I’ve spent the past month ploughing through Hard Times and finally finished it at the weekend. I chose this challenge just because 2012 is Dickens’ bicentennial year, and I’d never read a complete one of his works. We read the first few chapters of Great Expectations at school, which meant we didn’t get further than Pip meeting Miss Havisham for the first time. And reading anything with my English teacher was made to be about as boring as boring gets. We just sat round in the classroom taking turns to read a paragraph aloud (and most of the class applied a dull monotone to their voices), and then would be set a waffly essay question to answer for homework. I didn’t read novels for years once I’d finished my English Lit GCSE and I still can’t bear the thought of Thomas Hardy. How much time this teacher led me to waste when there are so many wonderful books in the world!
Writing literary criticism brings back too many memories of my hated English Lit GCSE coursework and completely kills a book for me so I’m not going to attempt much here, but I do need to demonstrate to you that I have actually read Hard Times properly, so here goes...
I concluded that choosing his shortest novel wasn’t necessarily the slight cheat I’d hoped for and was in fact probably a mistake (but hey, I made some effort – it could have been A Christmas Carol or The Mystery Of Edwin Drood, which even Dickens didn’t bother to finish), and I might preferred one that was a little less didactic. I found it tedious to process the discourse attempting to portray a lisp (“a thplendid thoot of armour”) and a bad northern accent (“I ha’ fell into a pit that ha’ been wi’ th’ Fire-damp crueller than battle. I ha-read on’t in the public petition, as onny one may read”). Where’s the IPA when you need it? Oh, not invented yet.
There is too much trying to get certain messages across, and not much plot. There is a bit of excitement – a bank robbery, a near affair followed by a divorce, and a dramatic pit rescue – but otherwise it all felt a bit worthy. And the fact that he was apparently restricted by the available magazine space in Household Words for the novel’s original publication means he’s somehow condensed everything to focus on getting said messages across. But that’s not to say that Dickens’ messages aren't important or relevant to these, our current hard times. Particularly his beliefs that education shouldn’t be allowed to stifle creativity and that all bankers are evil. And then there’s the thought that the mighty industrial north of which he writes really no longer exists. Coketown’s mills (Coketown apparently having been based on Preston) would now be either derelict or yuppy flats.
Claire Tomalin, in her massive biography of Dickens, of which I have read only the relevant three pages, describes Hard Times as “close to [a] parable or fable” which “fails to take note of its own message that people must be amused”. But in Dickens’ defence, certain passages did make me laugh out loud. He is incredibly witty when he chooses. There are some typically Dickensian comedy names – Gradgrind, Sparsit, Bounderby, M’Choakumchild. Here are some of my favourite lines:
“If he had only learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught much more.”
“No little Gradgrind had ever associated a cow in a field with that famous cow with the crumpled horn who tossed the dog who worried the cat who killed the rat who ate the malt, or with that yet more famous cow who swallowed Tom Thumb: it had never heard of those celebrities, and had only been introduced to a cow as a graminivorous ruminating quadruped with several stomachs.”
“A sunny midsummer day. There was such a thing sometimes, even in Coketown.”
“[Coketown] had been ruined so often, that it was amazing how it had borne so many shocks. Surely there never was such fragile china-ware as that of which the millers of Coketown were made... They were ruined when they were required to send labouring children to school; they were ruined when inspectors were appointed to look into their works, they were ruined when such inspectors considered it doubtful whether they were quite justified in chopping people up with their machinery, they were utterly undone when it was hinted that perhaps they need not always make quite so much smoke.”
“Any capitalist [in Coketown] who had made sixty thousand pounds out of sixpence, always professed to wonder why the sixty thousand nearest Hands [=workers] didn’t each make sixty thousand pounds out of sixpence, and more or less reproached them every one for not accomplishing the little feat.”
“The bank had foreclosed a mortgage effected on the property...by one of the Coketown magnates who, in his determination to make a shorter cut than usual to an enormous fortune, overspeculated himself by about two hundred thousand pounds. These accidents did sometimes happen in the best regulated families of Coketown, but the bankrupts had no connection whatever with the improvident classes.”
So there you go - teachers aren't allowed to use their imagination, play and song are important, the weather is grim up north, business owners don't like government interference, Thatcherism 125 years before she came to power, and dodgy mortgages. If that ain't relevant in 2012 Britain, nothing is.
Hard Times, despite the effort it took to read, has not put me off Dickens, and I’ll be looking to take on another. It will be A Christmas Carol next, however, just because it’s our book group’s chosen text for September. But after that... All suggestions welcome from Dickens fans out there.