Dickens had a genuine and long-standing concern for the condition of the industrial working class, but when he came to write Hard Times, a novel that makes that subject its main concern, his imaginative powers failed him. His general view of society and the relations between social classes enfeebled the book’s plot and characterisation. That’s not to say that it doesn’t contain scenes of deliciously merciless satire, but it does strike me as being the weakest of the novels that I have encountered so far in this project to re-read, or read for the first time, all of Dickens’s works.

In January 1854, six months after completing Bleak House, Dickens began work on Hard Times. The first part appeared in Household Words that April. It’s his shortest novel, and the only one set entirely outside London. Though he travelled to Preston that January to see for himself the effects of a 23-week strike and lockout of mill-workers, Dickens later rejected the idea that his story ‘originated’ with the industrial troubles there.

He had already formed a clear idea of the themes that he wanted to explore in the novel: to satirise utilitarian attitudes by contrasting the open-hearted freedom of the circus with then-influential ideas about how children should be taught, and to express his belief that the relations between employers and workers should be founded on mutual forbearance and consideration and the recognition of the dignity and worth of every individual.

Famously, Hard Times opens in a schoolroom with an incisively-rendered scene in which Dickens shows Sissy, the clever and imaginative circus girl, having her ideas crushed by the rote learning methods of Mr Gradgrind. It’s easily the best part of the book, and no subsequent chapter rises to these heights:

‘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!’

In the opening scene Dickens launches a brilliant satirical attack on two prominent theories of his time – utilitarianism and political economy – as personified by Thomas Gradgrind:

A man of realities.  A man of facts and calculations.  A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over.  … With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to.  It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic.

The satire proceeds at a rip-roaring pace, Dickens’s prose as taut in this scene as almost nowhere else in his canon – and very funny:

‘Bitzer,’ said Thomas Gradgrind.  ‘Your definition of a horse.’

‘Quadruped.  Graminivorous.  Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive.  Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too.  Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron.  Age known by marks in mouth.’  Thus (and much more) Bitzer.

‘Now girl number twenty,’ said Mr. Gradgrind.  ‘You know what a horse is.’

The schoolroom scene with which Dickens opens Hard Times is a brilliant satire on ideas about how children can best be educated that were influential at the time (and which sometimes return to haunt us, even to this day). The scene is a thinly-veiled attack by Dickens on the ideas of James Kay-Shuttleworth, a doctor, statistician and social reformer who had been so shocked by the squalor in which the working poor of Manchester lived that he had written a book, The Moral and Physical Condition of the Working Classes Employed in the Cotton Manufacture in Manchester, which led to improvements in sanitation in the town and was cited by Friedrich Engels in his own The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1845.

A Manchester cellar: from George Catt, Pictorial History of Manchester (1844)
A Manchester cellar: from George Catt, A Pictorial History of Manchester, 1844

Kay-Shuttleworth went on to establish the first national teacher-training scheme (as instructed by the Committee of the Privy Council in schedule B of a Minute in 1846).  The laudable intention was to improve educational standards among the urban working class, but its approach was condemned as valuing rote memory rather than understanding or reasoning abilities. Mr. M’Choakumchild was one of the first generation of teachers to graduate from the new training programme.

Dickens knew Kay-Shuttleworth, and had collaborated with him, supporting his educational reforms (a detailed account of their connections can be read here).  Nevertheless, he lays into Kay-Shuttleworth’s arid and mechanical approach without mercy:

So, Mr. M’Choakumchild began in his best manner. He and some one hundred and forty other schoolmasters had been lately turned at the same time, in the same factory, on the same principles, like so many pianoforte legs. He had been put through an immense variety of paces, and had answered volumes of head-breaking questions. Orthography, etymology, syntax, and prosody, biography, astronomy, geography, and general cosmography, the sciences of compound proportion, algebra, land-surveying and levelling, vocal music and drawing from models were all at the ends of his ten chilled fingers. He had worked his stony way into Her Majesty’s most Honourable Privy Council’s Schedule B, and had taken the bloom off the higher branches of mathematics and physical sciences, French, German, Latin, and Greek. He knew all about all the Water Sheds of all the world (whatever they are), and all the histories of all the peoples, and all the names of all the rivers and mountains, and all the productions, manners, and customs of all the countries, and all their boundaries and bearings on the two-and-thirty points of the compass. Ah, rather overdone, M’Choakumchild. If he had only learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught much more!

