Bread and circuses…
😀 😀 😀 😀
In the industrial town of Coketown in the north of England, we meet the Gradgrinds. Mr Gradgrind is a school board Superintendent, a Utilitarian, a lover of facts and an enemy to fancy. Mrs Gradgrind is a woman dull to the point of near-imbecility and, out of laziness and disinterest as much as anything else, supports her husband’s child-rearing methods. Gradgrind’s primary guinea pigs for his Utilitarian experiment are his five children, especially the two eldest, Louisa and Tom. The school that Gradgrind superintends forcefeeds facts into the heads of children, and stifles any individuality or creativity. Into this learning factory comes Sissy Jupe, the child of a circus performer who has begged to be allowed to attend school so that she can be educated. But when Louisa and Tom are caught one day daring to peep into the forbidden circus, Gradgrind blames Sissy’s influence, at the suggestion of his great friend Mr Bounderby, and throws Sissy out of school.
Mr. Gradgrind Catches Louisa and Tom at the Circus
by Charles S. Reinhart
Mr Bounderby is a self-made man who has dragged himself up from beginnings so inauspicious that it’s amazing he survived at all, much less going on to become a rich and powerful business magnate. We know this because Bounderby tells the story to everyone he meets. If he could rise from being abandoned by an uncaring mother, then so could anyone else if only they had his determination – such is his philosophy, justifying his cruel hard-heartedness to his employees and to anyone who has fallen on hard times. Bounderby, well on in middle-age, casts his lecherous eye on young Louisa before she has even left school, and as soon as she can be considered an adult, asks Gradgrind for her hand. Poor Louisa is one of those cold females Dickens excels in – damaged by her upbringing to the point where all passion, all emotion even, is buried so deep inside even she thinks it is dead. So she agrees to marry Bounderby.
These are the main characters whose story we follow through one of Dickens’ shorter and more overtly polemical novels. He has two main themes – the hardships of workers contrasted with the harsh, unfeeling selfishness of the new industrial magnates; and the need for children to be allowed to explore their imagination and have some fun, alongside fact-based learning. Written at roughly the same time as Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, a book he encouraged her to write and which was serialised in his periodical Household Words, both examine the new industrial world of the North and both are arguing for better conditions for workers, but that’s where the comparison ends. Gaskell’s characterisation is more realistic, perhaps, and her story is much bleaker – her characters are chiefly notable for dying (constantly) of poverty or industrial disease, whereas Dickens’ characters go through all his usual things – broken hearts, tragic misunderstandings, amazing coincidences, false accusations and redemption. Gaskell wins the prize for realism, but Dickens wins the more coveted prize for being entertaining!
Louisa’s frozen heart in peril, observed by Mrs Sparsit
by Charles S. Reinhart
There is some humour in the schooling of the children, as they repeat back meaningless definitions of nouns they have learned by rote with no depth of understanding. But it’s dark humour – Dickens’ low opinion of education shows up in many of his books, from the deliberate sadism of Wackford Squeers, to here, where Mr Gradgrind has the best of intentions, but no understanding at all of childishness and the need for children to grow spiritually and imaginatively even as they absorb facts. (I wonder what he would think of our schools now, on the rare occasion that they’re open, with children encouraged to tick boxes on multiple choice questionnaires to get “right answers”, rather than learning to comprehend, think for themselves and write in grammatical English – exam fodder. Gradgrind would fit in well in many parts of our education system today, I suspect. And the upsurge in demand for child mental health services makes it clear that many of our children are being as damaged by their education as poor Louisa. But I digress!)
Sissy and Louisa being nauseatingly sweet
by Charles S Reinhart
The story of the conditions for workers is darker. Here our humble hero is Stephen Blackpool, an employee in one of Bounderby’s mills. Through his wife, we see the damage that alcohol can do, to all sectors of society, of course, but always more harshly to the poor. Stephen is caught between two forces over which he has no control – the employers and the new unions, beginning their long, unfinished battle for power. While Dickens is very sympathetic to the plight of the workers, whom he shows as decent and honest, he has little time for the union leaders, showing them as self-seeking demagogues, stirring up the men to justify their own existence, and with little true concern for the workers whom they exploit as much as do the employers. While there is little doubt (in most quarters!) that (some) unions have been a force for good overall, helping workers to win better pay and conditions over the century and a half since Dickens was writing, I’m sure we can all think of examples of the kind of demagogic union leader Dickens portrays here – Arthur Scargill immediately springs to my mind, and there are one or two operating today who also fit the bill (names redacted to prevent outraged comments from their supporters 😉 ). So while I felt the portrayal was unfairly one-sided, it still bore a lot of credibility. And in Stephen we see an early example of how the unions persuade friend to turn against friend, if any man dares to refuse to follow the herd. Again Scargill’s campaign against the “scabs” was forefront in my mind as I watched poor Stephen driven from his job, his home and his community for the crime of refusing to go on strike.
Stephen Blackpool and his drunkard wife
by Charles S. Reinhart
So as always with Dickens, plenty to think about and plenty that is still sadly relevant today. And of course his writing is always a joy to read. However, this book feels rather under-developed in comparison to his greatest novels. There are moments of humour, but none of the exuberance and wit that usually provide a welcome contrast to his more polemical elements. There’s a distinct shortage of the memorable characters he normally does so well – Bounderby is a great character, as is his awful housekeeper, Mrs Sparsit. But neither Louisa nor Sissy won my heart much though I sympathised with both, and the evil people (even Bounderby) aren’t as beautifully caricatured as, say, a Uriah Heep or a Fagin. The story is more straightforward, without much of the mystery and suspense that his best books contain. Overall, I enjoyed it – of course I did: it’s Dickens! – but I don’t think it comes close to his best. Well worth reading but perhaps not one I would recommend as a first introduction for newcomers to his work.