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Title: Hard Times
Author: Charles Dickens
Rating: 4.5 of 5 Stars
Format: Digital Edition
Louisa and her younger brother Tom have been raised by their father to think only of “facts”. If it can’t be quantified and tabulated on a report, then in the School of Mr Gradgrind, it simply doesn’t exist. A circus girl, Cecilia, comes to their school and her father abandons her. Cecilia is taken on by Mr and Mrs Gradgrind, first as a student and then a servingmaid.
Louisa has turned all of her stunted feelings towards helping her brother, who has been employed by a friend of his father, a Josiah Bounderby. Bounderby is a self-made man who dragged himself up from the gutters after his mother abandoned him and has become one of the most successful businessmen in the town. He also is the kind of man who is always telling everyone how he dragged himself up by his bootstraps. He has watched Louisa grow up and likes the idea of a wife who is only concerned with facts. He proposes marriage and her father asks her. She realizes it will help her brother and so says “why not”.
We also meet a working man by the name of Stephen Blackpool. He married unwisely years ago and his wife has destroyed their life with her drinking. She now wanders the countryside prostituting herself out for money for more drink. Stephen asks Bounderby, who owns the company that he works for, if there is any way he could get a divorce, since he has heard of such things happening for rich folk. Bounderby replies in his usual bombastic tone and tells the man to get out of his sight. The men of the company are trying to unionize and Blackpool doesn’t agree with it. As such, he is kicked out of the social sphere and ostracized. Between that and the antipathy of his employer, he is forced to leave the town and seek work elsewhere. Right before he leaves though, he is accosted by Tom Gradgrind who asks him to hang around the bank where Tom works each evening, just in case Tom wants to send some messages. No messages are sent and Blackpool leaves the town.
Tom has been living beyond his means and gambling away what he has earned, as once he was released from his father’s school of thought he went in the exact opposite direction. He comes into contact with James Harthouse, a rich younger son who is “trying out” being a businessman. James meets Louisa and begins trying to seduce her, just for a lark and because he hates Bounderby. He also leads on Tom in his extravagant lifestyle. This leads Tom to robbing the bank he works for and that Bounderby runs. He implicates Stephen Blackpool who isn’t around to clear his name.
Eventually Harthouse asks Louisa to have an affair with him and meet him. She agrees but only to get rid of him, as her husband Bounderby pretty much leaves her to her own devices, and runs off to her father for protection. Mr Gradgrind is stunned by the news and by Louisa’s revelation that she wants love as much as “facts”.
On top of this news Stephen Blackpool is found dying in a pit and he reveals that Tom Gradgrind asked him to visit the bank before Stephen left town. Tom hoofs it with Cecilia’s help and takes cover at the circus she used to work for. Mr Gradgrind and Louisa meet Cecilia there and plan to smuggle Tom to the Continent (Africa) or South America so he can escape justice. He is found out but the circus people help out the Gradgrinds because they took Cecilia in.
Tom escapes, Louisa lives with her father and mother until her death, Bounderby is revealed as a fraud when his mother comes forth and shows she is the sweetest and most loving woman alive and only Cecilia lives happily ever after.
This was one of Dickens’ shorter books and as such his characters and situations weren’t quite as fleshed out as I’m used to but I still found this eminently enjoyable. The only downside was Stephen Blackpool when he talked. Dickens used some sort of “working man slang” that made it almost impossible to figure out what he was actually saying. That is the only bad thing I can say about this book.
It is very obvious that Dickens is writing a “message” book here, what with the over the top “Just the fact’s, ma’am” school by Mr Gradgrind and how it ruins Louisa’s life. In many ways it reminded me of those Uncle Arthur Bedtime Stories, which are Christian morality stories at their most stark. By the by, Arthur Maxwell was a 7th Day Adventist. Fun fact for the day. Anyway. Thankfully, Dickens makes it clear where he falls on the “Just the Facts” debates but it never felt like he was preaching to me like a pigheaded Social Justice Warrior. That is because Dickens had class, talent, skill and he was willing to create something, not just tear something else down.
This is my 3rd time reading this and I really debated about giving it 5 stars. In many ways it deserves 5stars, as not only have I now read it 3 times but I already plan on re-reading it again in the future when I read all of Dicken’s stuff again. Not only has it stood the test of time, it has stood the test of Bookstooge. Dickens can rest easy, as there will be no grave desecration and “Unholy” water in his future. However, the dialect of Blackpool was a real stumbling block to me and I skipped almost all of his dying speech. So that is why I really like this book but can’t give it 5stars.