I knew the day was coming that I would embark on a cruise through Charles Dickens, I just didn’t know when the ship would sail. Reading the 38 plays of Shakespeare two summers ago was as a life-changing experience, not just because Shakespeare became like the grandfather I never knew, but also because I didn’t think I possessed the concentration needed to follow through on such a wordy project. When I think of wordy, however, I think of Dickens. I remember him from high school as having page-long sentences that wound around every house on the block before finally coming home.
Small things tip us into larger ones. I read five novels of Charles Dickens in high school because of the Monkees, that pseudo-rock band that was more accessible to junior high school girls in the mid-sixties than even the Beatles were. One of the Monkees, Davy Jones, was a British kid from Manchester who had played the Artful Dodger in the stage production of Oliver! Davy Jones, being my crush of choice of all the available Pauls, Johns, Peters, and Mickeys, I –of course—had to read Oliver Twist. I went on to read David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Nicholas Nickleby, and A Tale of Two Cities. For no other reason than that Davy Jones played the Artful Dodger in the stage production of Oliver!
Small things tip us into larger ones. I loved George Orwell’s essay on Dickens, which I read during last winter’s Orwell Fest. Then last month I somewhere picked up the stray information that Hard Times was one of Dickens’ shortest and easiest novels. The next day I ran across a 25 cent copy at a garage sale. I bought it and read it. It served the purpose of convincing me that long sentences in high school were now not quite so long. Especially not since reading the canon of Shakespeare, not to mention four volumes in the Norton Anthology series and two thirds of Ulysses at which point I am stuck.
In any case I decided this would be the summer of Dickens. Besides the novels, which are mighty, great doorstops of books, he also wrote short stories and articles and letters. I’m not planning to read everything. I want to read at least enough of his work to be able to use the word Dickensian with more intelligence than pretension.
So I read Hard Times. That was a month ago. Since I don’t want to get up and get the book, let’s see what my retention is worth. It takes place in fictitious Coketown in the industrial north of England, a town that manufactures cloth. The book begins with Mr. Gradgrind, a teacher, bellowing to his class that FACTS are all that matter in the world. That horrifying beginning sets the tone.
Gradgrind has raised his family without regard to feelings of any kind. His wife escapes into hypochondria and dies halfway through the book. His son becomes a lazy, scheming, selfish man. Gradgrind marries off his daughter Louisa to Mr. Bounderby, a banker who is 30 years older than her because it’s a rational thing to do. He himself becomes an MP and goes to London. Gradgrind is one of more sympathetic characters in the book because he changes. His daughter is miserable with Bounderby and she confronts her parent about all that was lacking in her upbringing. This was a curiously modern scene. It reminded me of today’s therapeutic advice to confront the family members who have victimized you. Gradgrind softens, opens up and becomes a fuller human being.
Mr. Bounderby is a bounder—get it? He has made up a story about himself as an orphan who created a life and got rich out of practically a piece of string and a couple of sticks. But his (loving) mother shows near the end of the book and unwittingly unveils her son as the, well, bounder, that he is.
Mr. Bounderby has a menial who either is or thinks she is a member of the impoverished gentry. Mrs.Sparsit. Dickens continually represents her as one with “Coriolanus” eyebrows partly to suggest her aristocratic background, and partly to reinforce the visual of dark, thick eyebrows. Here’s one of the funniest lines of the book:
“So, Mr. Gradgrind and his daughter took Cecelia Jupe off with them to Stone Lodge, and on the way Louisa never spoke one word, good or bad. And Mr. Bounderby went about his daily pursuits. And Mrs. Sparsit got behind her eyebrows and meditated in the gloom of that retreat, all the evening.
That was worth my getting up off the couch, getting the book, and finding the quotation.