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.
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.
“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!”
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 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?