Archive for the ‘Dickens in December’ Category

I unearthed this gem recently when I discovered a box filled with books at home. There used to be a beautiful event called ‘Dickens In December‘ hosted by Delia (from ‘Postcards from Asia’) and Caroline (from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’) and  I loved participating in that. I thought I’ll do my bit to revive that and so picked this biography and read it.

Charles Dickens : A Life‘ is a 400-page biography of Charles Dickens. It describes how Dickens was born in a poor family, how he had to even work in a boot polish factory when he was a kid, how he rose up from those depths, became a journalist, and then became a novelist, and then a literary legend. By the time he was done, he was one of the greatest writers of the 19th century (Tolstoy called him ‘THE’ greatest writer of the 19th century – warm praise from one master to another), an amazing achievement by someone who didn’t even finish school.

Dickens was a complex person. On one side he was generous to people, particularly his friends and relatives, (and sometimes even strangers, especially poor women who were suffering because they were harassed by the law – the book starts with this anecdote which was very beautiful and inspiring), and helped them and their families when they were in financial trouble. His dad used to frequently get into debt and Dickens repeatedly bailed him out. This pattern got repeated when his brothers got into debt, and later his sons got into debt. He helped them all. If a friend died, he raised money for the friend’s wife and kids, and ensured that they lived a respectable life and didn’t slip into poverty. He loved inviting friends over, he cracked jokes and entertained them and made them laugh and sometimes even staged amateur plays for them. He enjoyed taking long walks with some of his friends and he continued this till the end of his life. He championed social causes and wrote about the plight of the poor in the paper and the magazines that he worked for or which he managed himself.

In my opinion though, the greatest thing he did was that he got the help of a rich sponsor and started a home for women who were sex workers, who wanted to leave their profession and live a normal life. This home offered them training in some skills, quiet time to recover, then advice and help in finding new jobs or migrating abroad. Many of the women who came to this home, went on to live happy, fulfilling lives. Dickens didn’t talk about this, and kept quiet about it. There is a whole book about this called ‘Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women‘ by Jenny Hartley. I want to read that sometime.

But there was also another side to Dickens. Dickens was also a controversial person in some ways. He fought with his publishers who had backed him, threatened to break contracts with them, if they didn’t offer more money, and negotiated his way to a more remunerative contract. He broke up with his friends if they didn’t side with him sometimes. But the biggest thing was what happened when he was around 45. He met a young woman, fell in love with her, and then broke up with his wife, trashed his wife in public, writing bad things about her in the paper. When some of his friends and relatives disagreed with him, he broke up with them. He behaved like an irresponsible prima donna. It affected his physical and mental health and he suffered many ailments, he suddenly aged too fast, and by the time he was 58 he was dead. During that stormy decade, he also wrote ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, and one of his finest novels, ‘Great Expectations‘.

It is sad that when Dickens dumped his wife, most of his kids sided with him. The way it typically happens in families when kids side with the stronger parent who has more money and resources, when the gentler parent might be the one who was wronged. Even his wife’s sister Georgina, sided with him. Only his son Charley, in an act of defiance, sided with his mom and went to live with her. Dickens’ wife Catherine comes through as a saint, as she kept a dignified silence, while Dickens raged against her like a madman, in public, in the press, and in his correspondence with his friends. Catherine kept her dignified silence till the end. One of Dickens’ daughters, Katey, finally broke the silence many years after both her parents had passed, and said that she was ashamed that she didn’t support her mom enough and she wanted to do justice to her mom. Her revelations were published as a book called ‘Dickens and Daughter’ which created controversy when it came out and it was trashed by Dickens’ fans.

This book talks about all of this, the good and the bad. Claire Tomalin has done a wonderful job in presenting both the sides and showing us the complexity of Dickens’ personality.

This book is also a great introduction to Dickens’ work. The parts which focus on them are beautiful to read. In my opinion, Dickens’ finest novels, the must-reads, are The Pickwick Papers, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist and Bleak House. If I can add one more, it might be A Tale of Two Cities, but I feel that this is probably a notch below the other five. I feel that Tomalin’s book confirmed what I thought, though it also raves about Dickens’ other work. I’m intrigued especially by The Old Curiosity Shop. I want to add that to my list and see how it is.

