How to Read Dickens without Reading about How to Read Dickens

Penguin Clothbound Classics edition of “Hard Times”

I often read Victorian novels without reading about the Victorian novel first. I love a good Penguin, but I eschew the introduction and footnotes. You don’t want to interrupt the spell of Dickens’s charming  novel, Hard Times, with  a footnote on St. Giles’s Church, London. Not that it wasn’t a great note:

Chapter 4. Note 3. “St. Giles’s was a notoriously poor area of London. See Dickens’s piece, ‘On Duty with Inspector Field,’ Household Words, III (14 June 1851), pp. 265-70.”

I read the note fondly (the introduction and footnotes in the Penguin Clothbound Classics edition are by Kate Flint), but it is  too much in hot mid-July.  I do recommend Peter Ackroyd’s exhaustive 1990 biography, Dickens, though.

I picture myself at the British Library.

After years of reading Dickens and about Dickens, I would love to discover some area of Dickens studies that scholars haven’t done to death. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to sit with pencil and notebook at the British Library or the Dickens Museum or the Bodleian Library or the Harvard Library or the University of Texas at Austin library or God knows what other library and read musty old papers and discover a detail that changes Dickens studies? With the pandemic raging, that is unlikely to happen. I wonder if I’ll ever see London again.  Austin, Texas, maybe.

This week, I was fascinated by my third reading of  Dickens’s Hard Times. It almost seems like a new book, because I haven’t read it to shreds as I have, say, Our Mutual Friend. Published in 1854, Hard Times is a charming little book, and a good introduction for Victorian newbies who do not embrace 900-page books. Like Bleak House (1853), Dickens’s previous novel, Hard Times begins with a stylish repetition of the same word in successive sentences; note facts and principles in the first paragraph.  And the repetition of the word facts occurs throughout the first chapter.

“Now, what I want is facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle upon which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle upon which I bring up these children!”

Fans of Dickens’s elegant whimsy realize immediately that he is satirizing education whimsically–again! Dickens thought poorly of the schools.  The character Thomas Gradgrind, who depends on facts, math, and a philosophy of self-interest for the system of education at his model school, detests whimsy and imagination. His unfortunate children, Louisa and Tom, are not the better for their facts:  they are not allowed to go to the circus, and are admonished for peeking through a gap in the tent.  A circus is not a pastime for reasonable people.

Ironically, they become connected to the circus when the pupil Sissy Jupe, known as “Girl Number Twenty,” is abandoned by her father, a circus clown.  Thomas kindly takes her into their home. Sissy’s sunny personality improves the outlook of his youngest daughter, Jane, but it is too late for Louisa and  Tom. Louisa is married off to Mr. Bounderby, a boastful middle-aged owner of a factory and a bank, to whom marriage is certainly a hell, and Tom becomes a dishonest clerk at Bounderby’s bank who begs Louisa to pay his gambling debts and other debauchery.

The education of the Gradgrinds has not served them well.  In some ways, Dickens is more sympathetic to the uneducated factory workers than to the Gradgrinds, though some of them are also frankly awful, too.  One thread of the novel is spun around the hard life of 40-year-old Stephen Blackpool, a weaver stuck in a loveless marriage to an alcoholic, and in love with kind, sweet Rachael, whom he can never marry. When he asks Mr. Bounderby about the laws of divorce, Mr. Bounderby says they are not for the lower class. There is one law for the rich, and another for the poor, as Stephen discovers.  And yet Stephen has paid his alcoholic wife to go away several times, and she always returns down-and-out, and sells the furniture for drink while he is at work.

The workers are poor and have no rights; but a dishonest union organizer turns on Stephen when he says he believes in the principles but doesn’t agree with the manner and will not join because he needs the money so badly. And so a campaign of ostracism against him begins.

Dickens loves to write about social issues, and I thought of other industrial novels, Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1854) and Mary Barton (1848), and Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley (1849). Such issue-driven novels were “in the air” at that time. I wonder, Is anyone writing novels about labor and unions these days? Or does that belong to an earlier time?

Hard Times is such a brilliant read! It is satiric, elegantly written, and Louisa is an especially vivid character.  Parts are sentimental, but Dickens can get away with it.  In fact, where would we be without sentimentality?

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