Book Review: Hard Times

In Charles Dickens’ book, Hard Times, Thomas Gradgrind is a member of Parliament who also runs a school. His philosophy of education emphasizes pure fact: no fancy, no imagination, not even any morality. He discovers one poor student in the school Sissy, who can’t seem to learn her facts. When he goes to talk to her father, he discovers that her father had worked in the circus but has mysteriously left. So he offers to take Cissy in to help care for his near-invalid wife if she promises never to return to the circus.

Gradgrind’s own children have been raised according to his philosophy at home. Both his oldest two, Louisa and Tom, are rather bored. The implications of their education play out differently for each of them.

Gradgrind’s close friend, Josiah Bounderby, is a blustery self-made man who boasts of his rise from “street kid” to a successful banker. He eventually takes on Tom as an apprentice and married Louisa. Louisa has no love for Bounderby, but as her father presents the facts of the case, marriage seems reasonable.

In another area of town lives Stephen Blackpool, one of what Bounderby calls “hands”—common workmen. Stephen was 40, but “looked older, but he had had a hard life” with seemingly all thorns and no roses. “He was a good power-loom weaver, and a man of perfect integrity” though not particularly intelligent.

Eventually Stephen’s path crosses that of the other characters and reasons for his hard life become known. His refusal to go in with the unionists gets him in trouble with them and Bounderby. When he leaves to find work elsewhere, he’s framed for a bank robbery.

Usually when I start a classic novel, I get some background information about it first. I didn’t this time: I just let the story draw me in. I wondered who would advocate a “just facts” education and why. After reading the book, I learned that a philosophy called Utilitarianism was going around at the time. You can read more about it at Wikipedia if you’re interested. Louisa’s path follows that of the son of one of Utilitarianism’s advocates, who felt he was emotionally stunted as a result of his upbringing. Tom’s maturity and character was stunted, too, but in a different way. Perhaps it’s better to say he was more warped than stunted.

The two most highly moral, compassionate, and common-sense characters, Sissy and Stephen, were not raised in this philosophy, and eventually they show some of the others a different way. Some of the characters end up sadder but wiser, “making .. facts and figures subservient to Faith, Hope, and Charity.” Dickens almost portrays all the poor as virtuous and the rich and powerful as corrupt, but he makes the characters complicated enough that they don’t fall into stereotypes. As he often writes not only for social awareness, but for social change, he appeals to the reader that “It rests with you and me, whether, in our two fields of action, similar things shall be or not.”

This is the shortest of Dickens’ novels and the only one not to have any scenes in London. This is his tenth novel and, like most of his others, first appeared in serial form. He infuses the story with his characteristic humor, pathos, and memorable characters and descriptions and keeps the reader thinking long after the book ends.

I listened to the audiobook, nicely read by Peter Batchelor, and read parts on the Project Gutenberg copy online here.

Book Review: The Pickwick Papers

Charles Dickens was 24 when he was asked to contribute brief anecdotes to go along with some serial illustrations about a club of men falling into comic misadventures hunting and fishing. He didn’t know much about hunting and fishing, but he took up the idea of a men’s club. Before long the stories surpassed the illustrations in the public interest, and Dickens began asking the artists to come up with sketches for his own work. Thus The Pickwick Papers , Dickens’ first novel, was born.

Samuel Pickwick is a kindly older gentleman and the head of the club bearing his name. He decides he and three fellow club members will travel and report their findings and activities back to the club. The other Pickwickians are Nathaniel Winkle, Augustus Snodgrass, and Tracy Tupman. Part of the humor comes from the men’s circumstances not lining up with their reputations. Mr. Winkle is supposed to be a sportsman, yet botches any sportsman-like endeavors. Snodgrass is poet but never produces any verse. Tupman thinks himself something of a lady’s man, yet gets into all kinds of trouble in his romantic endeavors.

The men meet many good folks in their travels, and some of those people provide stories that make up some of the chapters. One story is spooky, another a suspenseful tale of revenge, another full of pathos involving a prodigal son.