Dickens regarded both utilitarianism and political economy as mistaken and destructive of the enlightened moral outlook that he insisted was needed if social divisions were to be overcome. In an article for Household Words about the Preston strike published in February 1854 he wrote:

Into the relations between employers and employed, as into all the relations of this life, there must enter something of feeling and sentiment; something of mutual explanation, forbearance, and consideration; […] which is not exactly stateable in figures; otherwise those relations are wrong and rotten to the core and will never bear sound fruit.

The Preston strike was, in fact, not a strike but a lock-out. During the depression of the 1840s, the mill-workers’ wages had been cut by 10%, but the mill-owners had promised to reinstate the cut in wages when prosperity returned. In 1853, with trade revived, the workers demanded a restoration of the 10%, but the mill-owners refused, shutting down their mills and leaving thousands of workers unemployed.

Coketown Widnes late 19th century
Coketown:  Widnes in the late 19th century

It is when Dickens introduces Coketown, his visualization of a northern industrial town, that we begin to discern a problem that diminishes the strength of the novel: Dickens can’t help but see the locked-out workers as a lumpen mass, a wretched, sullen lot who only take action when goaded by outside agitators who are simply trouble-makers. See how, in this passage which begins so promisingly, the inhabitants of Coketown are described as ‘people equally like one another’ who tread upon their treadmill endlessly:

It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but as matters stood, it was a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage. It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, and vast piles of building full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness. It contained several large streets all very like one another, and many small streets still more like one another, inhabited by people equally like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours, with the same sound upon the same pavements, to do the same work, and to whom every day was the same as yesterday and to-morrow, and every year the counterpart of the last and the next.

The Preston strike Mr. Cowell addressing the factory operatives, 1853
The Preston strike: a trade union leader addresses the factory workers, 1853

First-hand accounts of the Preston lock-out reported that morale was high among the workers in an atmosphere of resilience and good-humoured determination with mill workers in neighbouring towns offering solidarity and financial support, yet Dickens portrays the workers of Coketown as mindlessly falling under the sway of outside agitators like Slackbridge, the union organiser from out of town full of ‘froth and fume’ who is as deceitful as the novel’s other duplicitous characters (of whom there are many), such as Tom Gradgrind, James Harthouse and Josiah Bounderby.

Slackbridge acted as fugleman, and gave the time. The multitude of doubtful faces (a little conscience-stricken) brightened at the sound, and took it up. Private feeling must yield to the common cause. Hurrah! The roof yet vibrated with the cheering …

This was the era of Chartism, and Dickens’s union organiser, Slackbridge, is partly based on Mortimer Grimshaw, the ‘Thunderer of Lancashire, who campaigned ceaselessly for the improvement of working conditions and enforcement of the Factory Acts, and was a supporter of the Chartist movement. Despite his sympathy for the workers’ plight, Dickens just couldn’t stomach the idea of working people as ‘One united power’, or accept that their hardships might be mitigated by a body as fearful as ‘the United Aggregate Tribunal’:

‘Oh, my friends, the down-trodden operatives of Coketown! Oh, my friends and fellow-countrymen, the slaves of an iron-handed and a grinding despotism! Oh, my friends and fellow-sufferers, and fellow-workmen, and fellow-men! I tell you that the hour is come when we must rally round one another as One united power…’

Later in the story, Slackbridge rouses the workers, ‘the injured pith and marrow of this land’ who have made Tyrants tremble by subscribing to the  ‘United Aggregate Tribunal’, to humiliate and drive out of town Stephen Blackpool,  the power loom operator who, for his own private reasons, has refused to support the strike.

Blackpool is one of the things I dislike about Hard Times. While the other central characters regard the workers as an undifferentiated mass, Dickens’s only correction to this limited outlook is Blackpool, who is a sacrificial lamb both symbolically and in terms of how Dickens portrays his personality. Entirely alone and shunned by all his fellow-workers (except Rachael, the woman he loves), he could have been a different, stronger character. He is, after all, a good man and involved in a possibly adulterous relationship. In a strong scene, Dickens has Blackpool approach Bounderby, his employer, to ask if there is any way he could obtain a divorce. Bounderby makes it clear that only a rich person with influence in Parliament can get a divorce.

