Unlike many number of ‘social problem’ novels from that era, I’d argue ‘Hard Times’ by Charles Dickens has in most part stood the test of time more than most, existing largely as an uncompromising literary expose of the failings of the Victorian industrial north.
The ire in Dickens’ quill was often aimed at eviscerating the foibles of 19th century social injustices and Hard Times is no exception, tackling issues of the day such as the moral chasm between the rich and poor and the plight of factory workers in the age industrialisation. Even the education system didn’t pass muster when it met Dickens’ jaundiced eye, seemingly attacked for its cold, rational and callous regard for young children’s minds.
I’ve always loved how Dickens had a real knack for bringing oddball characters to life and subtly infusing ‘state of the nation’ social commentary into his tales. When reading the opening extract from Hard Times, I remember being really immediately impressed with his descriptions of the strict schoolmaster, Thomas Gradgrind, who tells his pupils:
“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.”
Gradgrind looks upon his pupils as “little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.” By this point, it’s clear Dickens is critiquing the emotionless ‘factory fodder’ educational outlook of Victorian captains of industry – particularly the utilitarians – when it came to human relationships.
This, ultimately, is what makes Dickens’ writing so special. Making the political personal and the personal political is never easy, but in Hard Times Dickens successfully draws that distinction between ‘Fact’ and ‘Fancy’ to implore his mid-1800s readership to embrace imagination and not allow our emotions be clouded by an emotionless and mechanistic worldview.
From that moment, I never doubted Hard Times helped cement in my mind Dickens’ place as one of Britain’s foremost literary greats. I found the best way to approach reading Dickens was to look upon him as a literary equivalent of those great satirical cartoonists of the Victorian era and for this reason I feel Dickens’ characters were always intended be overblown caricatures, hence their outlandish names (Gradgrind, Micawber, Chuzzlewit, for example).
Obviously this doesn’t take anything away from the literary worth of Hard Times; if anything, it enhances it, for being a literary caricaturist gave Dickens the power to pass comment on social issues without being too po-faced. In fact, what is so surprising to me is how funny Hard Times is – I do think people often overlook just how much of a humourist Dickens truly was. Such as this:
“It is said that every life has its roses and thorns; there seemed, however, to have been a misadventure or mistake in Stephen’s case, whereby somebody else had become possessed of his roses, and he had become possessed of somebody else’s thorns in addition to his own.”
I won’t spoil the plot for Hard Times here, but needless to say, considering his connection to Thanet, it’s only worth reiterating that any Thanet writer should learn to appreciate the work of Charles Dickens. There’s a lot many a writer can glean from his wit, his skill at social observation and his keen sense of moral fervour, and for me, Hard Times is quite possibly the best place to start.
Review: © 2016 Luke Edley
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Poet, humorous fiction writer and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.