Hard Times - For These Times, by Charles Dickens.

"Bitzer," said Mr. Gradgrind, broken down, and miserably submissive to him, "have you a heart?"
"The circulation, sir," returned Bitzer, smiling at the oddity of the question, "couldn’t be carried on without one. No man, sir, acquainted with the facts established by Harvey relating to the circulation of the blood, can doubt that I have a heart."
Hard Times - For These Times was published on the 1st April 1854, 160 years ago (almost), and, incidentally, 156 years before Prime Minister David Cameron's speech in 2010 when he claimed, "We are progressive Conservatives". 

It is Dickens' shortest novel: my Penguin Popular Classics edition is a mere 268 pages. Unlike most of his other novels it is not set in London (it's set in the fictional Coketown, which bares resemblance to both Preston and Manchester), and it is comparable with Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South (also serialised in 'Household Words', and following Hard Times: the series began in September 1854, and ran until January 1855 before being published as a complete novel later that year). John Ruskin said this was his favourite novel by Dickens because of it's exploration of "important questions", and, at the time of writing The Great Tradition (1948), it was the only novel by Dickens that F. R. Leavis felt showed Dickens' strength and genius (F. R. Leavis would later revisit Dickens and revise his opinion in subsequent books). Karl Marx once said of Dickens that he "issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together". Hard Times, I believe, is an excellent example of this, and its relevance to today's politics secures its place (if there was ever any doubt) as an essential classic.
"Smoke serpents". A picture of 19th
Century industrial Manchester.

Hard Times is divided into three books: 'Sowing', 'Reaping', and 'Garnering', which comes from Galatians 6: 7 - "For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap". This immediately sets the tone for a novel with a strong moral message. The major theme is education, with strong, heavy reference to utilitarian philosophy and economics; utilitarianism (founded by Jeremy Bentham and James Mill) is, put simply, the belief that a moral act is one that ensures 'the greatest good for the greatest number'. This, combined with the self-interest of laissez-faire economics (i.e. 'the free market'), is lethal, as Dickens shows in his novel.

Thomas Gradgrind, an MP and retired merchant, brings up his children according to his philosophy - "In this life, we want nothing but Facts, Sir; nothing but Facts!" Dickens goes on to describe their education:
They had been lectured at, from their tenderest years; coursed like little hares. Almost as soon as they could run alone, they had been made to run to the lecture room.
Two of his sons (who barely appear in the book) are Adam Smith and Malthus. Malthus refers to the Rev. Thomas Malthus: those who have read A Christmas Carol (published eleven years before Hard Times) may already be familiar with him, indeed I wrote a little about him in December. He is the author of An Essay on the Principles of Population (1798), in which he argues,
The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.
This is known (as I said in the December post) as "the Malthusian catastrophe", and is echoed by Scrooge's comment, "If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."

Adam Smith has been on the £20 note since 2007.
Charles Dickens was on the £10 note between
1992 - 2003. The quote on the £20 note reads,
"The division of labour in pin manufacturing (and
the great increase in the quantity of work that results)"
Adam Smith was an 18th Century economist and philosopher; a proponent of laissez-faire economics, although neither he nor Malthus used the phrase. For him, the market may be viewed as a natural system, and the laissez-faire approach was a moral approach that reflected mankind's liberty (a contemporary example of this, and the similar attitude of "pas trop gouverner" ["govern not too much"] would be Cameron's scrapping of 80 000 'red tape' documents two weeks ago). Furthermore, by the self-interested pursuing  of capital, society as whole benefits (guided by what Smith called "the invisible hand"). Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations (1776),
As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other eases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it.
Although I've said the characters Adam Smith and Malthus barely appear in Hard Times (in fact, I think they only appear once) it's important I think to have some idea about the philosophies of the men who inspired Mr. Gradgrind so much he named his children after them.

