Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Hard Times by Charles Dickens

A few years ago, along with countless other readers I fell in love with Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South after discovering it first through the BBC mini-series. Reading N&S prompted me to read more of Gaskell and I spent about a year reading her front-to-back while I read the wonderful Jenny Uglow bio of her. In the bio, I learned about what a patronizing rat Charles Dickens was to Gaskell, how he upstaged her N&S with his own Hard Times, and how he blamed N&S for the decline in readership of his periodical Household Words.

This is my way of saying that I read Hard Times with an agenda. This Classics Circuit tour may be an Austen vs. Dickens throw-down, but for me it is a Dickens vs. Gaskell Main Event, with Hard Times going head-to-head with N&S.

Suffice it to say that Hard Times is one of the weakest Victorian novels I've ever read. My personal vendetta aside, I just didn't like it. I found the first half of the book to be a series of character sketches--well, actually caricatures--and the second half to be a fairly interesting, but conventional short story. I like good writing, writing that takes my breath away and makes me sit up straight and see things in a new and clearer way. I didn't find that in Hard Times--it felt slick and jaded and calculating.

After I finished Hard Times, I did a bit of reading about where Dickens was in his life and career when he wrote the book and the response to it by critics since its publication. This actually turned out to be a more interesting project than reading the book itself, which really was a slog-fest.

I found an absolutely wonderful Norton Critical Edition of the novel that also had a terrific section called Backgrounds, Sources, and Contempory Reactions.

Hard Times was the tenth novel by Dickens, written between January and August 1854, when he was 42 years old. Chronologically, it comes after Bleak House and before A Tale of Two Cities. It was written for serial publication in Dickens' periodical Household Words, and its full title is Hard Times - For These Times.

It was written while Dickens was still living with his wife, albeit unhappily, and before he met his mistress, Ellen Ternan. As such, it reflects a bitter, discouraged, tired outlook and in my view is little more than propaganda for a position that it's not clear that Dickens completely supported.

The novel takes place in Coketown, a northern industrial town based on Preston, which was the scene of a prolonged strike by loom-workers. Dickens visited the town very briefly, attended one meeting of the workers and listened to part of one speech by a labour organizer. Based on this thin research, he wrote a story in which he satirizes Utilitarianism and political economy using characters that are one-dimensional. I found Hard Times to be little more than a morality play and not a good one at that. The good are very good and are rewarded for their virtues, the bad are very bad and are punished for their vices.

Despite John Ruskin's assertion that Hard Times was Dickens' best novel, most contemporary critics found much to dislike and it wasn't until the late twentieth century that many fans of the book appeared. It seems that currently the novel is held in high regard by the academic world, but the pieces I read in the Norton Critical Edition failed to sway me into liking it, especially when I compare it to Gaskell's N&S.

What I love about N&S is that there are no clear-cut good people versus bad people, with perhaps the sole exception of Fanny Thornton, and this cuts across class. Margaret Hale is a dutiful daughter with a large heart but prejudiced and, at times, arrogant; John Thornton is a harsh master with an open mind and compassionate nature; Mrs. Thornton is fiercely loyal and stern with deep maternal affection and pride, and so it goes. These are people, real people with real qualities trying to make their way as best they can in a world that can be confusing and frightening.

In Hard Times, the people in charge (i.e., the mill owners, the labour leaders, the politicians, etc.) are bad people--they are narrow, peevish, and self-serving, as reflected in their names...Mr. Bounderby, Mr. Gradgrind, Mr M'Choakumchild, Mrs. Sparsit, Mr. Slackbridge. The poor and the vulnerable are good people--Old Stephen, Mrs. Pegler, Rachael, Sissy Jupe, and the circus performers. These aren't real people, they're stock characters who don't sound or act like real people but give speeches and utter platitudes.

The world of Hard Times almost seems Suessical--the education system that Dickens lampoons (i.e., based entirely on the teaching of facts) is so prepousterous that it can't be taken as a serious threat. Jane Sinnett wrote an anonymous review of Hard Times in the Westminster Review in October 1854 in which she says of the education system described in Hard Times "we are not aware of such a system being in operation anywhere in England." Perhaps I am simply not a fan of satire, and Hard Times is nothing if not satirical.

One of the things I like best about Elizabeth Gaskell is that she felt that she had been given a gift (i.e., her ability to tell a good story), and she tried to use it to make the world a better place. Why then do I have such a problem with Dickens trying to do the same thing? I think it comes down to intent.

Dickens wanted to move from being perceived as merely a popular novelist to serious social reformer, and the result is that Hard Times reads like a political tract. Gaskell, on the other hand, was motivated by the desire to tell both sides of a story so that each could find common ground with the other. It's a common adage that writers do best when they write what they know. Dickens didn't take the time to know the people of the northern industrial towns, neither the masters nor the hands, and so Hard Times, his story about them, rings false regardless of the wit, energy, and skill that he brings to it.

