A short time with ‘Hard Times’

Dear Charlie,

Verdi’s Requiem is over, and so is Hard Times. It feels a bit weird finishing one of your books in less than three weeks – I barely got to know Gradgrind, Blackpool and Bounderby before closing the covers on their adventures, so I’m left feeling a little shortchanged. Just goes to show you how quickly you can get into the groove of long-ass novels, doesn’t it?

To make up for that, though, I discovered a trio of quirky, cream-puff stories hiding out in the back of the volume. “The Hunted,” is a lovely, tiny little detective story, “Holiday Romance,” is four adorable stories told by children, while “George Silverman’s Explanation,” is a singularly strange tale of an abused child turned tutor trying to justify his actions concerning an heiress and poor student. And while they were an unexpected treat to read, especially after the heavy morality of Hard Times, they seem a touch fluffy for you, Charlie.

I don’t mean to dismiss them so lightly, my friend, but I did want talk a little more about Hard Times itself.

24th century incarnation of Louisa Gradgrind

It took me almost three-quarters of the novel to realize that Gradgrind’s daughter, Louisa, bears a striking resemblance to our old friend Edith Dombey. Or perhaps Edith’s alter ego is more appropriate, since Edith was raised to be nothing but ornamental and Louisa, Vulcan-like, was raised on nothing but logic and facts. Both women, however, have a chilling self-awareness that they lack fundamental pieces of a well-rounded character, and both enter into marriages making it very clear that their husband is getting exactly what it says on the tin. That said, compared to Edith, Louisa does manage to get herself extricated from her loveless relationship fairly painlessly, and there seems to be hope that she can yet cultivate the sentimental side of her nature, with the help of the various women in her life.

The men in Hard Times, on the other hand, could all fall down hidden mine shafts and no one would miss them, in my humble opinion. Sure, Gradgrind has a bit of an epiphany concerning his teaching methods, but not before he’s damaged his children. His son Tom is ten kinds of useless, and a selfish creep to boot, and Harthouse is even creepier. I really like what you said about him being a threat not because he has deliberately evil intent, but because his boredom and indifference to everything makes him so dangerous to anything that crosses his path (and I’m astounded that he was persuaded to leave Louisa alone by the force of Sissy’s sheer honesty, but I’ll suspend my disbelief because I like you).

And Bounderby!! What a fantastically annoying guy! He stole every scene he was in through sheer bombast. And that twist with his mom at the end was pure comedic gold. He almost feels too big a character for this short novel, but he may have overwhelmed a longer one. And the interplay between Mrs. Sparsit and him is sitcom fabulous. I love him and hate him at the same time – well done!

The only breaks Stephen gets are when he falls down a mine shaft.

It’s too bad that the ‘main’ story of poor old Stephen’s frame-up gets overshadowed by all these nefarious characters. I felt sorry for him, and I wish he’d shown a little more backbone, even though to do so would have instantly singled him out as a troublemaker. I do appreciate your efforts, though, to put human faces on the mass of industrial workers and give them meaningful, sympathetic stories in a rough and dirty environment.

And now I leave this smoky, dirty town behind in favour of some of the articles you wrote for “Household Words.” I can’t say hard Times is a favorite, my friend, but I appreciate what you were trying to do.

Affectionately,

Melissa