One of my favourite parts of the book was Dickens’ meetings with other great writers of that era, especially those from other countries, like Hans Christian Andersen and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky’s account of their meeting is fascinating. It goes like this –

“In 1862 the Russian novelist Dostoevsky, an admirer of Dickens’s work – he had read Pickwick Papers and David Copperfield in prison – visited him at Wellington Street. Years later he wrote in a letter to a friend a remarkable account of what Dickens said in the course of their conversation about writing. Dostoevsky introduced Dickens’s words with his own :

“The person he (the writer] sees most of, most often, actually every day, is himself. When it comes to a question of why a man does something else, it’s the author’s own actions which make him understand, or fail to understand, the sources of human action. Dickens told me the same thing when I met him at the office of his magazine…in 1862. He told me that all the good simple people in his novels, Little Nell, even the holy simpletons like Barnaby Rudge, are what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was (or rather, what he found in himself), his cruelty, his attacks of causeless enmity towards those who were helpless and looked to him for comfort, his shrinking from those whom he ought to love, being used up in what he wrote. There were two people in him, he told me : one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite. From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters, from the one who feels as a man ought to feel I try to live my life. Only two people? I asked.”

This is an amazing report, and if Dostoevsky remembered correctly it must be Dickens’s most profound statement about his inner life and his awareness of his own cruelty and bad behaviour. It is as though with Dostoevsky he could drop the appearance of perfect virtue he felt he had to keep up before the English public. It also suggests that he was aware of drawing his evil characters from that he disapproved of and yet could not control.”

One of the sad things I discovered at the end of the book was that many of Dickens’ children didn’t do well. One of his sons was a successful lawyer and he lived a distinguished life, but nearly every other son of his got into debt and died penniless. His daughters seemed to have fared better. It will be interesting to find out whether any of his descendants are alive today.

This book I read is also a beautifully produced edition and it has photographs and portraits of people and sketches of places and buildings which bring that era alive.

I loved Claire Tomalin’s biography of Charles Dickens. It is beautifully researched and beautifully written. She has written many other wonderful biographies, and I want to read some of them, especially the ones on Thomas Hardy, Samuel Pepys, and Jane Austen.

Have you read this book or other biographies written by Claire Tomalin? Do you love Dickens’ novels? Which ones are your favourites?


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I read ‘Hard Times’ by Charles Dickens for Dickens in December hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Delia from Postcards from Asia. This is also my last book review for the year.

Hard Times By Charles DickensOxfordEdition

There has been a copy of ‘Hard Times’ at my home for many years. My sister read it when she did English literature at university. I used to look at it when I was younger and read the blurb on the back cover of the book and put the book back on the shelf. I haven’t looked at the book in recent years. It has been lying on the shelf gathering dust. It is almost a family heirloom now.  When I thought of reading a Dickens novel for Dickens in December, I looked at different books of Dickens. Most of what Dickens wrote were chunksters with a minimum of 700 pages. I wanted to read a smaller novel and other than the Christmas books (which I don’t count for this purpose), the only small novel of his was ‘Hard Times’. So, I decided to take the family heirloom down from the shelf and give it a try. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.


The plot of ‘Hard Times’ is quite simple. It is set in the middle of the 19th century in smalltown England, where there are factories and smoke and lots of workers. There is Thomas Gradgrind who has a son and a daughter. Gradgrind has this point of view on how children should be educated and how people should think and make decisions and life choices and live their lives. He thinks (not feels) that all these should be done based on facts, reason and logic. And there should be no room for emotion. He tries this system on his children. He also becomes an MP and sings the praises of this way of thinking in parliament. But things don’t go as planned. Because humans are not rational beings, inspite of his best beliefs, but are emotional beings. So Gradgrind ends up with a situation which he doesn’t know how to handle and his reason doesn’t help him in this.


‘Hard Times’ is a unusual novel by Dickens’s standards. I had mixed feelings about it. First the good news. I read this passage about the book by Anthony Horowitz :

I didn’t always love Charles Dickens. The first book of his that I read – it was Hard Times – landed on my desk with a dull thud and a small cloud of dust when I was in school, aged about sixteen, and I’m afraid I found it very heavy-going. The industrial setting was grim and depressing. The author seemed to use an awful lot of words to tell his story, and quite a lot of those words had far too many syllables for my liking. There were too many pages. It all felt too much like hard work.

It was pretty intimidating when I read that. But when I read the book, it was not like that at all. The start was wonderful. The story was fast-paced (I never thought that I would say this about a Dickens book), atleast in the beginning. The traditional Dickensian humour and the vintage Dickensian sentences were all gloriously on display. One of my favourite conversations in the book went like this :

Mrs.Sparsit : “What is the news of the day? Anything?”

