Charles Dickens

Hard Times: Dickens' own "Milton" tale

A Manufacturing Town  (1922) - L.S. Lowry

A Manufacturing Town (1922) - L.S. Lowry

How does Charles Dickens' Hard Times compare to North and South?  I've wondered about this for years, ever since I heard that Hard Times was also an industrial novel. These two stories even appeared back-to-back in 1854. Dickens ran his story in weekly installments from April to August in his magazine, Household Words. Gaskell's story ran from September to January of the following year.

How are these two works similar? Well, in Dickens' book there is a dirty industrial town, a self-made manufacturer (with a mother who worships him!), a poor weaver with integrity and soul, and a heroine who doesn't know her own heart.

And there are similar strains in highlighting what is lacking in the industrial society of the day. Dickens' overall theme boils down to a warning that in the intellectual and self-satisfied excitement of lauding science and industry, it is vital to remember that humans are not machines or numbers, but individuals who need nurturing and care. Focusing on facts, statistics, bank accounts (and social esteem) deadens us to matters of humanity. It's the lower classes--Cissy Jupe, Stephen Blackpool, and Rachel--who understand what life is really about: love.

The most pointed difference, for me, between Hard Times and North and South is in the depth of the characters drawn by the author. Dickens uses exaggerated characters to make his pointed social commentary. It's difficult to feel an intimate connection with characters that are more symbolic than realistic. I felt the most sympathetic connection with the poor weaver, Stephen Blackpool, whose situation and hope reflects the reality of many hard-worn lives of every century. With Gaskell's characters, I can sympathize with each and every one for their very human faults, habits, and virtues. 

Oh, but I love Hard Times'  comedic Mrs. Sparsit! What a perfectly conniving, presumptuous old fortune-seeker! It was glorious to see her get taken down. The scene in which she gleefully endures pouring rain and muddy terrain to spy on her nemesis was fantastically described. This part was Dickens at his best for descriptions and character revelation. She may be my favorite Dickens character yet!

Mrs. Sparsit and Mr. Bounderby

Mrs. Sparsit and Mr. Bounderby

Of course, anyone who loves North and South, will be interested in Dickens' dark description of "Milton."

It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but as matters stood, it was a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage. 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 a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, and vast piles of building full of windows where there 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.
It contained several large streets all very like one another, and many small streets still more like one another, inhabited by people equally like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours, with the same sound upon the same pavements, to do the same work, and to whom every day was the same as yesterday and to-morrow, and every year the counterpart of the last and the next.

I really enjoyed reading a shorter work of Dickens. The intricate weaving of the characters into the building plot is Dickens' usual genius. In this story, no scene is superfluous. Every early scene lays the groundwork for the coming climax.

Overall, I liked this better than the over-rated Great Expectations, and maybe even better than Little Dorrit and Bleak House, where I found the length of the novel sometimes tedious. My romantic side would have loved to see a happier ending for a few of the characters, but considering the title of the book I'll suppress my complaint. Nothing here can compare to the romance in North and South.

And that self-made manufacturer in Hard Times? Definitely not John Thornton material! Josiah Bounderby is a pompous old windbag. Sorry about that. But who could compete with John Thornton anyway?

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Did Gaskell rush the ending of North & South?


When a story keeps lovers apart until the final few pages, it can be hard for readers to feel satisfied. Many of us wanted to see more--much more. But was the story complete up to those last few written words?

I wrote about Gaskell's ending at West of Milton exactly three years ago. (Lori's blog has some wonderful discussions. Check them out!) This week I'll be camping in northern California, so I'm cheating by posting an old piece. I hope it will be new to many of you!


Rushed or Merely Abrupt?

Have you ever read comments about North and South that refer to Gaskell’s rushed ending? The subject of the story’s rapid conclusion regularly appears in reviews of the book and in other discussions.

I’ve been noting these kinds of comments for some time and have been mulling over what it is that people are really trying to say about Elizabeth Gaskell’s work when they mention her ending. Too often, I believe, the assumption is that Dickens’ editorial deadlines adversely affected Gaskell’s ability to bring the story to a satisfactory conclusion.

There is truth in the matter of her being initially rushed, however, I think a distinction ought to be made between whether the plot or character development of Gaskell’s story was permanently damaged or if the story is developed well but ends somewhat abruptly. The difference, I believe, is in the reader’s interpretation of the story itself.

There’s no real debate as to whether or not her ending is abrupt. It sure is. We spend all that time and anguish waiting for our lovers to come together. And when they finally kiss, that’s it – story’s over. No long discussions over past regrets, no letting us see how Hannah reacts, not even a mention of Fred, who caused more trouble than we could have ever first conceived. Many of Georgette Heyer’s famed Regency romance novels end exactly in this same manner, leaving the reader to divine how everything will work out once the lovers are clearly set upon a short path to matrimony.

Of course we are left wanting more. There’s so much more that could be told! But I’m satisfied that the story leading to this moment is complete. In fact, one could even argue that Gaskell dwelled on Margaret’s time in London and Helstone – apart from Thornton – a little too long. What elements of the story do some readers suppose are rushed? Does Margaret need more time to convince herself that the Milton manufacturer has a heart? I don’t see her keeping track of Thornton’s progress in the realm of master-worker relations or wishing he were kinder and more compassionate. She knows he has a heart and has full faith in his character. Does Gaskell need to bring out more how much Thornton has changed? The conversation during the London dinner party elaborates upon how much Thornton’s ideals have evolved since he began working with Higgins.

I think it’s possible that those who label Gaskell’s novel as rushed may be overlooking some pertinent and lesser-known facts concerning the final edition of North and South. Everyone seems to know that Gaskell was rushed to finish her work, however not everyone seems to know the details involved.


Leave your comments at either site. Lori and I both love to talk about North and South!