And the men get themselves into various fixes. They find themselves right in the middle of opposing forces in a military demonstration. A fellow traveler who turns up in some of their locations cons them in various ways.  A case of mistaken identity leads to the challenge of a duel. A widow misunderstands Mr. Pickwick and thinks he is proposing, and when he doesn’t follow through, she sues him for breach of promise.

A few chapters in, Mr. Pickwick finds a man named Sam Weller working at an inn and hires him as a manservant and assistant. Their relationship has been likened to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. I didn’t see much of Quixote in Pickwick, but Sam’s “street smarts” and worldly wise ways did seem quite similar to Sancho.

In one section of the book, Pickwick goes to prison rather than pay the damages in a lawsuit. Though there is humor here as well, there’s much more satire over the prison and legal systems, foreshadowing themes that will be developed more fully in Dickens’ future novels.

The comedy of errors is not my favorite humorous style, but I really enjoyed some of Dickens’ wry side comments:

‘Mr. Pickwick!’ exclaimed Mr. Magnus, lost in astonishment, ‘what is the meaning of this, Sir? What is the meaning of it, Sir?’ added Mr. Magnus, in a threatening, and a louder tone.

‘Sir,’ said Mr. Pickwick, somewhat indignant at the very sudden manner in which Mr. Peter Magnus had conjugated himself into the imperative mood, ‘I decline answering that question.’
___

Here Mr. Peter Magnus indulged in a prolonged sneer; and taking off his green spectacles—which he probably found superfluous in his fit of jealousy—rolled his little eyes about, in a manner frightful to behold.
___

[He saw] his venerated leader at some distance off, running after his own hat, which was gambolling playfully away in perspective. There are very few moments in a man’s existence when he experiences so much ludicrous distress, or meets with so little charitable commiseration, as when he is in pursuit of his own hat.

Mr. Pickwick gazed through his spectacles for an instant on the advancing mass, and then fairly turned his back and—we will not say fled; firstly, because it is an ignoble term, and, secondly, because Mr. Pickwick’s figure was by no means adapted for that mode of retreat.

Dickens’ warmth also manifests itself:

Christmas was close at hand, in all his bluff and hearty honesty; it was the season of hospitality, merriment, and open-heartedness; the old year was preparing, like an ancient philosopher, to call his friends around him, and amidst the sound of feasting and revelry to pass gently and calmly away. Gay and merry was the time; and right gay and merry were at least four of the numerous hearts that were gladdened by its coming.

He saw that men who worked hard, and earned their scanty bread with lives of labour, were cheerful and happy; and that to the most ignorant, the sweet face of Nature was a never-failing source of cheerfulness and joy. He saw those who had been delicately nurtured, and tenderly brought up, cheerful under privations, and superior to suffering, that would have crushed many of a rougher grain, because they bore within their own bosoms the materials of happiness, contentment, and peace. He saw that women, the tenderest and most fragile of all God’s creatures, were the oftenest superior to sorrow, adversity, and distress; and he saw that it was because they bore, in their own hearts, an inexhaustible well-spring of affection and devotion.

“I’m afeered I’ve not done by you quite wot I ought to have done; you’re a wery kind-hearted man, and I might ha’ made your home more comfortabler. I begin to see now,” she says, “ven it’s too late, that if a married ‘ooman vishes to be religious, she should begin vith dischargin’ her dooties at home, and makin’ them as is about her cheerful and happy, and that vile she goes to church, or chapel, or wot not, at all proper times, she should be wery careful not to con-wert this sort o’ thing into a excuse for idleness or self-indulgence. I have done this,” she says, “and I’ve vasted time and substance on them as has done it more than me; but I hope ven I’m gone, Veller, that you’ll think on me as I wos afore I know’d them people, and as I raly wos by natur.”

I also enjoyed seeing in seed form what would become classic Dickens: memorable characters, highlighting of the needs for social justice and reform, sweet reunions, comedy and tragedy. He had also already developed a knack for setting up the ends of chapters to foster eagerness for the next.

