45 & 46: Hard Times and Remembrance

I have a difficult relationship with Dickens. Aged rather young, I tried to read David Copperfield. I got about a hundred pages in before it got too much for me. I think it was the first book I ever started and could not finish. I still haven’t.

This rather poisoned the well, as it were. But I rather liked Great Expectations when I had to read that at school, and in the true spirit of the season I read A Christmas Carol (and some other short Christmas pieces) in late December and early January 2015/16, and they were truly spectacular. And his prose is, actually, when he sets his mind to it, spectacular. So I gave it another go.

Anybody with a rough idea of the life and times of John Stuart Mill would not, on reading this book, be surprised that his Autobiography springs firmly to mind. “I was much better suited to think than to do,” he says, and laments the strict academia of his upbringing which denied higher pleasures and left him to a crisis in his later years. By his own account twenty years ahead of his contemporaries, Louisa’s lament is oddly apt: “You have been so careful of me, that I never had a child’s heart. You have trained me so well, that I never dreamed a child’s dream. You have dealt so wisely with me, father, from my cradle to this hour, that I never had a child’s belief or a child’s fear.” Most heartbreakingly, Mr Gradgrind cannot even hear the scorn, the loss, the despair; he hears only a grateful child, thanking him sincerely for bringing her up free of folly and fanciful notions. Mill, however, escaped his austere upbringing, found beauty in Romantic poetry and love in Harriet Taylor; Gradgrind’s own crisis, coming late in the day, is occasioned by an ultimate confrontation between his better nature and the cold calculation of his training and creed. Granted, the Gradgrind School are not a very good representation even of pre-crisis Mill or the earlier Benthamites; they are cold creatures of political economy and rational self-interest, Dickensian caricatures; but they are like enough to suggest the comparison, at least in patches.

Hard Times is one of Dickens’s shortest books, and when you read it you can see why people consider him the English novelist. I doubt he’ll ever be my favourite – old prejudices die hard – but I think I’ve reached the point where I don’t begrudge him his place in the pantheon, and will happily offer my genuflexion when and where appropriate.

Frivolity changed to maturity. Prejudice changed to understanding. Happiness changed to sorrow. This novel of the First World War is actually deeply moving, sprinkled with humour and pathos. There are wonderfully wry, self-deprecating letters, moments of understanding, moments of unity and of division. There are irrevocable changes. Even the main characters avoid the trap (so easy to fall into in historical fiction) of uncannily perfect, clairvoyant certainty, of always doing the right thing with an almost smug self-belief; instead, even when stubbornly committed to their paths, they are assailed by self-doubt and second-thoughts, by baser feelings to be beaten back. And, most impressively, Breslin manages to avoid too much of a sense of axe-grinding. It’s all too easy to use tragedies like the first War to make this or that heavy-handed, tenuously connected point, which cheapens the ostensive subject matter; Remembrance confines itself to the loss and horror and contradiction of war, which is quite a large enough subject, and it is a more sensitive work because of it.

“Nothing was black and white, only infinite shades of grey.”

Hard Times
Author Charles Dickens
Published 1854
Pages 274
Best character Mr Sleary, whose lisp and love of strong waters disguise a fierce cunning and fine character.

Author Theresa Breslin
Published 2002
Pages 293
Best character Francis. Insightful, sensitive, tormented, thoughtful Francis.


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