Hard Times Readalong

Hard Times Readalong

We’re reading Charles Dickens’ Hard Times in its original weekly format, from the 1 April to the 12th August 2020. Each instalment is online and free, so come join us!

How it works


Dickens originally published his novels in instalments. Hard Times was published in 20 weekly parts in Dickens’s journal Household Words from 1 April to 12 August 1854. In 2020 we are going to follow the original publication dates, and share our views as the story unfolds.

Click here for an introductory video explaining the project.

You can read each instalment – only when the ‘publication’ date arrives, at Dickens Journals Online – the first instalment is here ready for you to read on 1 April – and you can find all the instalments listed as thumbnails to click on here. I’ll also share a link to each new instalment week by week, and if you’re reading from a paper copy, I will send instructions on which chapters to read too – the first instalment is chapters 1,2 and 3.

Each Wednesday I’ll set up a new post here where you can share your comments on the story. What do you find interesting? What bits do you want to know more about? And what do you think might happen next?

The Rules:

1. Everyone is welcome. It doesn’t matter if you’re a scholar, an avid reader, or if this is your first Dickens novel – all opinions are valid. The aim of the group is to explore the text together and recapture the sense of that first audience reading this story as it unfolds.

2. Keep it polite people!

3. No spoilers! Many people here will be reading the story for the first time. And no peeking ahead at the next week’s instalments either!

It’s never too late to join in! To begin, just click on ‘Blog’ then scroll down to ‘Week 1 (1 April: Facts, facts, facts)

52 thoughts on “Hard Times Readalong

      1. Love this Pete…I’m in !
        Not quite post ’45 context ….but then again…
        Maybe we could introduce a literary element to the module (next time!)

        Liked by 1 person

  1. A wonderful idea, Dr Pete! Looking forward to getting started. This project could not have started at a better (hard) time.

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    1. Hi Craig – good to have you on board! Hopefully tales of a grim, urban cityscape will be just the thing to cheer us all up…

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    1. Hi Adam – certainly! I’ll be penning an opening post next week to get everyone ready to go on Wednesday, and will include both the DJO link and chapter numbers up so readers can do whichever they prefer.

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  2. A wonderful idea. I’m a Dickens student, and Friend of the Charles Dickens Museum. I’ll be using a Chapman and Hall facsimile hardback edition, and promise not to read ahead.

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  3. I stumbled on this – someone linked it in twitter. I was actually going to start Rereading Hard Times tomorrow! I didnt realize it was the anniversary either. This will be my 3rd time through so I’m looking forward to understanding the story better. Don’t worry – you’ll get no spoilers from me! I live in America and I love Dickens stories. This is going to be great thank you!

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      1. Well, who is this Gradgrind? What a dull form of education – all facts and no imagination allowed. I wonder where Dicken’s – a man not short of imagination – got the idea for the education provided in the Coketown school.

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      2. All good points! This is not the first bleak schoolroom readers in 1854 would have experienced from Dickens – Jami has already made mention of the villainous Wackford Squeers in Nicholas Nickleby, and David Copperfield has a traumatic education at the hands of his sadistic stepfather who has little patience for fancy instead of fact.

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  4. Charles certainly knew how to name his characters. Gradgrind sums him up perfectly. As for M’Choakumchild as a teacher, honing Gradgrind’s insistence and emphasis on facts and the absence of imagination, Dickens is almost criticising the way children were educated, by rote, like automatons.
    Anyone familiar with Northern Schools and Wackford Squeers would be interested to see where this would be going.
    I’d certainly queue for the next chapters.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Hi Stephen! Dickens contemporary readers were certainly nostalgic, often looking for his works to retread the familiar path of early works (even when his last novel came out in 1870, first reviewers were linking it back to his first novel of 1836!). So it’s entirely likely that readers familiar with Nicholas Nickleby might be excited by another school setting, as you say, rather than put off by it.

      I liked the teasing out of alternative names for Gradgrind – “You might hope to get some other nonsensical belief into the head of George Gradgrind, or Augustus Gradgrind, or John Gradgrind, or Joseph Gradgrind (all suppositious, non-existent persons), but into the head of Thomas Gradgrind – no, Sir!” Dickens put a lot of thought into character names – his notes and memoranda books show lists of names and variants for characters in several of his novels – so there almost a sense of self-parody from Dickens here as he works through why *Thomas* Gradgrind is the best name.