I listened to the audiobook superbly narrated by Simon Prebble.

While Pickwick doesn’t surpass A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield as my favorite Dickens novels, I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. Mr. Pickwick, Sam, and some of the others will live on in my memory as some of Dickens’ most endearing characters.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent Thursday)

Book Review: Our Mutual Friend

Our Mutual FriendOur Mutual Friend is Charles Dickens’ last completed novel (he was working in The Mystery of Edwin Drood when he passed away, but it was not finished).

The story opens with a man in a boat, who apparently makes his living by fishing things out of the river, finding a man’s body. The deceased is identified as John Harmon, the son of a rich, peculiar miser who had stipulated in his will that John would only get his inheritance if he married a Bella Wilfur, whom John did not know. If he refused, the inheritance would go to Mr. Harmon’s faithful servants, the Boffins. Since he was found dead, the money goes to the Boffins anyway.

The Boffins are kindhearted, yet a bit naive. They do use some money to bring themselves “into fashion,” but they want to take Bella under their wing, since they feel she was “cheated” out of her part in the inheritance. They also want to take in an orphan boy and give him John’s name in his honor, feeling that it would be good “to think that a child will be made brighter, and better, and happier, because of that poor sad child…And isn’t it pleasant to know that the good will be done with the poor sad child’s own money?” But their sudden wealth also brings out people who want to take advantage of them. I love this description of the Boffins:

 These two ignorant and unpolished people had guided themselves so far on in their journey of life, by a religious sense of duty and desire to do right. Ten thousand weaknesses and absurdities might have been detected in the breasts of both; ten thousand vanities additional, possibly, in the breast of the woman. But the hard wrathful and sordid nature that had wrung as much work out of them as could be got in their best days, for as little money as could be paid to hurry on their worst, had never been so warped but that it knew their moral straightness and respected it. In its own despite, in a constant conflict with itself and them, it had done so. And this is the eternal law. For, Evil often stops short at itself and dies with the doer of it; but Good, never.

Through his most inveterate purposes, the dead Jailer of Harmony Jail [a nickname for their boss] had known these two faithful servants to be honest and true. While he raged at them and reviled them for opposing him with the speech of the honest and true, it had scratched his stony heart, and he had perceived the powerlessness of all his wealth to buy them if he had addressed himself to the attempt. So, even while he was their griping taskmaster and never gave them a good word, he had written their names down in his will. So, even while it was his daily declaration that he mistrusted all mankind–and sorely indeed he did mistrust all who bore any resemblance to himself–he was as certain that these two people, surviving him, would be trustworthy in all things from the greatest to the least, as he was that he must surely die.

Bella was disturbed and miffed by being named in someone’s will in that way, especially someone she doesn’t know. But she’s is discontent with her poor home and lack of money and nice things, and the invitation from the Boffins is a welcome one.

As usual with Dickens, there are a plethora of characters and subplots which intersect through the novel and come together in the end. Among them are:

Lizzie Hexam, whose father originally found the body in the river. She desires a better future for her brother, Charley. She has tried to teach him what little she knows, but her father is against education, feeling that a desire for it means they don’t think well of him in his uneducated state. Lizzie finds a way to save up enough money to send Charley off to a school. She’s being pursued by two unsuitable suitors: a lawyer named Eugene Wrayburn, who is above her in station, and Bradley Headstone, Charley’s schoolmaster, who comes across as stiff and strange and has a violent temper.

The Veneerings are among the upper crust of society and constantly host dinner parties for others in their echelon. They are aptly named, as they seem all surface and no depth. Some of Dickens’ most biting sarcasm is reserved for the members of “Society” and their judgments.

