You know how runners are always telling people who don’t exercise (or want to) that they have just finished a marathon or how skinny people smugly tell dieters they can eat anything they like? Well, I have a touch of that annoying tendency to brag in me too, because I have just finished reading…..drumroll please……my first Charles Dickens book, Hard Times.
I was actually inspired to see what I have been missing out on after reading a review by FictionFan of A Tale of Two Cities (link to FictionFan’s review below). FictionFan recommended I start with either A Tale of Two Cities or Bleak House, but Hard Times was the shortest Charles Dickens novel I could find. (Maybe I’m not worthy, but I do deserve some credit for honesty here).
I won’t lie, I found reading Charles Dickens harder than reading a contemporary novel. The language was really flowery and the characters use a lot more words in their conversation than I am used to. I even found myself saying some of the character’s lines aloud to try and get a feel for the language, particularly those who had broad accents, as Charles Dickens wrote their voices as they would have sounded to him. If I was speaking with some of these characters in real life, I would have been nodding a lot with a confused smile on my face while I pretended to understand them. More fool me though, because that’s how I’ve ended up doing a lot of dumb things, nodding and agreeing when I haven’t really understood what is going on.
Hard Times tackles some very big subjects, including social inequality and in particular the terrible conditions of the working class, the need for divorce and unequal marriages, amongst others. I had been expecting seriousness (the novel’s title is a big giveaway), but it was a surprise to find the character’s traits so exaggerated and the moral of the story to be told with humour. The characters are almost caricatures, made up of their best and worst tendencies. Their names told me exactly what to expect of them – Mrs Sparsit was an interfering old sticky-beak, Mr Gradgrind a man with no room in his character for frivolity or fancy, Mr Bounderby – a braggart business man who prides himself on his success and Mr Harthouse – a would be lover.
I didn’t expect Charles Dickens to be so funny. A physical description of a male character’s legs included the information that they were “shorter than legs of good proportion should have been.” Nothing much has changed since Charles Dickens time though, because in Australia we still say that a short-legged person’s arse is too close to the ground, and then fall about laughing. I had no idea that Charles Dickens wrote slapstick comedy.
The story, although told with humour and the author’s obvious affection for the characters, is not a happy one. It begins with the Gradgrind family, made up of Mum, Dad, Louisa, Tom and some smaller children. Mr Gradgrind, although a school superintendent, is a foolish man, to whom ‘facts’ are all important, and he has no tolerance for fun or make believe in his family’s lives. Louisa, although dearly loved by her father, is eventually married to Mr Gradgrind’s friend Mr Bounderby, who is much older than Louisa. Even though she is repulsed by Mr Bounderby, Lousia accepts this marriage out of duty to her father and also to promote her brother Tom’s interests with Mr Bounderby.
Mr Bounderby believes that his employees expect to become rich working for him, although the opposite is true. Hard Times is set in a fictional town, ‘Coketown,’ which is horribly polluted by the factories that have made Mr Bounderby wealthy. When the working class unite to try and force better pay and conditions, Stephen Blackpool, a worker with a wife he would have divorced if the option had been available to him (and an accent I struggled to decipher), stands alone, unable to join the union. Stephen is alienated by his fellow workers and then fired on a whim of Mr Bounderby’s. With no possibility of gaining employment in his hometown, Stephen has to leave Coketown, and when Tom Gradgrind steals money from Mr Bounderby’s bank, he sets things up so suspicion fall on Stephen.
Tom is a selfish, no-good, who the narrator calls ‘The Whelp.’ He is responsible for introducing his sister Louisa to Mr Harthouse, who tries to embroil her in a romance. Of course Mrs Sparsit learns of the would-be romance and tries to damage Louisa’s good name with her nasty information. I kept wishing that Mr Bounderby and Mrs Sparsit had married each other in the first place, because they deserved each other.
All of the story lines are finished satisfactorily by the end of the novel, although some characters enjoy happy endings while others do not.
I’ll give myself a little holiday and read some lighter stories next, but will work my way through other novels by Charles Dickens eventually. In the meantime I’ll be congratulating myself on having made a beginning, although I hope not in a Mr Bounderby way…