Hard Times is one of Charles Dickens’ lesser known novels. As is usual for him, it has quite a large cast of characters (considering the size of the book at least), and a few interweaving plots. One storyline is based around the Gradgrind family (including a circus girl named Sissy) and their relationship with Josiah Bounderby. Mr Gradgrind has given his children a very unique education based solely on fact and logic, and has no time for what he refers to as ‘fancy’ (which basically amounts to creativity and imagination). Another storyline deals with the factory worker Stephen Blackpool, his relationship with Rachael who he hopes to marry, and the loss of his job through no fault of his own. These storylines end up intertwining and the characters all manage to influence and affect each other’s lives, and it all gets a bit complicated in a completely Dickensian way.
It took me a couple of attempts to read David Copperfield, I didn’t get on with it at first but when I tried reading it again a couple of years later I was absolutely swept along in the story, and at one point my reading experience was so vivid that I swear I heard the sea. In a similar sort of way, I think Hard Times is a book which I should probably try to read again, as I’m sure there was a fair amount that I missed during my first read through. I chose to read it because I really wanted to read some more Dickens and Hard Times is one of his shortest novels, but I found it a bit hard to keep track of the storyline at times, but more specifically to keep track of the characters’ different relationships and intertwining plots. After I finished reading it, I found it much harder to keep the story straight in my head, and I couldn’t recall exactly what the story was about as easily as I could with David Copperfield, hence my probable need for a reread.
Despite this, I did enjoy reading it. It was surprisingly funny and Dickens’ wit, especially in regards to Gradgrind and Bounderby’s use of ‘logic’, was really entertaining, and I did find myself having a little chuckle out loud in places. The general tone was really comic at times, and it was quite a pleasurable tone to read, which is one of the reasons why I thought the ending of the book might have been a bit happier. To be honest, it finished on quite a depressing note. Stephen and Tom were dead, Louisa was miserable and permanently ruined by her education (and I use the word ‘education’ oh so loosely), and even though Sissy was the happiest surviving character, she still never got to see her father again.
Having said that I wasn’t always sure exactly what was going on, I still managed to solve the mysteries of who had really committed the robbery (it was quite obvious really) and what exactly was the connection between Bounderby and the old woman Mrs Pegler. It was clear to me that Mrs Pegler was really Bounderby’s mother, however I still believed that she had abandoned Bounderby and he’d been raised in hardship, until it was revealed otherwise. As Mrs Sparsit discovered though, Mrs Pegler was actually a very caring mother and he’d spread the lies himself in order to make his philosophies seem more credible.
I didn’t enjoy everything about Hard Times though, and I found the written depictions of Sleary’s lisp and Stephen’s accent extremely irritating. I find it quite hard to read dialogue that’s written colloquially anyway, but I almost had to try and read both Sleary and Stephen’s speech aloud to be able to understand what they were saying. It required a far greater amount of concentration than I was willing to give, and I did find it rather off-putting.
I probably wouldn’t recommend reading Hard Times if you’re completely new to reading Dickens. I liked the story, but I think there’s a reason why Hard Times is one of his lesser known works, and I didn’t find it as entertaining as David Copperfield. I would probably suggest starting out with a more famous novel like David Copperfield, A Christmas Carol or maybe Great Expectations where you’re more likely to be familiar with some aspects of the plot, and then perhaps venture into some of the lesser known novels. I think this is what I’m going to do next, I’ve only read the two books by Dickens so far but I’m hoping to read an awful lot more over the coming year, and then I might try rereading Hard Times again afterwards to see if I can discover anything new in it, or if I can understand the whole story a bit better.