The Lammles are newlywed friends of the Veneerings. Alfred and Sophronia Lammle had each deceived the other about the amount of property and money they had, and after they are married they find the other has nothing. So they devise schemes to acquire money to support not only themselves but his gambling habit. I’m not a big fan of sarcasm, but I thought Dickens was pure genius with some of their dialogue when they pretended to be oh, so in love in front of other people. For instance, when Mr Lammle begins a question with, “Could you believe…,” Mrs. Lammle responds, “Of course I could believe, Alfred, anything that you told me.” He responds, “You dear one! And I anything that you told me.” And later:

“I give you my honor, my dear Sophronia—“

“And I know what that is, love.”

Fledgeby is a friend of the Lammles. He secretly runs a business that seems to be primarily involved with money-lending. He operates behind the scenes while his servant, the much-maligned Jew, Mr. Riah, does his dirty work and is sometimes portrayed as the head of the business. Fledgeby delights in getting people in tight places and then calling for their loans.

John Rokesmith comes from seemingly out of nowhere to offer his assistance to the Boffins as a secretary. Despite their lack of knowledge of him, they hire him on, and his expertise is just what they need. He’s attracted to Bella, but she is not at all interested in a mere secretary.

And those are just a handful of the many. I don’t know if Dickens had the specific verse in mind about the love of money being the root of all kinds of evil, but it is an apt theme for this book. A couple of characters have little and are content; a couple have much and aren’t corrupted. But most of the others are either coveting or scheming to increase their wealth, usually at someone else’s expense, or being corrupted by having it or desiring it.

There are also quite a lot of people pretending to be what they’re not. The Lammles and Mr. Fledgby I’ve already mentioned, but there is one character with  two other identities and personas besides his real one, another who disguises himself for a time, and several who misrepresent what they’re about.

There is a mystery involving the body found in the river (which I would dearly love to discuss but I don’t want to give it away.) There are detestable villains and truly kind, decent and good characters. And there are a few who start out one way and then go the other.

And Dickens, as a master weaver, brings the tapestry together as a whole. In an introduction by an Andrew Sanders to a 1994 Alfred A. Knopf edition, he deftly defends criticisms by Henry James towards this book, particularly that Dickens “was a tired old man playing tired old literary tricks” by recycling certain types of characters. Sanders points out definite differences in many of them: for instance, “Who, persuaded to believe in the virtues of poor-boys-made-good by Oliver Twist or in social liberation through education by David Copperfield, is ready for the distortions of Bradley Headstone and Charley Hexam?” He also discusses the different portrayals of London in Dickens’ different works and other things going on in his life at the time of his writing this book. It was very helpful that he explained how someone could become rich in that time by collecting and distributing people’s household waste, as Mr. Harmon had done. Evidently that was not at all uncommon then. I’m glad I happened upon this edition in the library: Mr. Sanders’ introduction greatly enhanced my enjoyment of the novel.

I had been told that the audio recording by Mil Nicholson was excellent, so I looked for it and could only find it at Librivox. Mil’s narration was indeed superb. I primarily listened to the recording but used the library paper copy to refer back to certain sections. I think this may have been my first Librivox recording, which specializes in books in the public domain and offers them for free, which I much appreciate. However, there were some annoyances with the recording. When I was out, either in the car or at the gym, two times I most listen to audiobooks, sometimes a new chapter would not download until I got back to my Wifi at home. And at the end of every chapter the narrator said something like, “End of Book 1, Chapter 1,” then there would be a long pause, and then the narrator would say, “Book 1, Chapter 2 of Our Mutual Friend. This Librivox recording is in the public domain. Recorded by Mil Nicholson. Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens. Book 1, The Cup and the Lip. Chapter 2: The Man From Somewhere.” Hearing all of the between every single chapter got on my nerves quite a lot at first, but after a while I got used to it. Plus I didn’t see any way to bookmark a favorite spot or quote one might want to note, as Audible recordings have. So Audible is still my first love as a source for audiobooks, but Librivox is good for free recordings, especially if the book or, in this case, the narrator, is one that can’t be found somewhere else.  I am not opposed to trying them again some time.

