Rewind book: Hard Times, by Charles Dickens

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 February, 2013, 4:39pm

Hard Times  (1854)
by Charles Dickens
Bradbury & Evans

How did factories affect the novel? Turn to chapter five of Charles Dickens' Hard Times to find out. Here is his description of Coketown, a fictionalised rendering of a newly industrialised north England city: "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 … vast piles of buildings full of windows where 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."

Here is a landscape transformed beyond poet William Wordsworth's wildest imaginings. Dickens' prose, echoing the ceaseless poundings of machines in its rhythms and sounds, is polluted by the new industrial world he surveys.

His scathing critique of the Victorian era's brave new world is one of unstoppable progress - of profit's indifference to happiness and a vision of human beings reduced to, or as the industrialist Mr Bounderby might have it, perfected into, an efficient machine. It is present in the newly industrialised factories and mills, and the "eminently practical" leaders of industry, commerce and education, Bounderby and Mr Gradgrind. Most poignantly, perhaps, it is present in the children being shaped to fit this increasingly mechanised universe. "Teach these boys and girls nothing but facts," Gradgrind emphasises.

The antithesis of this factorial and factual grind is the autonomy offered by imagination, love and political freedoms. Our hero, Stephen Blackpool, is trapped both by his work in one of Bounderby's factories and a loveless marriage. He knows true, if unrequited, love (with Rachael) and stands alone between the mill owner and trade union leader Slackbridge. Our heroine, Sissy Jupe, embodies the liberating power of the imagination, fancy and good old-fashioned fun.

Dickens' shortest, most serious novel has lost little of its power over the past 160 years. If anything, 21st-century sweatshops and globalised commerce have borne out his gloomy vision of England's industrial revolution. You may want to believe the imagined triumph of fancy over fact, humanity over factory living, presented so optimistically at the end of Hard Times. Sadly, this late sentence rings truer: "Every inch of the existence of mankind, from birth to death, was to be a bargain across a counter."