We studied Hard Times during my first year of non-compulsory education, and if anything had made me want to sack it in early and present myself at Tooting’s premier job centre, it was this book. Not, I hasten to add, because there’s anything wrong with it – in fact, reading it as an adult was a pleasure – but because I spent an academic year writing essays solely about the book’s three main female characters, and had little to no idea what else was happening behind these feminine doors.
I can remember walking down a very quiet high street on my first day of Year 12, listening to The Smiths (obviously). An 800-strong boys school with – at this time – about 30 girls in the final two years, it was about as grammar school as I’d expected. Everything was leafy and people walked slowly through the adjoining park. The boys were nerdy and nice. At parties, people drank beer, not vodka, and no one did any drugs. We weren’t in Streatham any more, Toto.
My English teacher for that year was a gruff, eccentric man who’d once been on Britain’s Got Talent with his twin brother, making music by tapping spoons on their cheeks. Legend had it he’d once taken Year 7 outside into the playground during a lesson, set a bin on fire, stepped back and said “homework: write a poem about that”. If someone spoke when he was speaking, his fall-back punishment was “right, gimme ya shoes”, and out the window they’d go. I liked him for those first few lessons, and then came Hard Times.
As the weeks progressed, I couldn’t help noticing that the boys in my class (15 of them or so) were writing weekly essays on industrialism, capitalism, John Stuart Mill and rationalism vs empiricism – all nice chunky themez likely to come up in the exam on Dickens’ slightly lesser-known novel. I was the only girl in my French, History and English classes, and in the latter at least, cracks were beginning to show. Our teacher’d ask the boys for one essay question and me for another – so when the time came, we could all swap essays and the blokes’d have some “women” stuff they could use in exams and vice versa. It’s the sort of thing that wouldn’t happen now, and only eight years have passed since then – but when a single sex schools opens it doors to an opposite sex, the balance takes some time to shift and I was there very soon after they’d made it co-ed.
What this boils down to is that I’d no idea Hard Times was such a multilayered story until quite recently. It has so much to say. Set in a fictional northern town, it follows the fate of the Gradgrind children, whose father runs the local school and demands that “facts” should form the basis of any decent education. Gradgrind Senior spends considerable time chastising a young girl at his school, Sissy Jupe, or “girl number twenty”, whose father is in the travelling circus and isn’t able to define very much factually – instead, she tells it as she sees it. Cue, large problem.
The town itself – Coketown, as the name suggests, and always does with Dickens – is an industrial oasis where the rich mill about, blissfully unaware of the workers’ and their lives. The place is “shrouded in a mist of its own”, and deliberate blindness to the plights of others runs strong. Gradgrind’s children, Tom and Louisa, appear as “lights with nothing to rest upon, fires with nothing to burn, starved imaginations”.
Thankfully, even in the cold midst of this gloom there is, as there always must be, a pub: The Pegasus Arms, where Sissy lives with her father. There’s booze and singing and peacock feathers and a dog, Merrylegs. Dickens draws a stark black-and white-distinction between the two sides of this grubby coin: fun versus practicality, colour versus whitewash, imagination versus facts.
Statistics fall flat: amid incompatible marriages, bank robberies, night-time flights and ultimately, reconciliation, Dickens deliberately tickles the reader to prove that even among the most mundane of existences there are great stories, great adventure, to be heard. Utilitarianism can’t triumph standing alone and the majority of his characters must come to realise this. The microcosm of Coketown, the industrial working farm, provides the perfect backdrop to this social tale. In the most obvious sense Hard Times is as politically relevant today as it was in 1854. The fundamental problem of misplaced aspiration – for ourselves and our children – is as poignantly revealed here as it is in any modern writing on the subject.
I re-read this novel in 2014 and saw hoards of tiger moms instead of Gradgrind’s miserable school, pushing reluctant two-year-olds into tests designed to map out their childhood and place them into a set category. What we think we need is often so very different from the reality. Dickens knew this and it is to his advice Coketown ultimately yields:
“Do the wise thing and the kind thing too, and make the best of us and not the worst.”
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