I very much enjoyed the story and loved many of the characters, particularly Lizzie, Bella, John Rokesmith, and Mrs. Boffin. I’ve been on a quest to read the Dickens books I am not familiar with, and am glad to now have this one completed. I don’t think it quite ranks up there with my favorites of his, David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities, but it is still a wonderful story well told.

(Sharing at Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)

Review: The Cricket on the Hearth

CricketThe Cricket on the Hearth: A Fairy Tale of Home is a novella by Charles Dickens, one of his five Christmas books. It’s one of the few where he does not engage in social commentary.

It’s the story of John Peerybingle, a carrier (someone who transports goods for others) and his wife, Dot. They live in a modest home with their baby and the baby’s nanny, Tilly Slowboy. They are good friends with Caleb Plummer and his blind daughter, Bertha, who both work by making toys for the Scroogish Mr. Tackleton to sell. Mr. Tackleton has somehow gotten a young friend of the group, May, to agree to marry him, though she has admitted to him that she does not love him and she still pines for Edward, Caleb’s son who is thought to have died in South America.

The story opens with John coming home to a scene of domestic tranquility, complete with a cricket on the hearth which Dot regards with special affection because she first heard it the night John brought his young wife home and  “It seemed so full of promise and encouragement. It seemed to say, you would be kind and gentle with me.” It’s “music” has cheered and encouraged her many a time, and she comments, “This has been a happy home, John; and I love the Cricket for its sake!”

John has brought home an elderly gentlemen whom he had picked up in his work, but those who were supposed to retrieve him did not come for him. They make him feel at home for the time being.

There are various comings and goings and discussion with and about their friends, particularly the upcoming wedding between Mr. Tackleton and May. In one conversation between John and Tacklelton,

“Bah! what’s home?” cried Tackleton. “Four walls and a ceiling! (why don’t you kill that Cricket? I would! I always do. I hate their noise.) There are four walls and a ceiling at my house. Come to me!”

“You kill your Crickets, eh?” said John.

“Scrunch ’em, sir,” returned the other, setting his heel heavily on the floor.

Everyone is invited to a pre-wedding celebration, and at one point there, Tackleton shows John a scene through a window where the elderly visitor takes off his wig, is revealed to be quite young, and interacts with Dot very familiarly. Tackleton assumes Dot is being unfaithful. John is at first quite angry and thinks murderous thoughts against the imposter, but the cricket somehow turns into a sort of a fairy and reminds him of all Dot’s good qualities. John decides that in his love for Dot, the best thing he can do is release her to marry the person she actually loves.

But, as you can guess, Dot is not being at all unfaithful or untrue. As to what is really going on and who the stranger is, I’ll leave for you to find out in the book.

I do like Dickens, and I have enjoyed listening to audiobooks of his works that I am already familiar with, but I am finding that when I listen to an audiobook of one of his books I haven’t read before, it takes me a very long time to get into them. It usually takes him a while to get through the characterizations and set-up, and my mind tends to wander in that part until he actually gets going with the story. But I enjoyed going back through the online version. So I don’t know if Dickens (at least unread Dickens) is better read rather than listened to, or if I just get more out of him the second time through a story rather than the first. I don’t think the narrator helped this version much, so that contributed as well. I didn’t enjoy the story much at the beginning, but by the end I thought it was very sweet, and enjoyed it much more going over it again. I especially liked what Dot said at the end of explaining to her husband what was going on:

“Now, my dear husband, take me to your heart again! That’s my home, John; and never, never think of sending me to any other!”

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

Book Review: The Old Curiosity Shop

Old Curiosity ShopThe Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens was his fourth novel, originally published as a serial in his weekly periodical, Master Humphrey’s Clock. It was said to have been so popular that people clamored to the boats when the last shipment arrived, asking the sailors, who may have read it on the way, what happened to little Nell.

