Friday Blog Sept 14 – Mitchell Classics group falls on Hard Times

Time to hear again from our Dickens Champions.

Report by Lauren:

The Mitchell Classics Group really enjoyed Hard Times and generally thought it was more thought-provoking and harder-hitting than Dickens’ other novels. Yes, the humour, the pathos, the well-drawn character studies, the saintly heroines, the dastardly, conniving baddies, and yes, even the moral torment of most of the characters in some form or other are there, but these are all played out on an even darker and grimier scale.

Hard Times is based in Coketown, an imaginary industrial town in the north of England at the height of the Industrial Revolution. In this novel, Dickens attacks the rise of industry and its relentless pursuit of profit, and the de-humanisation of the people that work in the factories, the ‘Hands’.

He also criticises an educational system that did not leave room for the humanity in the humanities. Facts and statistics were to replace compassion, generosity, good ol’ common sense, and generally what are considered Christian virtues, with references to Christianity and the bible sprinkled in both straight and ironic references throughout the novel. In the very beginning of the book, we meet Thomas Gradgrind, the headmaster of the school in Coketown, instructing the teacher, Mr. M’Choakumchild:

‘Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life’…The speaker, and the schoolmaster, and the third grown person present, all backed a little, and swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels, then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.’

Our book group found this novel to have contemporary relevance, and saw modern parallels for the issues that Dickens raised. Dickens’ attack on Victorian industrialisation depicted on a local level and its subsequent pollution – environmental and, arguably human – along with the debate on what was to be taught in schools were seen to have strong correlations to issues of the 21st century, with its debate on large-scale problems such as the global expansion of industry and its effects on global warming, and the quality and standard of our ‘modern’ educational systems.

And yes, in the end the baddies recieve their comeuppance, the ‘morally challenged’ live to regret their mistakes and the good-hearted are rewarded (mostly), but the happy ending in the lighter hues and pinks of Dickens’ other works is not to be found here, and with such heavy subject matter, we believe it gives these heavy issues their proper due.

What Anne Marie thought:

Of the novels that we have read so far, this has been the most socially engaged. In a depressed, polluted, exploitative – and imaginary – northern urban setting, Dickens sets the old wealth and the new entrepreneurs against the workers in the mill, the “Hands”. It has huge resonances for today. What could Dickens have drawn from the banking crisis, the speculation and dealing, the buying and selling of debt, the miss-selling of payment protection policies, the austerity drives, the debates on the purpose and styles of education of our own times?

The banker, the educator, the well-connected young man on the make, the ill-educated young man pushed to the wrong career, the exploited workers, the struggling circus performers, the trade unionist, they’re all there and more. And, as always with Dickens, there’s a good supply of “put-upon” wives, submissive daughters, orphaned or abandoned waifs with hearts of gold. And there is the wonderful character of Mrs Sparsit. Who but Dickens could have imagined her?

She is introduced to us in chapter 7 and in just two concise paragraphs we have her well- connected family background, her ill-fated marriage, her abrupt widowhood, her family feud and consequent but stubbornly determined self reliance. “And here she was now, in her elderly days, with the Coriolanian style of nose and the dense black eyebrows which had captivated Sparsit, making Mr Bounderby ‘s tea as he took his breakfast.” Her rather intriguing relationship with Bounderby is developed in several beautifully choreographed conversations. Each one of them a screenwriter’s dream – you would only have to lift them straight from the page – and they even have their own inbuilt actor’s notes: “Mrs Sparsit’s Coriolanian nose underwent a slight expansion of the nostrils, and her black eyebrows contracted as she took a sip of tea. “

Throughout the novel we watch as Mrs Sparsit inadvertently sets up her own fall from grace. Her scheming, self-interest brings about her downfall and how we relish seeing her soaked to the skin, crawling with caterpillars, rills running from her bonnet, her shoes squelching, as she spies on Louisa and Harthouse, plotting Louisa’s downfall and simply setting in motion the steps which lead to both her own and to Bounderby’s.

In one of Dickens’ darker novels, she is an absolute joy.

What Matthew thought:

This novel appears to be Dickens’ attempt at addressing the huge changes taking place, both industrial and social. People were moving off the land into the emerging cities, ‘Coketown’ could be Manchester, or Sheffield, and to meet the demands of a growing labour force they were housed in poor and unsanitary housing developments within the cities.

Thomas Gradgrind, extolling that everything can be explained by facts, facts, facts, has echoes of Charles Darwin’s (1809-82) theory of ‘Natural Selection’. Later in the novel with Louisa, in an unhappy marriage to Bounderby, and his son embroiled in gambling and robbery, Gradgrind is forced to recognise the value of human emotions, and starts to re-appraise his former values.

The change in Gradgrind’s values may be due to the author taking note of his readership, who would be mainly the new emerging middle class, many would be wealthy, through industry and manufacturing, but were embracing the morality and temperance associated with Christian values of the Victorian era. With the expansion of the British Empire, countries such as Africa would have its missionaries such as David Livingstone (1813-73) carrying the Christian message.

In spite of its title, Hard Times is not a hard-hitting, or political novel. Unusual for Dickens, he uses a female character, Sissy Jupe, the circus artiste, to convey a well-balanced and sensible attitude to life; compared to her Louisa is the dutiful and selfless daughter making little imprint.

Some of the characters are a reshuffle of previous types:

  1. Mr. Bounderby – could be Mr. Bumble in Oliver Twist
  2. Tom Gradgrind – could be Monks from Oliver Twist
  3. Stephen Blackpool, a weaver, who knows his place in society therefore poses no threat to his employers – could be Joe the Blacksmith from Great Expectations

Dickens is observing the social and industrial changes taking place in mid-Victorian Britain but leaves the reader to form their own political opinions on the situation.

More Dickens’ reviews later in the year. Book reviews from other groups welcome.

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