Monday, 5 October 2015

Hard Times and Other Stories by Charles Dickens (consisting of Hard Times, 1854; Hunted Down, 1860; Holiday Romance, 1868; and George Silverman's Explanation, 1868)

Originally Written in 2008 

Dickens was not in the mood for levity during this period of his life: hot off the heels of Bleak House comes Hard Times, one of the grimmest books I've ever read. It's a mere 200 pages in comparison to two of his largest, greatest novels, and yet manages to follow them satisfactorily and not disappoint; this is no doubt due to the fact that it retains the seriousness of those works, and thus functions as something of a continuation of Bleak House, levying a similar critique at society.

The world of Bleak House was a decaying one because so many of life's sparks were neglected only to concentrate on Jarndyce and Jarndyce; here in Hard Times, it's less about what the characters don't do and more about what they do do. The grimy industrial Lancashire mill-town in which this novel is set, Coketown, with its smoke and its red brick and its stifling heat, chokes the characters' hearts and minds and dreams, just as they are choked by the constant drilling of facts into their regulated clockwork minds.

Everywhere is bleakness: Mr Gradgrind, for the majority of the story, is a stern and bespectacled embodiment of ruthless authoritarian Victoriana and tyrannically enforced discipline. Louisa may resist such 'Fact' and she may be sick of Coketown but she nonetheless is resigned to everything that happens to her, knowing that in this sickly world of statistics one might as well give up; Sissy Jupe, one of the few who is not contaminated by fact, remains an ineffectual character on the sidelines.

There are few if any redeeming characters and everyone is somehow depressed or restless in some way - Tom Gradgrind, described always as a 'whelp', robs the bank and blames it on honest Stephen Blackpool; James Harthouse, a charming yet idle man, simply loafing about; and Mr Bounderby, owner of the mill in Coketown, forever boasting blatant untruths about how when he was young he'd suffered from supposedly indescribable hardships and is thus entitled to respect from everybody because of what he's gone through. I mean, the schoolmaster is called Mr M'Choakumchild. It couldn't really get less subtle.

By the end, there are some signs that the dramatis personae of Coketown might be improving. Mr Gradgrind has finally realised that devotion to his family might be more important than a closed-minded obsession with Fact, Louisa has broken away from the hideous and gluttonous Mr Bounderby and there is an overall hopeful end for the family. This isn't Dickens' best book, but it's an involving read nonetheless.

Following this book three short stories are also included. 1860's Hunted Down is the first. Saying it's not typical Dickens isn't really fair, as most of his works are quite different from one another, but it certainly is an oddity. It feels like one of Agatha Christie's short mystery stories, although complicated by a bizarre beach scene in which Julius Slinkton's nieece is stalked by a shadow. It's weird, but good enough to spend half an hour on.

Holiday Romance, dating from 1868, is if anything stranger than Hunted Down, and the low point of this mini-trilogy of stories. An account by a young boy in the 1860s explaining the circumstances of his friendship with three other children is followed by three surreal fairy-tales told by the others. The first is a typical prince-and-princess magic-kingdom evil-witch set-up, the second is a heroic naval adventure filled with plenty of derring-do and the third is set in an abstract world in which children rule over adults. Of these, the third is the most interesting, but none of them really engage.

Another piece from 1868, George Silverman's Explanation, is quite possibly Dickens' final completed work, and luckily he's back on form for this one. It tells the story of a boy whose mother and father die of the fever; he is rescued and embroiled in the sinister rituals of Brother Hawkyard and Brother Gimblet - described in a manner that's particularly foreboding and exciting. Later in life, he becomes a parish priest and surrenders the woman he loves to a younger man because he believes she will be happier with him. It's a sad end, but concludes with him contemplating how much happier she will be now.

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