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    2. Rote learning is definitely the target, I agree, Stephen. There’s been a fair amount (as there always is) of research into Dickens’s “model” for Gradgrind and his system of education. It’s generally agreed it’s based on the training programme established by James Kay-Shuttleworth, who established the first training college for teachers at Battersea in 1839-40. Dickens is taking potshots at some of the mechanical, arid methods of learning that this programme inculcated–though overall he was surely (surely?) in favour of a national schooling programme, and was more in favour than against…

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      1. Thanks John! I agree, Dickens was surely – surely – in favour of national education. He was always very glowing whenever he visited an Athenaeum, and always damning when he encountered schools that were failing their students (although often the concern there was more to do with the health of the children than their education). So taking potshots at Kay-Shuttleworth seems a little countrr-intuitive, unless the message is intended to correct him on a route that is mostly on the right track?

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  5. I picked this up on Twitter too. Am using it as a break from Hilary Mantel! So who’s Mr Bounderby? That’s what I want to know. Dickens knew how to leave you wanting more. And I loved the passage about the poor little Gradgrinds being deprived of nursery rhymes. The other thing that strikes me is how Dickens uses language to hammer his point home in a way that would probably be criticised as repetitive today. I am left in no doubt that everything about Gradgrind is ‘square’.

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    1. Hi Alison! Gradgrind the square – in every respect. Even the name us si evocative – grating, grinding…gradiated? It’s a harsh name for a harsh character!

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  6. To pick up on the point about repetitive language… ‘If the greedy little Gradgrinds grasped at more than this, what was it for good gracious goodness’ sake, that the greedy little Gradgrinds grasped at?’ I laughed at this, and several other things in this opener (mostly linguistic, but also imagery) and I wasn’t expecting to! For me the first downer came with Louisa being tired of everything. That was like a jolt back to reality.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Jo! That’s really interesting. While the comments today have made me reappraise the comedy in the second chapter, my first impression when I read the instalment was that it was all a bit bleak *until* Louisa turned up. How strange that we should have opposite reactions to the same moment!

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  7. What an interesting start of a novel – there are so many characters and relationships introduced. I found it rather comical with so many earnest and moralistic characters, who are given ridiculous names to exaggerate the extent of their idiocy?

    I thought that the episode as a moralistic short story worked well. Gridgrind’s confidence and pride in his family when he has deprived them of the means to explore their curiosity and creativity is short sighted and such a formulaic approach constrains his daughter to the point of boredom.

    The two female characters have my attention – Sissy who appears to be the victim of Gridgrind’s dominance and Louisa the confident challenger.

    Going forward, I definitely want to read on. I’m desperate to know more about the relationship between Louisa and Bounderby. Why does Louisa look at the floor when his name is mentioned? Is he a bounder? Whys does she become more compliant ? I also want to find out how Gridgrind will respond to his forthright daughter and how he is as a father.

    Could go on and on and on so, just one more comment. I agree the classroom is stark like the setting of a dystopia but so is the idea of spying and that wish to catch people out – ironic that it was his own children!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Tracy! I’m glad you enjoyed the instalment. I like your point about Gradgrind’s short-sighted pride. It’s interesting that he is set up as all-powerful and all-knowing in the first two chapters; his realisation that his own children are sneaking off to the circus in chapter 3 becomes the more shocking for it. It’s important, because in isolation the instance of two children sneaking a look at a circus really isn’t that shocking. But coming after this extraordinary opening it really does feel like a rebellion. Also interesting to note the significance of Mr Bounderby to Louisa in particular – we’ll have to see if next week sheds any light on that.

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  8. Week 1! I loved: M’Choakumchild (ingenious name – so that’s where South Park borrowed the name idea for one of the teachers!) and Coketown (visionary Charles D? tempted to look up the meaning of this name). ‘Quadruped. Graminivorous’ – Darwin and science had gone too far at that school?! Papering a room – that reminded me (for some odd reason) of how poor Germans were using hyperinflated banknotes to paper their walls after WWI (still subconscious stress left from two weeks ago when GBP sank deep, probably). Also, no (at least proper) drama in Victorian times – it’s all entertainment with circuses and acrobats (a good substitute for theatre? – nah, humbug!) Great, stuff Mr D. Love the project, Dr Orford!

