A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
My love for Charles Dickens has continued unabated throughout my life. It started with cuddling up on the sofa with my family on a Sunday afternoon in front of a roaring log fire and a tiny black and white TV to watch a BBC classic serial or a David Lean version of Oliver Twist or Great Expectations. While all my contemporaries were hiding behind the sofa whenever a Dalek appeared, I would be shivering at the sight of close-ups of Robert Newton’s terrifying face in the character of Bill Sykes, as he approached Nancy to batter her to death. And I refused to emerge from the refuge of my mother’s ample lap until she assured me the famous graveyard scene, with the convict, Abel Magwitch, intimidating the young Pip, was finally over. Finlay Currie haunted my dreams for years to come.
These early experiences propelled me to read almost all of Dickens’ novels. I loved David Copperfield, The Old Curiosity Shop, Little Dorrit, the list goes on… I studied Bleak House for A-Level and have re-read it at least a dozen times, until I am now sure that it is my favourite novel of all time (with The Grapes of Wrath coming second in a photo finish.) However, when I was asked to listen to an audio version of Hard Times, I realised there was a gap in my Dickensian knowledge – I hadn’t read it. Perhaps the title gave one a sense of foreboding that the story would be unrelentingly grim. I seem to remember a few false starts attempting to read the first chapter, but Thomas Gradgrind’s relentless emphasis on the importance of fact, to the teacher and pupils of the school he has endowed, meant I never progressed beyond the 3rd page.
So I decided to brave the novel by listening to it being read to me in the dulcet tones of Martin Jarvis. And through him, I came to know Josiah Bounderby, the villain of the piece, who also relies on fact. His hypocrisy is exposed when his repeated tales of his own impoverished background turn out to be a pack of lies. He is the epitome of the philosophy that “Cold rationalism divorced from sentiment and feeling can lead to insensitivity about human suffering.” I got to meet his scheming apostle, Bitzer, and his companion housekeeper, Mrs Sparsit, the impoverished aristocrat, who, the author implies, longs to be restored to her former status by way of becoming Mrs Bounderby. We learn that Gradgrind’s eldest children, Tom and Louisa, are being starved in their emotional development by their father’s devotion to cold facts without allowing for the warmth of imagination and tenderness.
Dickens introduces us to the forbidding landscape of Coketown. He intended its noisy, grimy, smoke-infested factories and lodgings to bring the plight of the poor, downtrodden working class to the attention of the Victorian public. He further emphasizes this by using Gradgrind’s philosophy of fact as a metaphor for this. His children are groomed to be embodiments of machines working in the factory that is their home. Dickens also uses Mrs Sparsit’s imaginary staircase to embody her perception of the future downfall into scandal and ruination of her arch-rival Louisa. But it also serves as a pointer to the implacable descent into degradation and poverty experienced by so many of the factory workers as well as foretelling the Old Hell Shaft in which Blackpool meets his inevitable fate.
However, as I continued through the 8 cds, I found the novel itself somewhat disappointing and ultimately dissatisfying. It is difficult to find any redeeming features in these early characters or, for that matter, any of the other personalities that are revealed to us in the novel. Even the more sympathetic people like our Everyman figure, Stephen Blackpool, representing the downtrodden workers of the Industrial Revolution, or Rachel, the futile object of his affections, fail to arouse our sympathy. Their lives are such a struggle and so devoid of hope that the sadness that surrounds their existence stifles any possibility of the reader indentifying with their plight. We only glimpse the wonderful circus folk, with their lisping director, Mr Sleary, but then we fail to understand why they would encourage our heroine, Sissy Jupe, to join the fact-ridden Gradgrind household in preference to staying with them. Why would Sissy leave the rumbunctious and ultimately happy environment of their nomadic lives? And Dickens hardly allows us to spend any time with the positive presence of this sincere and delightful girl. Her patient, loving and optimistic disposition is one of the rare feelgood points in the book but, like all other joyful moments in the novel, her appearances in print are all too rare.
I think the lack of humour is the main problem that Hard Times presents us with. Although many have criticised Dickens for depicting characters that are larger than life, his attention to detail and his comic moments are what keep the novels so special. He shows men and women up to be the hypocritical buffoons and ridiculous clowns they can be. But this novel lives up to its title and the much longed-for passages of light relief are few and far between. Yes, of course the bedraggled Mrs Sparsit caught in the storm while spying on Louisa brings a smile to one’s face; as does Mr Sleary’s insistence on calling those he perceives to be his betters “Thquire.” However, these lighter interludes are all too infrequent.
Nevertheless, I must remind myself that I have come to know the book through the spoken word and not the written one. It’s important to note that Martin Jarvis’ gentle, unobtrusive narration is perfectly delivered. He treads the perfect dividing line between enjoying the beauty and ingenuity of the writing and allowing his listeners to judge the novel for themselves. Then we move on to his many and varied characterisations and I was astonished at the huge amount of preparation he must have needed to be so pitch perfect with each new personality. I was particularly impressed by the vocal quality he uses to portray the female characters; from the affectations and modified tones of Mrs Sparsit to the artless, sincere and open inflections of Sissy, to the hardened, yet mystified nature of Louisa, to the unerringly joyful twittering of Mrs Pegler.
Unfortunately, Jarvis is also saddled with a large number of annoying persons. The inverted snob Josiah Bounderby’s incessantly bombastic tones start to grate upon the listener after a while. Bitzer’s clipped nasal delivery comes across as a half-formed version of Uriah Heep. Stephen Blackpool, honest and loyal as he may be, starts to exasperate the listener with his monotone acceptance of his lot. However, I suspect that this is nothing to do our reader, and the speeches delivered by these men would be just as irritating to read on the printed page.
So, do I like Hard Times and would I revisit it at some stage in the future? I can only answer “no” and “probably not.” But I have to say that the novel is fittingly brought to life by Martin Jarvis – the actor’s skill more than compensates for the shortcomings of what is not one of Dicken’s finest… I would certainly be happy to seek out any other titles read by Jarvis and am now a convert to the idea that a novel is not necessarily spoiled by another’s interpretation, but instead can sometimes be a more fulfilling experience than reading the words for oneself. I would never give up the joy of turning the page and devouring each new phrase, but there are many circumstances, including long car journeys, mountains of laundry to iron and enforced bed rest, when an audio book is the ideal companion.
Hard Times is available from BBC Audiobooks, ISBN: 978-1572703377