A Review of Hard Times, by Charles Dickens, Limited Editions Club

Continuing my quest to get through some of the least read novels of Charles Dickens (1812-1870), I used some airplane time during the past week to get through Hard Times, For These Times. This is the tenth novel of Charles Dickens, and was first published in 1854.  Similar to my opinion of Barnaby Rudgereviewed a few weeks back, I can understand why this is not one of the more popular Dickens novels.

While it does not run to an unnecessary length as Barnaby Rudge does, this work is similar in that there are not many sympathetic characters to really emotionally latch onto (and the few that are meant to be sympathetic, I find somewhat irritating).   The antagonists and protagonists are almost parodies of the social classes they are supposed to represent. While the novel is appropriately grim, providing a critical look at the impacts of the Industrial Revolution on the poor and working classes in industrial laissez-faire England, its realism does not make for pleasurable reading, and the character flaws dent the impact of its message.

Besides his dislike of what he saw as unfettered Capitalism and its impact on the social condition of the working class, Dickens was concerned about the educational system that fed into the capitalist enterprise, believing that the prevalence of utilitarian values in the education of children was causing England to be raising automons; youth as machines that could recite facts, but lacking in imagination, empathy or other traits needed for a more fulfilling life and better social fabric.

The founder of the educational system in Coketown (the fictional Manchester of Hard Times), Thomas Gradgrind, tells the teacher of his school:

Now, what I want is, facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts.  Facts alone are wanted in life…You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them…Stick to the Facts, Sir!

Gradgrind frets over people going to the town library where he cannot control what they read, fearing that:

They wondered about human nature, human passions, human hopes and fears, the struggles, triumphs and defeats, the cares and joys and sorrows, the lives and deaths, of common men and women!…They took Defoe to their bosoms instead of Euclid, and seemed to be, on the whole, more comforted by Goldsmith than by Cocker.

While the educational and industrial leaders of Coketown foster such utilitarianism, those around them in Hard Times show the negative impact such focus has on those raised by, or working within the framework of, such philosophies.  For instance, Gradgrind’s own daughter, Luisa, tells her father:

What do I know, father of tastes and fancies; of aspirations and affections; of all that part of my nature in which such light things might have been nourished?  What escape have I had from problems that could be demonstrated, and realities that could be grasped?…You have been so careful with me, that I never had a child’s heart.  You have trained me so well, that I never dreamed a child’s dream.

Her development is essentially stunted, missing the ‘soft’ human characteristics that actually make us tolerable.  Later in the story, Luisa shows more frustration at the way in which she was educated, telling her father:

How could you give me life, and take from me all the inappreciable things that raise it from a state on conscious death?  Where are the graces of my soul? Where are the sentiments of my heart?  What have you done, O father, what have you done, with the garden that should have bloomed once in this great wilderness here?

Dickens presents the main unsympathetic characters, such as Gradgrind or Josiah Bounderby (discussed below), as extreme examples of utilitarian types, men whose great flaws cause all kinds of problems, unhappiness and dishonesty; while providing a sprinkling of sympathetic characters, all economically poor from less respectable backgrounds who, despite their poverty, reflect nearly perfect honesty, compassion and ethics.

As always, Dickens is at his best highlighting the plight of the downtrodden. His descriptions of the working and living conditions in mill towns are frightening and had significant influence in opening the eyes of many in England towards the moral destruction in their midst. His description of the stagnant and always present pollution, be it the air people breathe or the human soul, would turn the head of even the most ardent believer in non-regulation of industry. First the air:

Seen from a distance in such weather, Coketown lay shrouded in a haze of its own, which appeared impervious to the sun’s rays. You only knew the town was there, because you knew there could have been no such sulky blotch upon th prospect without a town. A blur of soot and smoke, now confusedly tending this way, now that way, now aspiring to the vault of heaven, now murkily creeping along the earth, as the wind rose and fell, or changed its quarter; a dense formless jumble, with sheets of cross-light in it, that showed nothing but masses of darkness.

Then the soul:

It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but, as matters stood, it was a town of unnatural red and black, like the painted face of a savage.  It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled.  It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, and vast piles of building full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness. It contained several large streets all very like one another, and many small streets still more like one another, inhabited by people equally like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours…to do the same work, and to whom every day was the same as yesterday and tomorrow, and every year the counterpart of the last and next.