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    1. Hi Vlad! M’Choakumchild’s name is – understandably – getting a lot of attention this week. As for Coketown, this is back to a pre-Cola age where coke refers to coal. So this is going to be an industrial town, such as were springing up across the country during the Victorian era. Just as we have the “Northern Powerhouse” today, so too these industrial towns were the beating heart of commerce, which links in to Gradgrind’s no-nonsense philosophy (leave the arts to those in non-industrial towns). So it’s significant that it’s a travelling circus that we see – arts invading from the outside. If the rest of Coketown is like the school, I doubt they’ll have a theatre!

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  9. I really enjoyed the first instalment. The shock of Gradgrind when he finds his children at the circus reminds me of Baron Von Trapp when he finds his children playing in the trees. Can’t wait for next week’s instalment. Good to ‘keep them waiting’.

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    1. Hi Joy! ….and now I have the Sound of Music stuck in my head. I wonder if Gradgrind will melt like Von Trapp – where’s a singing nun when you need one?

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    1. Hi Cherry- welcome aboard! Don’t give in to temptation – just stick to this issue. Try rereading the fascinating journey of ‘Oranges and Lemons’ again, I’m sure the week will just fly by…

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  10. Dickens has long- since been my idol, my nemesis, my Everest…
    At 36 years-of-age I have followed him, regarded and disregarded him.
    As a teacher, I have taught him (A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations…)
    As a writer, I have loved, admired, coveted him….
    But the fact remains that Dickens scares me… I despised him at school and during my English Literature degree… but in recent years I have grown to love him and devour him…
    Hard Times is a novel that I have recently had the opportunity to teach under the “Childhood” module of the A-level English Literature course… I, stupidly, cried off, and selected something much more “manageable”.

    The opening chapters of the novel are a delight.

    They, as is characteristic of Dickens, are full of rich detail and characterisation – something, as a writer, I am completely in awe off. I only wish I had one ounce of his skills in creating and describing characters.
    Gradgrind’s classroom is both horrific and familiar; it is dated, yet completely recognisable. The comedic insistence of being observed as a teacher always brings humour into the classroom. Students are supportive, they are respectful… they have got your back. Afterwards they think it’s hilarious that you have transformed into a completely different person the moment someone new enters the room. I have often found myself transforming into the ‘smarmy “yes man” to appease or impress a visitor.

    Is this what Gradgrind is doing? Does he truly believe everything that this newbie is proffering in his classroom.
    There is so much humour running through these opening few chapters; the aforementioned characterisation, the ‘numbering’ of children; the repetitive ‘calling” on Sissy as she stands and ‘blushes’; the fact that the name ‘Bitzer’ is not ridiculed but ‘Sissy’ is; the descriptions of other children: “corpulent, slow boy in wheezy manner of breathing; the ‘nodding in agreement’… they are all moments or situations that have occurred in my classroom. Every moment of

    Dickens’ descriptions of the classroom, his descriptions of the pupils… I have been in exactly the same position and I am almost sure I have been Gradgrind on many an occasion when having a visitor in my class or when corresponding with students.

    I was also struck my Dickens’ use of repetition. Often it is used for humour through the opening of the novel (Sissy Jupe, Sissy’s continued politeness and coyness “blushing… curtseying”, the Gentleman’s “Fact, fact, fact”, the repeated use of ‘model’ in the opening of chapter three, the ‘little Gradgrinds”…

    So much to think about and discuss from three very short chapters that open the novel. For me, humour is the overriding emotion and, for me, that is my narrative hook.

    Apologies if this is rushed and muddled…. I can’t wait to read on and engage with everyone.

    Thanks,
    Steve

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    1. Thanks for this Steve, I am glad you are enjoying it! This is definitely a punchier Dickens, jumping straight into the scene without a long ponderous preamble, so hopefully that makes it a little easier to get into. I’m intrigued by your questioning of Gradgrind’s behaviour and how much of it is for the benefit of others who are watching – this chimes in with his overarching worry at the end of Chapter 3 of Mr Bounderby’s opinion – shame, and the thoughts of others, are his immediate concern upon seeing his children at the circus.

