Hard Times by Charles Dickens was the selection for our next historical fiction/history book club's meeting. My husband (Brad, author of Cecelia and Fanny. The Remarkable Friendship Between and Escaped Slave and her Former Mistress) just finished reading it. His take on it was very different from mine. In fact, while he was reading it, I had to listen to him chortling with amusement and saying things like - "You didn't think this was funny?"
So, to give Dickens his due, Hard Times may, in fact, be a very entertaining book and I shouldn't dissuade any potentially interested readers from giving it a shot.
Here is Brad's review:
Having just finished Dickens’ Hard Times, I found myself with a quite a different reaction to it than Sue’s. So she asked me to contribute this post as a sort of alternative take to her own review of the book from last week. I won’t rehash the plot summary, which Sue handled well in her post. But where she found the book a slog—at least until the last hundred pages or so—I found it ironic and broadly comic in its portrayal of the two respected members of English industrial society, Mr. Gradgrind and Mr. Bounderby. These gentlemen—so over-the-top in in their insistence on hard facts and cold reason as the sole guides to life—get their comeuppance in the end, but I found Dickens’ "caricature sketches" of them in the beginning to be amusing and satirically biting.
Mr. Gradgrind, who forbids his children from using the phrase "I wonder…" and permits no idle entertainment or frivolous decoration in his surroundings, could have served as the inspiration for every soul-deadening educator portrayed in literature and cinema from Catcher in the Rye to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to The Simpsons. The industrialist Mr. Bounderby, who regards every demand by a worker or government inspector as a slippery slope toward a world of "venison and turtle soup" for the undeserving and continually trumpets his own [fictional] up-by-the-bootstraps rise to prominence, humorously parodied the puffed-up self-importance of the rich and successful. When Dickens described Bounderby and his fellow industrialists’ repeated threats to "pitch their machinery into the Atlantic" if the government regulated safety conditions or working hours, I was reminded of our own present-day Bounderbys threatening to move their operations to China if the EPA or the unions make more demands upon them to clean up their pollutants or live up to their pension obligations.
Absurd? Yes. Over-the-top? Yes. But Dickens uses the absurdity of Bounderby and Gradgrind to point up the absurdity of early English industrialism, which viewed workers as interchangeable parts and equated social happiness with industrial profitability. In that way, Hard Times reminded me of Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal—absurdity delivered with a straight face to satirize current social conditions.
To be honest, I have never really warmed to Dickens. He has always struck me as a little too sentimental, a little too earnest. And certainly Hard Times has its share of sentimental earnestness, but for me it had enough vinegar in its satirical send-up of these scions of the industrial system to cut the sweetness satisfactorily.