I never thought I’d say that a Dickens novel was too short, but: Dickens, Hard Times is too short! You have disappointed me. The eleventh book in our epic quest to read all his novels, it felt like a mere pamphlet at 288 pages, and I missed the richness and depth of other works.
There are still many joys, especially the self-made businessman Mr Bounderby, who says all the things piggy rich tax-dodgers come out with today: I’ve made it all by myself, why can’t everyone else? Why do all my selfish workers want to be ‘fed on turtle soup and venison, with a gold spoon’? Etc etc. The fact-obsessed school owner Gradgrind was a pertinent reminder of what happens when education becomes micro-managed; the lisping circus master Sleary was a pleasure; the put-upon weaver Stephen Blackpool (with his scarily accurate alcoholic wife) broke my heart and, in fact, the lack of happy endings all round made the novel a surprising change from the norm. There was so much here, but I felt a frustrating lack of development of ideas and characters.
Luckily, Charles Dickens read my mind and made his next novel, Little Dorrit, a far more sensible 860 pages. Here are more thoughts:
‘It's never a great idea to publish a book with 'Hard' in the title. I thought I'd be in for a boring read, but my long held assumptions were wrong; it's a great story and if anything it's over far too quickly. Even the setting, grimy old Coketown, potentially quite oppressive, is described with Dickens usual energy and wit so that you can hear the rattling of the looms and taste the coal dust. My favourite character is probably Merrylegs the circus dog. To summarise this novel: Down with equations! Hurrah for horseback balancing tricks! Worth reading if you are a busy professional who does not have time to tackle any of Dickens's 900 page-ers.’ Becky
‘Hard Times is so very much shorter than most of the other Dickens books we've read (110k to Copperfield's 382k), and it surprised me now much I noticed and mourned that brevity. This Dickens felt much more like a short story, with characters lightly sketched rather than fully drawn, and with now-familiar archetypes populating the grim scenes of a northern industrial town, Coketown. Really, Dickens, it was too short, and I could tell that you'd just bashed this one out. C- for effort. Having said all that, of course his weakest efforts are, still, leagues ahead of most other novels. And as ever, the dialogue is a masterclass in dialect and character, the children and villains are utterly believable and the family relations are all so recognisable. Plus it's got a charming circus ringmaster with a lisp! And one of the most blackly comic family reunions I have ever, ever read. So, considering its shortness and its almost comically bleak ending, I give Hard Times a better-than-The-Old-Curiosity-Shop 6.9/10.’ Sam
Louise Willder, Copywriter