Bitzer          : “Well, ma’am, I can’t say that I have heard anything particular. Our people are a bad lot, ma’am; but that is no news, unfortunately.”

I loved reading what Horowitz said, but I didn’t agree with him at all. Maybe because I am no longer sixteen.


The main theme of the story – reason vs emotion – is a powerful one. It says a lot about the vision of Dickens that the picture he presents and the questions he asks apply even today in our increasingly materialistic world. It looks like things haven’t changed much today when compared to Victorian England, inspite of what we might believe.


Now the bad news. Before saying anything further, I will add a disclaimer here. For someone who has grown up with the stories of Dickens, I haven’t read any of Dickens’s novels in full, in the original. Except for ‘A Christmas Carol’. But for the purposes of our discussion, I would say that that book doesn’t count. I have read ‘Oliver Twist’, ‘David Copperfield’, ‘Great Expectations’, ‘A Tale of TwoCities and ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ in abridged form. I have also read bits-and-pieces of ‘The Pickwick Papers’. It is like knowing all the stories from ‘The Mahabharata’ or ‘The Bible’ or from Greek mythology, without having read the original books. So, in some ways I am a Dickens virgin. So, what I am going to say here should be taken with a pinch of salt.


So, now on to ‘Hard Times’. I felt that though the theme of the book was powerful, the plot didn’t equal it. Many times, Dickens just puts words into his characters’ mouths and twists the plot in different ways to his convenience to suit the theme. That is what most novelists do. But it looks forced in ‘Hard Times’ and not natural at all. Most of the characters aren’t fleshed out. When I finished the book, I wasn’t sure who the major characters were and who were the minor ones. They all looked like minor characters. It was strange to be reading a book which appeared to have only minor characters. And because of that it was difficult to like or be sympathetic towards any of the characters. I thought maybe it was not Dickens but it was just me, till I read the introduction in the book (by James Gibson, in case you are curious). This was what the introduction said :


The fact that it was not a ‘typical’ Dickens novel immediately attracted adverse criticism, and the book had a very mixed reception when it was published in volume form. One critic described it as ‘stale, flat, and unprofitable; a mere dull melodrama, in which character is caricature, sentiment tinsel, and moral (if any) unsound.’


…a critic wrote : ‘Hard Times is the one of all his works which should be distinguished from the others as specially wanting in that power of real characterization on which his reputation as a vivid delineator of human character and human life depends.’


Such criticism, based to some extent upon the belief that Dickens had unfortunately moved away from the formula which had brought him success in the past, meant that Hard Times came to be one of Dickens’s least known and least respected novels.


When I read this, I felt happy – not happy because someone criticized Dickens, but happy that there were other people who agreed with me. It also looked like the book was a big hit when it was serialized in a magazine, but when it came out in book form it was panned. One of the reasons given for this lack of characterization is that the book was published in weekly installments rather than in monthly ones and so Dickens had to tell a story which was shorter than his other ones. This appears to be true, because the edition of ‘Hard Times’ which I read was around 250 pages – hardly Dickensian. Modern critical opinion towards the book seems to be more positive, because of the theme it addresses.


So, if I have to think what my overall impression of the book is, I would say that ‘Hard Times’ is not my favourite Dickens book. I don’t think it is his best book either. As a writer Dickens needs space. He needs a lot of pages. We can’t put a tree in the living room and hope that it will grow well. It doesn’t. It needs fertile land. If not forest land, atleast the land in one’s garden. The suppressed size of this book definitely seems to have inhibited Dickens. When I compare ‘Hard Times’ with ‘The Pickwick Papers’ I feel this strongly. Because in ‘The Pickwick Papers’ there is hardly a dull chapter. And the difference between the two books is that ‘The Pickwick Papers’ is a chunkster – it has unlimited space when compared to ‘Hard Times’ and it gave enough room for Dickens to showcase his genius. However, having said this, I have to also say that I liked the theme of ‘Hard Times’ very much. The questions it asks are very significant even today. And the vintage Dickensian sentences and the wonderful Dickensian humour make the book worth a read. I am glad that I read it – it was like taking out a family heirloom and checking it out and finding out that it is still glittering after it gets a polish and it passes the test, though only barely.


You can find the contributions of other participants of Dickens in December, here.


Have you read ‘Hard Times’ by Charles Dickens? What do you think about it?

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