This description of the monotony of industrialization is saddening, and Dickens pines away against an educational establishment and society more concerned with perfecting such monotony than they are with human dignity that suffers because of it.

So many hundreds Hands in this Mill; so many hundred horse Steam Power.  It is known, to the force of a single pound weight, what the engine will do; but, not all the calculators of the National Debt can tell me the capacity for good and evil, for love or hatred, for patriotism or discontent, for the decomposition of virtue into vice, or the reverse, at any single moment in the soul of one of these its quiet servants, with the composed faces and the regulated actions. There is no mystery in it; there is unfathomable mystery in the meanest of them, forever.–Supposing we were to reserve our arithmetic for material objects, and to govern these awful unknown quantities by other means!

Dickens blasts those who represent business ownership, poking fun at how every proposed reform of industry is, if industry is to be believed, the ruin of them.  Yet, they keep getting richer. Concerning Coketown, Dickens writes:

The wonder was, it was there at all. It had been ruined so often…Surely there was never was such fragile china-ware as that of which the millers of Coketown were made…They were ruined when they were required to send laboring children to school; they were ruined, when inspectors were appointed to look into their works; they were ruined, when such inspectors considered it doubtful whether they were quite justified in chopping people up in their machinery; they were utterly undone, when it was hinted that perhaps they need not always make quite so much smoke.

Dickens shows more disdain for the “has” when he first introduces Josiah Bounderby with a description which has almost become the caricature of a rich capitalist in any number of Hollywood films:

He was a rich man: banker, merchant, manufacturer, and what not.  A big, loud man, with a stare and a metallic laugh.  A man made out of a course material, which seemed to have been stretched to make so much of him. A man with a great puffed head and forehead, swelled veins in his temples, and such a strained skin to his face that it seemed to hold his eyes open, and lift his eyebrows up.  A man with a pervading appearance on him being inflated like a balloon, and ready to start…A man who was the Bully of humility.

Clearly, Hard Times is a work of social protest, highlighting to readers that industry is taking advantage of workers, de-humanizing them, providing a life to the poor that is hard to imagine in its hopelessness, monotony and despair. Such conditions led to growing Marxist and Socialist thought at the time, along with an expansion of Trade Union movements. Dickens has a trade union leader, Slackbridge, give a speech that seems to come right out of Marx:

Oh, my friends, the downtrodden operatives of Coketown!…the slaves of an iron-handed and a grinding despotism!  Oh, my friends and fellow-sufferers, and fellow-workmen, and fellow-men!  I tell you that the hour is come when we must rally around one another as One united power, and crumble into the dust the oppressors that too long have battened upon the plunder of our families, upon the sweat of our brows, upon the labor of our hands…

Yet, the same union contributes to the desolation of one of their own, when they exile a poor, honest, working class man named Stephen Blackpool, a major protagonist of the book, for the sin of having conversed with the mill owner, essentially branding him a traitor to their cause.  The result being:

Thus easily did Stephen Blackpool fall into the loneliest of lives, the life of solitude among a familiar crowd.  The stranger in the land who looks into ten thousand faces for some answering look, and never finds it, in in cheering society as compared with him who passes ten averted faces daily, that were once the countenances of friends.  Such experience was to be Stephen’s now in every waking moment of his life; at his work, on his way to it and from it, at his door, at his window, everywhere.

In such situations, the working class simply cannot win.  It is depressing, and the story wallows in such depression, presenting the reader with a bleak picture of societal destiny as murky as the sky in Coketown.

The book is broken into three parts, Book I called “Sowing”, Book II is entitled “Reaping”, and the third is “Garnering,” so clearly the main theme Dickens wants us to take from this story is from Galatians 6:7, “For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” It is a warning to his contemporary readers, still relevant today, to open their eyes to the plight of those less fortunate; that actions we take ultimately get re-paid to us, be it good or evil. He reminds us that “it rests with you and me” which direction we take.  He warns:

…the poor you will have always with you.  Cultivate in them, while there is yet time, the utmost graces of the fancies and affections, to adorn their lives so much in need of ornament; or, in the day of your triumph, when romance is utterly driven out of their souls, and they and a bare existence stand face to face, Reality will take a wolfish turn, and make an end of you.