It has to be said, though, that Dickens has great fun in the passages that involve the circus performers. Sissy, who comes to live with the Gradgrinds as a servant after her father has disappeared, is the daughter of a circus performer, Jupe, offering Dickens the opportunity to draw a vivid contrast between the world of factory and schoolroom and the free-wheeling life of a travelling circus, where the drudgery of everyday life was transformed into colourful spectacle and all members of the troupe look out for each other.  It’s a world that celebrates fancy, rather than fact – something that gets Sissy into trouble in that opening scene. First off, there’s her name (‘Sissy is not a name,’ said Mr. Gradgrind. ‘Don’t call yourself Sissy. Call yourself Cecilia.’); then there’s her father’s occupation:

‘He belongs to the horse-riding, if you please, sir.’

Mr. Gradgrind frowned, and waved off the objectionable calling with his hand.

‘We don’t want to know anything about that, here.  You mustn’t tell us about that, here.  Your father breaks horses, don’t he?’

‘If you please, sir, when they can get any to break, they do break horses in the ring, sir.’

‘You mustn’t tell us about the ring, here.  Very well, then.  Describe your father as a horsebreaker.  He doctors sick horses, I dare say?’

‘Oh yes, sir.’

‘Very well, then.  He is a veterinary surgeon, a farrier, and horsebreaker.

But Sissy’s worst mistake is to dream of flowers:

‘So you would carpet your room—or your husband’s room, if you were a grown woman, and had a husband—with representations of flowers, would you?’ said the gentleman.  ‘Why would you?’

‘If you please, sir, I am very fond of flowers,’ returned the girl.

‘And is that why you would put tables and chairs upon them, and have people walking over them with heavy boots?’

‘It wouldn’t hurt them, sir.  They wouldn’t crush and wither, if you please, sir.  They would be the pictures of what was very pretty and pleasant, and I would fancy—’

‘Ay, ay, ay!  But you mustn’t fancy,’ cried the gentleman, quite elated by coming so happily to his point.  ‘That’s it!  You are never to fancy.’

‘You are not, Cecilia Jupe,’ Thomas Gradgrind solemnly repeated, ‘to do anything of that kind.’

‘Fact, fact, fact!’ said the gentleman.  And ‘Fact, fact, fact!’ repeated Thomas Gradgrind.

‘You are to be in all things regulated and governed,’ said the gentleman, ‘by fact.  We hope to have, before long, a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact, who will force the people to be a people of fact, and of nothing but fact.  You must discard the word Fancy altogether.  You have nothing to do with it.  You are not to have, in any object of use or ornament, what would be a contradiction in fact.  You don’t walk upon flowers in fact; you cannot be allowed to walk upon flowers in carpets.  You don’t find that foreign birds and butterflies come and perch upon your crockery; you cannot be permitted to paint foreign birds and butterflies upon your crockery.  You never meet with quadrupeds going up and down walls; you must not have quadrupeds represented upon walls.  You must use,’ said the gentleman, ‘for all these purposes, combinations and modifications (in primary colours) of mathematical figures which are susceptible of proof and demonstration.  This is the new discovery.  This is fact.  This is taste.’

Later Bounderby and Gradgrind go in search of Sissy’s missing father, giving Dickens the opportunity to employ a series of slang terms he had asked a friend to send him that were common ‘among tumblers and Circus-people’:

You may or you may not be aware (for perhaps you have not been much in the audience), that Jupe has missed his tip very often, lately.’

‘Has—what has he missed?’ asked Mr. Gradgrind, glancing at the potent Bounderby for assistance.

‘Missed his tip.’

‘Offered at the Garters four times last night, and never done ’em once,’ said Master Kidderminster.  ‘Missed his tip at the banners, too, and was loose in his ponging.’

‘Didn’t do what he ought to do.  Was short in his leaps and bad in his tumbling,’ Mr. Childers interpreted.

‘Oh!’ said Mr. Gradgrind, ‘that is tip, is it?’

‘In a general way that’s missing his tip,’ Mr. E. W. B. Childers answered.

‘Nine oils, Merrylegs, missing tips, garters, banners, and Ponging, eh!’ ejaculated Bounderby, with his laugh of laughs.  ‘Queer sort of company, too, for a man who has raised himself!’

‘Lower yourself, then,’ retorted Cupid.  ‘Oh Lord! if you’ve raised yourself so high as all that comes to, let yourself down a bit.’

‘This is a very obtrusive lad!’ said Mr. Gradgrind, turning, and knitting his brows on him.

