by Charles Dickens
It is not that I have read nothing over a month. But this is the first novel I have read for quite a while. Instead I have been reading some of Ray Bradbury’s short stories, and also some non-fiction, notably Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men.
I have read Hard Times within the past six years (since purchasing a Kindle and promising myself that I would read more nineteenth-century novels, given that they are cheap, if not free, to download, and that I enjoy them! So it was somewhat disconcerting, when this book was selected by our book group, that I was able to remember little more about the story than the rather improbably fate of Stephen Blackpool, a downtrodden but honest working-class hero, shunned by his own fellow workers and by management alike.
The characters are memorable, if somewhat exaggerated – as indeed is the story. Professor Belinda Jack argues (in Charles Dickens: Hard Times and Hyperbole) that the use of hyperbole in this novel serves a serious, rather than a comic purpose, and underlines the author’s outrage at the conditions of the working poor.
Professor Jack recommends the story synopsis on Wikipedia, so I won’t repeat it here, but refer my readers (and my future self) to that summary. The story is compelling, and after grinding my way through the first couple of chapters I fairly flew along – helped perhaps by the fact that I am on holiday and so have more time than usual to devote to reading. Through all its twists and turns, some of them unlikely or barely believable, it is still a good story. The ending is satisfactory: the ‘good’ characters (Louisa, Sissy) go on to lead worthy lives; the ‘bad’ characters (Bounderby, Mrs Sparsit, young Tom “the whelp”) get their come-uppance, and the misled character (Mr Gradgrind) leans the error of his ways. The circus folk are seen to be loyal as well as resourceful, if mischievous and devious. The poor remain poor, and the reader is surely well aware that they will continue to suffer.
An unusual choice for book group, and one that will, I hope, yield some interesting discussion. I read it too early – the meeting to discuss it is not for another seven weeks. So it is just as well I am writing up my thoughts straight away, lest I forget this book for a second time…!