Thomas Gradgrind's friend Josiah Bounderby is almost entirely interested in himself, money, and power. What's worse is that he sees himself superior for his money-making ability (he is, as he never tires of saying, "a self-made man" - "a commercial wonder," Dickens wryly notes, "more admirable than Venus"), telling a member of the circus,
"You see, my friend," Mr. Bounderby put in, "we are the kind of people who know the value of time, and you are the kind of people who don’t know the value of time."
And even worse than that, in attitude that is very prevalent today, Dickens writes of Bounderby's ilk -
Any capitalist there, who had made sixty thousand pounds out of sixpence, always professed to wonder why the sixty thousand nearest Hands didn’t each make sixty thousand pounds out of sixpence, and more or less reproached them every one for not accomplishing the little feat. What I did you can do. Why don’t you go and do it?
David Cameron.
Today in the United Kingdom, we're encouraged to be entrepreneurs, for as Smith wrote, by pursuing one's own financial interests, we secure a happy future for society. It is not a good thing, it is a great thing. In October 2013 David Cameron wrote for the Mirror in a reminder to support local shops over Christmas,
Their future success will determine our success.
This isn't just about numbers and statistics either.
Small traders ­represent something much deeper about the British spirit. They are aspiration personified.
I have nothing but respect for people who strike out on their own, build something from scratch then work day and night to make it a success.
These are the values we need in Britain today and they are national heroes.
It is, in accordance with Smith and repeated by Cameron, morally right to make money. The Conservative Party thus believe that it isn't simply a-moral not to make money, but immoral, and so those who cannot make money, those who are unemployed for example (not the only example, of course) are actively demonised, most famously in the case of Mick Philpot. In May 2012, Philpot and his wife deliberately set fire to their home causing the death of their six children. In April 2013, a day after sentencing, George Osborne (Chancellor of the Exchequer) said,
Philpott is responsible for these absolutely horrendous crimes and these are crimes that have shocked the nation; the courts are responsible for sentencing him. 
But I think there is a question for government and for society about the welfare state - and the taxpayers who pay for the welfare state - subsidising lifestyles like that, and I think that debate needs to be had. [quoted on the BBC News website]
George Osborne.
In Hard Times, Bounderby merely remarks of an injured man, "'Serve ’em right,’ said Mr. Bounderby, ‘for being idle.’" Now, in 'these times' as Dickens would say, the poor are hated yet more. To quote Owen Jones (author of Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class, 2011),
Hatred against those receiving benefits is out of control in Cameron's Britain. The Tories transformed a crisis of capitalism into a crisis of public spending, and determined that the most vulnerable would make the biggest sacrifices. But taking away support from the disabled, the unemployed and the working poor is not straightforward. It can only be achieved by a campaign of demonisation – to crush any potential sympathy. Benefit recipients must only appear as feckless, workshy scroungers, living in opulent quasi-mansions with wall-to-wall widescreen TVs, rampaging around the Canary Islands courtesy of handouts from the squeezed taxpayer. Benefit fraud does exist – according to Government estimates, it is worth less than 1 per cent of welfare spending – but the most extreme examples are passed off as representative, or as the "tip of the iceberg". The reality is all but airbrushed out of existence.
(I strongly recommend that people read this article to see the effects of such attitudes).