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  11. Hi Pete, Really appreciate you doing this and great to part of it. I read Hard Times as a teenager and don’t remember much to be honest so for me this was a fresh read. The first chapter certainly hits you in the face, no subtle start and differs in some other novels understandably due to the way it was meant to be read. It feels a little Eastenders and I am wondering if Dickens would have appreciated our national soaps! Slightly waiting for the duff duffs!. The language is biblical in places “murdering the innocents”! The way Dickens names the characters though instantly put a smile on my face and a slight comfort of ah yes, here we are again with these extraordinary characters. That school room is oddly familiar having been at boarding school in the late 70’s. Taking the names away from the children and calling them by numbers evoked much of what we have seen in the Holocaust and calling immigrants locusts (sorry slightly serious there). It takes away their humanity. Bitzer who could bleed white is obviously a sickly child, maybe anaemic? I found the illumination in the school room interesting. You don’t want to be lit up to be questioned but when you are lit up by the rays you are seen properly, in the readers eyes anyway.

    The description of the circus is as if a truck has gone into us from the side, the most incongruent scene after the school room. And there, amidst all this is the strident outspoken Louisa. I didn’t expect her to be so forthright so early on. Although she becomes more compliant on hearing Bounderbys name. Why? She is 16? Is he a bounder? I am eager to know more about Gradgrind and why he is as he is. Stone House is obviously his pride and joy and he has everything just so. Let’s see what’s behind the door or Chapter 4. I had an overwhelming image of nails down a blackboard when I read these first chapters!

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    1. Hi Kate! Yes, as Megumi notes, there are several biblical allusions. Dickens was Christian, bit wary of the establishment – I wonder how much this translates to a similar belief in education but wariness of that system? The school scene is certainly dehumanising, with great potential for horror! I agree the circus comes as a shock – but a welcome one, as is the outspoken Louisa. What will happen tomorrow? (Duff, duff, duff, du-du-dudududududuf)

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      1. What wonderful descriptions of Bounderby and Mrs. Gradgrind. Bounderby’s hair- “One might have fancied he had talked it off: and that what was left, all standing up in disorder, was in that condition from being constantly blown about by his windy boastfulness.” A wonderful example of Dickens’s ability to make a serious point in a comical manner. We, the readers now that Bounderby is a bully and a braggart. Mrs. Gradgind, ” a bundle of shawls of surpassing feebleness” who has “no-nonsense about her […] free from any alloy of that nature, as any human being not arrived at the perfection of an absolute idiot, ever was” Sheer genius!

        ________________________________

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      2. I agree, Dickens has a lot of fun with his descriptions this week! He’s very prescriptive in his judgement of Bounderby – as you say, he tells us exactly what sort of person he is, and we have no choice but to agree.

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  12. Hi Pete, and everyone! I started this late and have just caught up with you. I’ve read Hard Times before, but here’s something I’ve noticed for the first time: in the first two numbers, Dickens has already defended Gradgrind twice, but with a qualification both times. In chapter 3, “He was an affectionate father, after his manner …” And near the end of chapter 5, “His character was not unkind, all things considered …” I don’t think Dickens wants us to dislike Gradgrind, despite his oppressive methods of education and his bullying of Sissy.

    Dickens offers no such defence for Bounderby, whose inappropriate conduct towards Louisa is deeply unsettling.

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    1. Hi Warren, and welcome! You’re right, both here and last week there’s that little proviso – it’s small praise, and not much for us to pick up on last week, but the presence of the utterly horrific Bounderby this week throws Gradgrind with his faint praise into a much more favourable light.

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    2. Hello Warren. I agree with you. I was surprised at the comment about Gradgrind :[…] was by no means so rough a man as Mr. Bounderby. His character was not so unkind, all things considered. (:27 in my copy – end of chapter 4).
      What do we need to consider? I’m confident Dickens will give some clues as to the true nature of Mr. Gradgrind as the plot develops. There seems little hope, at this stage, that Mr. Bounderby will be seen as;’not so unkind’ – no matter what we have to consider

      .

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