While I understand the point he is making with his use of characters, I believe a more balanced approach, while retaining the same negative outlook on the impact of laissez-faire industrialization on those less fortunate, would lead to a greater sense of realism and connection with the characters, thereby generating more sympathy to the plight of those he is trying to help. I simply do not believe people are as black and white as Dickens portrays in Hard Times.   The economically poor protagonists, like Sissy Jupe and Stephen Blackpool, are almost perfect in their inner-most thoughts and behavior, whereas ‘the rich’ and ‘better’ classed, represented by Josiah Bounderby and Thomas Gradgrind, Junior, have nothing morally good about them.

About this Limited Editions Club Edition:

While not spectacular, nor one of the Limited Editions Club’s (LEC) more beautiful books, something about the overall package is very attractive to me in a classic sense.  The paper has a very nice feel, the typeset is nicely done and the spine and cover are classy. The book just ‘feels’ right and for the relatively low cost this can be picked up for, it is a no-brainer for LEC or Charles Dickens fans.  I am not a huge fan of the illustrations however.  I suppose they match the depressed nature of the story and reflect the depravity of the social fabric of “Coketown”, but they just seem to be somewhat meaningless, floating somewhere between realistic depiction and abstraction, not sure what story they want to tell.

  • Published in April 1966
  • Designed and Printed by Joseph Blumenthal at The Spiral Press in New York
  • Three piece binding: backbone and part of each side in English buckram; remainder of sides in dark blue Roma, an Italian mould-made laid paper; the titling is in gold on a leather spine-label with the author’s initials hand lettered, stamped on the front cover
  • 15 wash drawings in color and 37 line drawings printed in green umber, by English artist Charles Raymond, who also signs the edition
  • Introduction by John T. Winterich (1891–1970), author of many books for bibliophiles and students of literary history, and was the author of the LEC monthly letters from 1956 to 1965
  • Color plates made by The Crafton Graphic Company
  • White rag paper specially made for this edition by the Curtis Paper Company of Newark, Delaware
  • 11 point Linotype Baskerville, with two points of leading, for the text
  • Bound at Russell-Rutter bindery
  • 6 5/8″ x 9 3/4″, 328 pages
  • Limited to 1,500 copies, of which mine is #330


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Hard Times, Limited Editions Club, Slipcase
Hard Times, Limited Editions Club, Book in Slipcase
Hard Times, Limited Editions Club, Front Cover
Hard Times, Limited Editions Club, Title Page
Hard Times, Limited Editions Club, Sample Page with Text and Illustration
Hard Times, Limited Editions Club, Second Sample Pages with Text and Illustration
Hard Times, Limited Editions Club, Third Sample Pages with Text and Illustration
Hard Times, Limited Editions Club, Fourth Sample Pages with Text and Illustration
Hard Times, Limited Editions Club, Colophon

4 thoughts on “A Review of Hard Times, by Charles Dickens, Limited Editions Club

  1. I have all the LECs published by the Club, but I don’t know why the LEC directors picked two of the least popular Dickens’ books for LEC publication. They started off with a bang, publishing the giant quarto Pickwick Papers in two stupendous volumes. They also did the three most popuar Christmas stories:A Christmas Carol, Cricket on the Hearth, and The Chimes. These were followed by Great Expectations with the original ending written by Dickens. But Hard Times and Dombey and Son I read just to say I had read all of Dickens’ novels. But I haven’t. Never finishing Barnaby Rudge.

    I have done my part in preserving the Christmas Stories which were three of the ugliest Dickens’ books I have observed. The insides were fine and with great illustrations. I rebound the three books in half scarlet Nigerian goatskin with bright green cloth-covered boards. a significant improvement, I believe. I am now rebinding Great Expectations which is virtually impossible to find in Fine condition.

    1. Love to see those Don, I have the three Christmas books in what I would call near fine condition (though the slipcases are at best VG). I read Barnaby, the review is on Books and Vines, was okay, but certainly not great. I felt the same about Hard Times. Dombey and Son I have not attacked yet, it may be the only Dicken’s book I have not read. I wish LEC would have done a Copperfield, I love that one!

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