The story involves a girl of thirteen named Nell and her grandfather, who is never named. They live in her grandfather’s shop, which is kind of an odds and ends store. Her parents died long before, and she is content to live with and help her grandfather, even though it is something of a lonely existence for her. She rarely sees anyone her own age except Kit, who works for her grandfather and can make her laugh. Unbeknownst to her, Kit watches for her when she goes out on errands for her grandfather at night until she is safely home in bed.

The grandfather goes out at night as well, but no one knows where for several chapters. Later it is revealed that he has been gambling in order to try to give Nell what she deserves, but he has lost what money they had.

A dwarf named Daniel Quilp has loaned Nell’s grandfather money, and when he can’t repay, he takes over the curiosity shop and makes overtures to Nell about becoming his wife when she is older. He is already married but apparently doesn’t think his wife will live that long. Nell’s grandfather has something of a nervous breakdown, and when he recp0vers sufficiently, Nell convinces him that they should run away, that even if they have to beg for a living, they’ll be freer than they are now. Her grandfather agrees, and since he is weak and still not entirely in his right mind, Nell leads them and makes all the major decisions, at least for a time.

A great deal of the book deals with the different characters and situations they run in to. With Dickens’ penchant for unique characterizations, both good and villainous, you can imagine some of the ups and downs their path might take.

Quilp still seems to think they have a hidden fortune somewhere, so he tries to find them, and then sets his sights on Kit, whom he thinks is hindering him. He sets rather an elaborate scheme in motion to frame Kit for theft and have him imprisoned. The storyline spends a lot of time with Kit for much of the book before tying his situation back to Nell’s.

Meanwhile, someone else who is only called, at first, the Single Gentleman, comes to look for Nell and her grandfather, and it is not until later in the book that we discover what his purposes are.

Some of the quotes that stood out to me in the book:

For your popular rumour, unlike the rolling stone of the proverb, is one which gathers a deal of moss in its wanderings up and down.

There are chords in the human heart–strange, varying strings–which are only struck by accident; which will remain mute and senseless to appeals the most passionate and earnest, and respond at last to the slightest casual touch.

In the majority of cases, conscience is an elastic and very flexible article, which will bear a great deal of stretching and adapt itself to a great variety of circumstances.

From the death of each day’s hope another hope sprung up to live to-morrow.

The day was made for laziness, and lying on one’s back in green places, and staring at the sky till its brightness forced one to shut one’s eyes and go to sleep.

“Ahem!” coughed Miss Brass interrogatively.

“Places lie beyond these,” said the child, firmly, “where we may live in peace, and be tempted to do no harm. We will take the road that promises to have that end, and we would not turn out of it, if it were a hundred times worse than our fears lead us to expect. We would not, dear, would we?”

“The invading army of bricks and mortar whose station lay for the present nearly at his feet…” [I was amused at characterizing buildings as brick and mortar — I had thought that was a modern appellation!]

There is much I like about the book. Dickens characterizations are always rich, and there is a running note of sly irony connected with some of them that is quite amusing. Some sections are very touching. There is a lot of suspense both in what happens to Kit and and in the Single Gentleman’s pursuit. I especially liked how Richard Swiveller grew though the book : he started out as a friend of Nell’s brother, who was a ne’er-do-well who also thought the old man had money and was holding out on him, but the brother, Frederick, only has a small part. Richard, however, reminds me of the “simple” person in Proverbs – naive, easily swayed, in danger of going down the wrong path, but due to the circumstances he goes through, his eyes are opened to a great deal and he becomes a force for good. I could not stand him at first, but he grew to be one of my favorite characters.

But I am mad at Dickens for how the story ended. 🙂 And though Quilp is thoroughly villainous, it was hard for me to take him seriously. Maybe he was a little too villainous. No offense to little people, but I couldn’t comprehend how Quilp could intimidate all these people when any one of them could have taken him down.

But despite those complaints, I enjoyed the book and am glad to have read/listened to it. I had not known anything about it before except that I had heard about it being serialized and people were clamoring to know what happened at the end – understandable, especially when the end didn’t come for 73 weeks.

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)