‘We’d have had a young gentleman to meet you, if we had known you were coming,’ retorted Master Kidderminster, nothing abashed.  ‘It’s a pity you don’t have a bespeak, being so particular.  You’re on the Tight-Jeff, ain’t you?’

‘What does this unmannerly boy mean,’ asked Mr. Gradgrind, eyeing him in a sort of desperation, ‘by Tight-Jeff?’

‘There!  Get out, get out!’ said Mr. Childers, thrusting his young friend from the room, rather in the prairie manner.  ‘Tight-Jeff or Slack-Jeff, it don’t much signify: it’s only tight-rope and slack-rope.  You were going to give me a message for Jupe?’

‘Yes, I was.’

‘Then,’ continued Mr. Childers, quickly, ‘my opinion is, he will never receive it.  Do you know much of him?’

‘I never saw the man in my life.’

‘I doubt if you ever will see him now.  It’s pretty plain to me, he’s off.’

‘Do you mean that he has deserted his daughter?’

‘Ay!  I mean,’ said Mr. Childers, with a nod, ‘that he has cut.  He was goosed last night, he was goosed the night before last, he was goosed to-day.  He has lately got in the way of being always goosed, and he can’t stand it.’

‘Why has he been—so very much—Goosed?’ asked Mr. Gradgrind, forcing the word out of himself, with great solemnity and reluctance.

‘His joints are turning stiff, and he is getting used up,’ said Childers.  ‘He has his points as a Cackler still, but he can’t get a living out of them.’

‘A Cackler!’ Bounderby repeated.  ‘Here we go again!’

In the end, Sissy Jupe is the only character for whom Dickens allows the happy ending of marriage and children. As in so many other Dickens novels, Sissy is revealed as the main force for good in the novel. Despite being abandoned by her father and being ground down by the Gradgrind philosophy, she remains is kind and loving.

Hard Times remains for me, on this second reading, a novel with flashes of true Dickens genius, but ultimately my least favourite of his books. Although its reputation grew in the 20th century, I lean towards JB Priestley’s assessment that of all the novels of Dickens’s maturity Hard Times is the least worth reading:

It is muddled in its direct political-social criticism. As a novel it falls far below the standard set by Dickens himself from Dombey and Son onwards. Here for once it is almost as if we are seeing Dickens through the eyes of his hostile critics, for in Hard Times there really are reckless and theatrical over-statements, there really are characters that are nothing but caricatures, there really is melodramatic muddled emotionalism. On the other hand, only in a few odd places is there any evidence of Dickens’s unique grotesque-poetic genius, so obvious in Bleak House. We may join him in condemning an industrialized commercial society, its values, its economics, its education, its withering relationships, but this does not mean we have to pretend an unsatisfactory novel is a masterpiece, just because it favours our side.

It would seem, as Priestley argued, that Dickens did not know enough about industrial England. He paid a short visit to Preston, and came away  sympathizing with the mill workers’ plight, but feeling doubtful about trade unions and any kind of mass movement among the workers. He was not on his familiar ground of London. So, in Priestley’s words,  Dickens’s Coketown ‘is merely a horrible appearance’. Priestley concludes:

In order to offer us a sharp contrast to Gradgrind and Bounderby, their outlook and style of life, he sketches a travelling circus to represent arts, skills, warm personal relationships. But he could have found all these, together with many odd attractive characters, in Coketown, if he had really known it and not simply looked at it from a railway train. As it is, Coketown belongs to propaganda and not to creative imagination.

I think Priestley is wrong about propaganda – Hard Times has more of the characteristics of an unconvincing melodrama – and there are undoubtedly flashes of wonderful creative imagination in the novel’s pages. But Priestley was right to imply that the novel’s weakness lies in Dickens’s failure to bring to life any characters amongst the millworkers themselves.

See also

  • Re-reading Dickens: all previous posts in this series
  • There is a revealing discussion of Dickens’s views on industrial action and education, and the influences that affected the writing of Hard Times in chapter 23 of Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens
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One thought on “Re-reading Dickens: Hard Times in Coketown

  1. I only know the opening to the book, and from what you say of the rest, it impresses on me the way that we’re returning to Victorian times today in so many ways, be it in functional education, econo-centrism, and the institutionalised atomisation of solidarity. Yet as you illustrate, the danger with satire is its dogma, which is a sure path to losing the nuances to reality that make situations, people and resolutions more complicated than any over-arching theory, no matter how much conviction it’s based on.

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