. Abandoned by his mother at an early age, a fact he never tires of telling people, he was dragged up by the bootstraps by a harsh and uncompromising Life, which Life has made him The Man He Is Today.
Namely, made of stern stuff and not expecting to be fed venison with a gold spoon every five minutes, as is, apparently, the dearest, most heartfelt wish of the Coketown ‘Hands,’ the nameless, faceless underlings who run his textile mills and other businesses for him.
He’s a braggart and a boaster and a bluffer who makes a constant pretence of a humility he doesn’t really feel. He has his eye on Louisa Gradgrind, even though he’s a good thirty years older than her. When Mr. Gradgrind tells Louisa that she must take Bounderby for a husband, she shrugs and says why not? What does it matter, when nothing else does?
A life without fun, laughter, love and life in it is barely worth living so why not? Why not marry old Bounderby, when one rubbish life experience is exactly the equal of another? As I don’t care either way, she tells her father, I might as well do what you ask. The marriage takes place.
Mrs. Sparsit, an ancient, Roman-nosed lady distantly related to ‘the quality,’ a fact of which neither she nor Mr. Bounderby ever tire of reminding people, is Josiah Bounderby’s house-keeper. She has her own matrimonial plans in relation to Mr. Bounderby, and is therefore immeasurably pissed off when he marries the much younger and prettier Louisa Gradgrind.
Spiteful old Mrs. Sparsit is thrilled skinny- well, maybe not skinny, never that!- when a dastardly young hound by the name of James Harthouse starts work with Mr. Bounderby and immediately sets his cap at Louisa.
Mrs. Sparsit is a nasty, prying old biddy who’d like nothing more than to see Louisa brought low and she, Mrs. Sparsit, installed in the younger woman’s place as mistress of the Bounderby house and estate.
Louisa by now is nearly dead inside emotionally, having had all and any finer feelings- or even attempts at same- hammered out of her, first by her father and then by her dreadful posturing husband, with his endless fake humility and making out loudly and brashly that he’s a self-made man who dragged himself up out of the gutters by the thumbnails.
Bored out of his selfish, foppish skull, James Harthouse decides that the thing he wants most in the world is to see Louisa smile at him the way she does at her brother Tom, whom she adores and who also works for Mr. Bounderby. Not in the same capacity as the Coketown ‘Hands,’ of course, who toil in the mills every day like the workers from Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS, but in a more official, gentlemanly capacity.
Harthouse can’t stand Tom, incidentally. He calls him ‘the whelp’ and does nothing to dissuade him from descending ever further into a terrible maelstrom of gambling debts that will ultimately be the ruination of him. Harthouse is a pretty much disreputable character.
If he persists in his affair with Louisa Bounderby, a married woman, however unhappily, she’ll be ruined in the eyes of society forever. (You might think that that’s not a big deal nowadays but it was back then, especially for women.) And for what? Because this little jackanapes James Harthouse was bored and wanted a challenge? The bastard…!
Sissy Jupe, the young orphaned girl taken in by Mr. Gradgrind and initially raised according to that gentleman’s beloved ‘system,’ is the one ray of light in the grey and gloomy House Of Gradgrind.
Born and bred in a travelling horse-riding circus, Sissy is a girl of many unusual qualities. She even manages to bring out the one solitary teensy-weensy shred of conscience in James Harthouse, if you can believe that, and is of immeasurable help to Mr. and Mrs. Gradgrind and the poor lost Louisa.
You see, Thomas Gradgrind’s ‘system’ doesn’t have any more effect on Sissy than water off a duck’s back, luckily for the Gradgrinds. It doesn’t ‘take’ with her, you see, and because of that she’s able to lead at least three Gradgrinds, gently and delicately and so as not to seem like she’s leading them at all, out of the murky darkness of the ‘system’ and into the light.
Mithter Thleary With A Pronounced Lithp, if you please, is the owner and ringmaster of Thleary’s Travelling Thircus, and a great friend to Sissy and the Gradgrinds too, in the end. If this book had been filmed in the 1940s or the 1950s, the lovely cuddly character actor Miles Malleson would have been the perfect choice to play him.
Mr. Sleary puts one of Dickens’s main messages in a pretty neat nutshell. People need fun, and laughs and entertainment. They can’t be ‘allus a-working.’ And people are neither facts nor statistics, either, they’re people.
How right he is. A happy, rested employee is a good employee. Mr. Sleary, for all his lack of any formal education, is streets ahead of the socially ‘superior’ Mr. Gradgrind in this particular matter.
Mr. Gradgrind isn’t a bad man at all, mind you, just severely misguided. When his beloved ‘system’ of facts and statistics collapses and he sees the results of it in his criminal son Tom and his broken daughter Louisa, he himself becomes a broken man.
I do love, however, when Tom, lately turned bank-robber and fugitive from the law, throws his father’s words back at him at the end. In a given period, x number of employees will steal from their employers. This being the case, when Tom himself turns round and steals from his employer, namely Mr. Bounderby, how can it be Tom’s fault?
The statistics speak the truth, don’t they? How can Tom help it if he’s just another statistic? This is one of the statistics once so beloved of Mr. Gradgrind, Superintendent of the School Board and responsible for filling so many little minds with the facts he craves. One gets the feeling that this grievously wounded gentleman won’t be relying on facts and statistics for solace and comfort in the future again.
It’s also hard on Mr, Gradgrind when he is confronted, in the form of Bitzer, ‘the light porter,’ with the very evidence of his ‘system-in-action.’ Have you no heart, he appeals to Bitzer, who is only too glad to rattle off the biological facts that go to prove that, undeniably present in his chest cavern, there beats the physical organ known as ‘the heart’ without which he wouldn’t be breathing and walking and talking and a-taking of ‘Young Tom’ here into custody, and surely Mr. Gradgrind, that well-known lover of facts, is aware of such a fact-based thing…?
Dickens brings in the Unions a lot as well and the poor wages and poor housing conditions of the Coketown ‘Hands,’ and indeed, their conditions are terrible. Unfortunately, however, I failed to like his main working-class hero, Stephen Blackpool, whose accent was drawn as being so thick that I could barely decipher it at times.
Plus he was a miserable git as well. So his wife’s an alcoholic miscreant who won’t give him the divorce he needs to marry Rachael, the real love of his life. Big whoop! We all have our troubles, our crosses to bear. Go out, have a few pints with friends and loosen up a bit. It’s not the end of the world.
I also disliked his mopey martyr of a girlfriend Rachael. Although I felt thorry- oops, I mean sorry!- for them both (ith thurprithingly hard to thop lithping once you thart!), I was much more interested in the actions and activities of the swells. The toffs. The big nobs. The gentry. The, as the Artful Dodger would surely put it, ‘Quali’y.’
Mr. Bounderby and Mrs. Sparsit are my favourite characters, and both long overdue for a come-uppance. How hard are the mighty fallen and all that. Dickens handles these come-uppances beautifully. Good on ya, Charlie. You da bomb.
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.
Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, film blogger, poet and book-and-movie reviewer. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, womens’ fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:
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