Bounderby and Gradgrind's friendship is almost like capitalism meeting utilitarianism. Caught in between are Gradgrind's oldest children Tom and Louisa, victims of circumstance; victims of a utilitarian education. One of the main themes in Hard Times is, after all, education. "Fact!" is the word that the utilitarianists live by, and "fancy" is abhorred. On discovering his children looking at the circus folk, Gradgrind exclaims,
‘You! Thomas and you, to whom the circle of the sciences is open; Thomas and you, who may be said to be replete with facts; Thomas and you, who have been trained to mathematical exactness; Thomas and you, here!’ cried Mr. Gradgrind. ‘In this degraded position! I am amazed.’
Needless to say, Dickens bitterly attacks the system; in one of my favourite passages, a utilitarian school master is described thus,
So, Mr. M’Choakumchild began in his best manner. He and some one hundred and forty other schoolmasters, had been lately turned at the same time, in the same factory, on the same principles, like so many pianoforte legs. He had been put through an immense variety of paces, and had answered volumes of head-breaking questions. Orthography, etymology, syntax, and prosody, biography, astronomy, geography, and general cosmography, the sciences of compound proportion, algebra, land-surveying and levelling, vocal music, and drawing from models, were all at the ends of his ten chilled fingers. He had worked his stony way into Her Majesty’s most Honourable Privy Council’s Schedule B, and had taken the bloom off the higher branches of mathematics and physical science, French, German, Latin, and Greek. He knew all about all the Water Sheds of all the world (whatever they are), and all the histories of all the peoples, and all the names of all the rivers and mountains, and all the productions, manners, and customs of all the countries, and all their boundaries and bearings on the two and thirty points of the compass. Ah, rather overdone, M’Choakumchild. If he had only learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught much more!
Michael Gove.
I am not the first person to liken Mr. M'Choakumchild (wonderful name!) with Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, and teachers in the United Kingdom would do a much better analysis than I can possibly do. Interestingly, Michael Gove twice referred to Thomas Gradgrind in a speech from October 2011 (with no irony), whilst the likes of Morwenna Ferrier (for the Telegraph) write of Gradgrind,
He liked to tick boxes, a sort of Michael Gove for Victorian times, obsessed with figures and targets and curriculums.
It is true, Michael "Gradgrind" Gove (as Rob Maher referred to him on Twitter) is not an advocate for what Gradgrind and M'Choakumchild would dismiss as 'fancy' -
'Ay, ay, ay! But you mustn't fancy,' cried the gentleman, quite elated by coming so happily to his point. 'That's it! You are never to fancy.'
The re-emergence of the 12 times table, for example, is but one example of his 'anti-fancy' campaign.  The stripping of English Literature as a "core" GCSE subject another (an interesting article from Polly Toynbee on the subject here). And, furthermore, as The Independent reported in July 2013,
In history, Mr Gove will stick to his guns, insisting that pupils learn their UK history chronologically – rather than focus on topics such as the Nazis or the Tudors, the most popular option in recent years.
Unsurprisingly, Gove advocates a "military ethos" in schools. From the Department of Education's website,
Promoting military ethos in schools helps foster confidence, self-discipline and self-esteem whilst developing teamwork and leadership skills. Past experience from both the military and education sector has demonstrated how these core values help pupils to reach their academic potential and become well-rounded and accomplished adults fully prepared for life beyond school.
From this alone, as with the schooling system of Hard Times, education is not fun, and nor ought it be. We can only be grateful for the rejection of 10 hour school day pledge.

Clearly, Hard Times is as relevant today as it was then. Things have changed of course, yet this novel remains For These Times. It's an astonishingly dense book, but so very worthwhile the read. There is much I haven't touched upon - two of the central characters, Sissy Jupe and Stephen Blackpool, for example. And the dehumanisation of the workers, "the Hands". But because of time constraints, and that this post is getting epically long, I shall have to curtail. It is, though, so very relevant. What is reaped in Hard Times we see in the second generation of Gradgrinds, Tom and his sister Louisa, and what is garnered - well, I won't spoil the end of the book. What we see in Hard Times is classic Dickens, that intricately weaved web, like the webs we see later in Hugo's Les Misérables (1862) or Eliot's Middlemarch (1871-72).


  1. I disliked the book but I loved your review!

    1. Thank you :) Why did you dislike it? Just wondering if it was from a political point of view, or if it just didn't appeal? :)

  2. It's incredible how relevant Dickens' text still is to contemporary events! As someone who doesn't live in the UK I found your analysis of the current political situation very useful. :)

    1. Thank you, glad it was useful :) Hopefully I can look back on it in years to come and thank the stars that things have changed for the better... :)

  3. Whew...and all that in less than 300 pages....
    Wonderful review, o! Though I know I would read all Dickens books someday, I think this one should come sooner than the others.


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