Charles Dickens was a prolific writer, he wrote 15 novels (or 14.5 Edwin Drood being unfinished) as well as short stories, plays and non-fiction. I came to “Hard Times” without preconceptions not having read it at school nor seen a TV adaptation. It doesn’t make the top 10 Dickens list in Publishers Weekly by Robert Gottlieb (neither does a Tale of Two Cities, Barnaby Rudge nor Martin Chuzzlewit).
The Top 10 Dickens Books (Publishers Weekly)
- Great Expectations
- Our Mutual Friend
- David Copperfield
- Bleak House
- Little Dorritt
- Oliver Twist
- Nicholas Nickelby
- Dombey and Son
- The Pickwick Papers
- Selected letters
Hard Times is Dickens’ shortest novel but my copy still weighs in at a reasonable 342 pages. Dickens, possibly the most famous novelist in the English language was paid by the word hence his prodigious word count and lengthy tomes. Hard Times, unlike most of Dickens’ work isn’t set in London but a generic Northern mill town called “Coketown” (think 19th century Preston or Huddersfield).
Charles Dickens has some great names for his characters. There is Thomas Gradgrind the school master devoted to cramming his pupils with facts and no fancy. There is Mrs Sparsit an interfering busybody and Sissy Jupe a poor girl from a circus family ill disposed to learning the utilitarian way.
Josiah Bounderby, the factory owner and banker, might have inspired the Monty Python sketch “Four Yorkshiremen”…
I hadn’t a shoe to my foot. As to a stocking, I didn’t know such a thing by name. I passed the day in a ditch, and the night in a pigsty. That’s the way I spent my tenth birthday. Not that a ditch was new to me, for I was born in a ditch.
Thomas Gradgrind has two children he raises in the utilitarian way, that Dickens satirises. The two children Louisa and Tom’s lives are blighted by their soulless upbringing. Louisa enters into a loveless marriage with Bounderby, while Tom rebels against his strict upbringing and falls into dissolute ways.
Dickens puts characters speech patterns into his writing. Stephen Blackpool, a honest worker, whose life is marred by his marriage to a mentally ill wife, speaks in a strong accent.
“I mun’ be ridden o’ her. I cannot bear ‘t nommore. I ha’ lived under ‘t so long, for that I ha’ had’n the pity and comforting words o’ th’ best lass living or dead.”
Similarly the circus impresario, Mr Sleary, speaks with a lisp:
“People mutht be amuthed. They can’t be alwayth a learning, nor yet they can’t be alwayth a working, they an’t made for it. You mutht have uth, Thquire.”
These can be difficult to follow or can be read aloud for effect (although as most of my reading is on the metro, I won’t be reading much aloud, lest my fellow passengers think I’m crazy…reading a book on the Tbilisi metro is unusual enough).
In my twenties and thirties, I tended to avoid the “classics” of nineteenth century English literature like Dickens, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy. I think school put me off, not that we had a Thomas Gradgrind cramming us with facts. Now I’m happy to discover the joys of reading nineteenth century English writers. Looking at the Dickens Top Ten, I’ve only read Great Expectations , although TV adaptations have made me familiar with the stories of David Copperfield and Oliver Twist, so there are plenty more I can try. Another advantage of the classics is that they are much cheaper to buy new than contemporary novels.
I enjoyed Hard Times, the satire is cutting and there is an interesting story to follow.
My rating 4 out of 5