Monday, November 30, 2009

Hard Times, come again no more

As I read Hard Times last week, I found myself trying to imagine what it must have been like to read it as it was published, in Dickens's journal Household Words, in the spring of 1854. Such a reader surely would have come to it with breathless excitement, for its immediate predecessor, Bleak House, concluded seven months earlier, had displayed Dickens at the top of his craft, his language, plotting, and eye for character all reaching new heights. And the opening page of Hard Times, though not as strong as the meditation on dust that rings in Bleak House, shares with it a vivacity and inventiveness that would surely only have raised those expectations:
"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 on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!"

The scene was a plain, bare, monotonous vault of a schoolroom, and the speaker's square forefinger emphasized his observations by underscoring every sentence with a line on the schoolmaster's sleeve. The emphasis was helped by the speaker's square wall of a forehead, which had his eyebrows for its base, while his eyes found commodious cellarage in two dark caves, overshadowed by the wall. The emphasis was helped by the speaker's mouth, which was wide, thin, and hard set. The emphasis was helped by the speaker's voice, which was inflexible, dry, and dictatorial. The emphasis was helped by the speaker's hair, which bristled on the skirts of his bald head, a plantation of firs to keep the wind from its shining surface, all covered with knobs, like the crust of a plum pie, as if the head had scarcely warehouse-room for the hard facts stored inside. The speaker's obstinate carriage, square coat, square legs, square shoulders—nay, his very neckcloth, trained to take him by the throat with an unaccommodating grasp, like a stubborn fact, as it was,—all helped the emphasis.
A promising start, no? But very quickly, disappointment would surely creep in, for Hard Times is not a very good novel. Conceived and written in a haste that was unusual even for Dickens--designed to counteract a slump in sales of Household Words--it feels throughout like a rush job. Its language, though never boring, is at the same time nowhere as wildly free and inventive as in Bleak House, weighed down all too often by the combination of sentimentality and didacticism that mars some of Dickens's Christmas books. None of its several plotlines offers much interest or surprise on their own; nor do they come together particularly well. In fact, their failure to cohere is indicative of the greatest failure of the novel: it is a book without a center. Rather than a compelling protagonist on the order of Esther Summerson or Mr. Dombey, Hard Times offers a clutch of secondary characters, a mix of variations on Dickens's typically too-pure-to-interest Victorian women and his monomaniacal eccentrics. Some of them are unquestionably memorable--Gradgrind, who was introduced in that opening scene, being the greatest of them--but none is strong enough to carry the narrative. When set next to the triumph of Bleak House, Hard Times seems particularly impoverished.

A cursory investigation suggests that contemporary reviewers had that reaction. The Oxford Reader's Companion to Dickens says that
Reviewers were virtually unanimous in condemning Hard Times and dull and disappointing,
which Peter Ackroyd, in his biography of Dickens, fleshes out:
" . . . A mere dull melodrama," The Rambler said, "in which character is caricature, sentiment tinsel, and moral (if any) unsoud." The Westminster Review commented upon its topical nature, and suggested that Dickens's language was one which "speaks especially to the present generation" and may not be intelligible to the next. And, later, there was a sharp parody of Dickens's style in Our Miscellany: "The crowd gathering. Like a snowball. Much dirtier, though. Rather."
Meanwhile, F. R. Leavis's attempt to raise its status by calling it a "moral fable" in his The Great Tradition decades later seems fundamentally misguided. We don't, after all, go to Dickens for the weak tea of fables; we go to him for the full-bodied life he offers, dashing and funny and wild and unexpected and full of meaning. If the best we can find there is a "moral fable," then we've not found the best of Dickens.

All of this ought not to obscure the fact that even lesser Dickens offers real pleasures. The description of Mr. Gradgrind that I've already shared reminds me of the following account of the novel's other great eccentric, Mrs. Sparsit:
Mrs. Sparsit, lying by to recover the tone of her nerves in Mr. Bounderby's retreat, kept such a sharp look-out, night and day, under her Coriolanian eyebrows, that her eyes, like a couple of lighthouses on an iron-bound coast, might have warned all prudent mariners from that bold rock her Roman nose and the dark and craggy region in its neighborhood, but for the placidity of her manner. Although it was hard to believe that her retiring for the night could be any thing but a form, so severely wide awake were those classical eyes of hers, and so impossible did it seem that her rigid nose could yield to any relaxing influence, yet her manner of sitting, smoothing her uncomfortable, not to say, gritty, mittens (they were constructed of a cool fabric like a meat-safe), or of ambling to unknown places of destination with her foot in her cotton stirrup, was so perfectly serene, that most observers would have been constrained to suppose her a dove, embodied, by some freak of nature, in the earthly tabernacle of a bird of the hook-beaked order.

She was a most wonderful woman for prowling about the house. How she got from story to story, was a mystery beyond solution. A lady so decorous in herself, and so highly connected, was not to be suspected of dropping over the banisters or sliding down them, yet her extraordinary facility of locomotion suggested the wild idea. Another noticeable circumstance in Mrs. Sparsit was, that she was never hurried. She would shoot with consummate velocity from the roof to the hall, yet would be in full possession of her breath and dignity on the moment of her arrival there. Neither was she ever seen by human vision to go at a great pace.
Then there's this beautifully observed moment--one so singular as to give the sense of something witnessed in reality, then stored away for later fictional use--that comes when two women have raised an alarm about a man fallen down a mine:
One of the men was in a drunken slumber, but on his comrade's shouting to him that a man had fallen down the Old Hell Shaft, he started out to a pool of dirty water, put his head in it, and came back sober.
It's the rare moments like those in Hard Times, when Dickens gives the sense of being fully engaged with both his characters and his language, that make the rest of its wan pages so frustrating.

Fortunately for our imagined Victorian reader, unhappily laying aside the August 12, 1854 issue of Household Words that saw the novel's end, Hard Times did not signify a diminution of Dickens's powers--something that even Dickens himself may have feared. As John Lucas points out in Charles Dickens: The Major Novels, the beginning of his next book was a bit rough:
He apparently had far more than his usual difficulty in getting started; and I have noted that he changed his mind about what his novel was to be called. This suggests a degree of uncertainty which the opening pages don't entirely dispel. Reading and re-reading them I sense a writer casting around, trying to find the right tone, the right point of entry, the right subject even.
Yet the resulting novel, Little Dorrit, is one of his strongest, and it launched him on a string that would lead to the haunting Great Expectations and the sprawling, panoramic breakthrough of Our Mutual Friend--a reminder that our favorite writers surely deserve our forbearance in the case of an occasional failure.


  1. Cheers to you for getting through HT. I've never been able to finish it, despite several attempts. Chesterton had many kind things to say about the stern HT in his brief bio/book on Dickens, but I can't justify what he found laudable.

  2. Bradley,
    It definitely helped that it was short! Had it been the usual 700-page Dickens behemoth, there's no way I would have made it.