In the end, it seems self-serving to me. Even his most sympathetic character, Stephen Blackpool, seems little more than a mouthpiece for Dickens' increasing discontent with the married state and his ardent desire to rid himself of his wife. Here's an image showing Blackpool's reaction to the return of his wife, whom Dickens blessed with the most vile attributes. I can just imagine Mr. Knightley saying, "Badly done, Charles, badly done."


  1. Hard Times is by far my least favorite Dickens. To me it just lacks the fun characters and interesting plot of other, longer Dickens. I'd forgotten it came in between Bleak House and Tale of Two CIties until you mentioned it -- Bleak House is my favorite and Tale of Two Cities is one of the most popular novels of all time. Odd that Hard Times is there in the middle of the two far superior novels.

    I didn't realize the conflict between N&S and HT until it was mentioned in a posting earlier this week -- I'm reading N&S with a group this summer and I hope I will like it better! So far I've really liked Gaskell. HT was such a disappointment.

  2. Hard Times is quite interesting when studying the context because of its criticism to utilitarianism and rationalism (the world of Gradgrind and Mr Bounderby) as opposed to that of feelings and fantasy ( Sissy Jupp, the circus); it is very useful when you want to know more about the aspect of Victorian industrial towns, with its description of Coketown as the symbol of any gloomy, polluted industrial place. But of course, its narrative and stylistic limits are evident, especially if you compare it to Elizabeth Gaskell's industrial novels, North and South and Mary Barton. Dickens's characters are types, they're flat, they're sketches respect to Gaskell's round, phsychologically well- depicted characters. There's in-depths in Mrs Gaskell's characterization which often lacks in Dickens' portrayals. Sometimes they seem more like caricatures than portraits. The good are incredibly good, very often naive, while the bad are awfully wicked with no hope of redemption.
    Thanks for this interesting post. MG

  3. I still haven't read any Dickens (though I am hoping to get a biography of Dickens for my birthday, still a few months away) but I'll bear your criticisms in mind if/when I do get round to reading Hard Times. I have read North and South, and Gaskell certainly does sympathetically portray both sides of the story.

  4. You can help me out, since I was complaining about the utilitarian prose in North and South. Examples of "writing that takes my breath away and makes me sit up straight" in that novel would be most appreciated. I likely missed it (aside from the juicy parts I wrote about).

    On the sentence level, Hard Times does not seem so out of line with other Dickens novels. Much of the descriptive writing of Coketown is particularly good. It's a fantasy of an industrial town, not a real one, granted. But what does good writing have to do with reality?

    The story is a disaster, the virtuous characters are useless, and I very much doubt that whatever social goals Dickens might have had were effectively realized in the novel. I don't see, though, why round characters are inherently aesthetically good and flat characters are bad. They both have their purposes. Would the novel be better if Bounderby and Mrs. Sparsit (to my mind the only real successes in the novel) were "rounder" or more "real"?

  5. Hi Jane,
    I had no idea that Dickens and Gaskell had a spat over Hard Times vs North and South. Maybe he was jealous...I have never read Hard Times but I have read North and South many times over and I would take it over any Dickens work. I think Mrs. Gaskell wrote N&S more like a full novel and is not obviously a serialized work. She seemed to have it well planned out before she started writing. Not sure Dickens always did this.

    P.S. I don't think Fanny was bad, I think she was just an idiot! ;)

  6. I saw quite the reverse - that Gaskell had enormous problems with the weekly serial format. I wrote about some of her struggles, and one of her great successes, here.

    The Norton Critical Edition of North and South has lots of great material of Gaskell's composition of her novel.

  7. Yes, Gaskell hated the serial format and many of her issues with Dickens centered around her unwillingness to keep her installments within the length he wanted. Dickens fumed that he was able to limit himself, so why couldn't she? Both Dickens and Gaskell came to realize, painfully, that publishing a novel serially and before the whole was finished was just too brutal for either of them. I think she was successful with the serialization of Cranford because it really was a series of connected short stories, and not a cohesive novel.

  8. I have to say I love Gaskell's works. I've only read 5 I think. I'm sure Dickens has a place tho' to me his work is just so dark I can't handle it. I do like Wives and Daughters, Ruth and Mary Barton and I really enjoyed The Moorland Cottage. For some reason it just spoke to me and I could easily picture myself there with her descriptive verse. Very interesting post. Thanks so much for sharing. suzan

  9. I just read this post from another blog -- I forget-- was it the Gaskell blog? (Must have been)! Anyway... love this post. Although I haven't read Hard Times (yet) I have read enough of Dickens to know that I prefer Gaskell's characterizations for the very reasons you give. I also love her descriptions. Perhaps Dickens has more action scenes that might keep some readers more interested. But I like the indepth character studies better myself.