Thursday, August 10, 2006

Hard Times - Hard Going

One of my favourite authors is Charles Dickens. OK, I know he gets a bit longwinded sometimes, that his plots are so complicated that you need a road map to follow them and that the maudlin death scenes are not to everybody’s taste, but there is so much to admire in his writings.

I have often puzzled why, as far as I’m aware, he has never been “approved” for studies in school. Perhaps it is that he includes scenes of drunken behaviour, scenes of violence, deliberate mis-spellings (Sarey Gamp etc.) that might mislead the kiddiwinkies – but Shakespeare is thrust down their throats on a regular basis and he includes all of the above by the bucketful. This does mean, of course, that most kids give up on Shakespeare for ever, so I suppose not having Dickens force-fed is something of an advantage as they can then come to him later on in life without prejudice.

Personally, I make one exception to my general feeling about Charles. I just can’t get along with Mr.Gradgrind and Hard Times (not too keen on A Tale of Two Cities either, but for different reasons). It’s Dickens’ shortest novel, written very hastily to boost the flagging sales of his magazine, Household Words, and was lapped up by a Victorian public who clearly enjoyed it more than I. The profits of the magazine doubled while it was being published.

It’s also his least well researched. He was intimately familiar with London, Londoners and the argot of the city but his knowledge of the North of England, the setting of Hard Times, was little more than a fleeting visit to Preston and the dialogue has an uncomfortable feel to it. The balance between the trade unions and the industrialists is not fairly struck, his day trip to Lancashire being insufficient to round out his simplistic version of the conflicts.

He seemed a tad uncomfortable as well, since his title for the book ran through innumerable changes: Rust and Dust, Stubborn Things, Two and Two are Four, Fact, According to Cocker, Prove It, Our Hard-headed Friend, and Thomas Gradgrind’s Facts before settling finally for Hard Times.

But his writing of the English language is as good as always – perhaps I’ll give it another go!


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