Thomas Gradgrind has a principle in life: Facts and cold logic are all that matters. There’s no room for imagination or anything that can’t be defined or measured. He expects the small school he runs to adhere to that principle, and expects the same of his own two children, Louisa and Tom. After all, what go wrong with the solid logical base of “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few (Or the one)”…?
Dicken’s tenth novel, published in 1854, has a very different feel to most of his other work. For a start, it’s very short for a Dickens novel. The chapters are shorter and the pacing faster as a result, and he doesn’t linger or pad scenes out.
Part of that may be the setting: Dickens isn’t in his beloved London for this one, but a fictional Northern England town called “Coketown”. He can’t fix the geography with real examples, so he goes for metaphor and simile. The pistons of the mills are described as working up and down like “the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness”, for example.
This was another story written as a serial, and it shows early on: Dickens quickly abandons his opening plot line of the school and his master and moves on to getting Gradgrind’s children grown up and married, which is when the story kicks in.
Louisa is married in a loveless union to Gradgrind’s best friend, Bounderby. And what else could it be, but loveless? The young woman has had imagination and love pounded out of her and replaced with cold facts since the day she started school. Her slacker of a brother encourages her to marry Bounderby so he can have an easy life (Tom works for Bounderby, and knows Bounderby will ease up on him to keep his sister happy).
Louisa is briefly seduced by an interloper, and fascinated by his lifestyle, but backs away. Instead, she confronts her father with the results of her cold education: His grand experiment has broken her ability to love, to feel anything for anyone. Shocked that the rigid rules of his life have done this to his daughter, Gradgrind recants.
In the meantime, Tom the slacker has run up some gambling debts and frames a local man for a robbery. He flees, but is captured by one of the former pupils of Gradgrind. In the best scene in the book, Gradgrind pleads with the pupil to let Tom go, but has his Utilitarianism is thrown back at him with brutal efficiency: The needs of the community outweigh Gradgrind’s wishes, after all.
The story wasn’t what I was expecting from Dickens. His tone is almost conversational at the start of the book; it felt more personal than his usual removed narrative voice. The novel is short, which helps the story move along, and the shift of location to a fictional town meant that he didn’t spend pages on padding descriptions.
Refreshingly for Dickens, Louisa felt like a real character and a not just a simpering and melodramatic female. Tom actually felt less well developed and more two-dimensional.
I liked the exploration of Utilitarianism, and I loved the way it was thrown back against Gradgrind, who thought it was wonderful…until he was the one and not the many.
The list of ‘classic books’ yet to fill my waking hours is long, but whilst I am embarked on a lengthy (albeit belated) campaign to put that right, I was inspired to elevate this Dickens novel based on a recommendation read in ‘The Big Issue’. Alas, I don’t remember the name of the celebrity endorser, but my reasoning was that if the book is worthy of inclusion on anyone’s list of five favourite novels, it has to be worth a read. In any event, it proved a good call.
The titular cities are of course London and Paris, towards the end of the eighteenth century, when the capital cities of England and France were presiding over tumultuous and historic social change. As our Gallic cousins warmed to the task of revolution and the permanent overthrow of their aristocracy through systemic decapitation, a newfound population of Anglophiles crossed the channel to escape the carnage. However, what is so delightful about Dickens’ approach to this dramatic backdrop and a hallmark of the author’s writing, is his primary focus on the working and middle classes and an exposé of his characters’ experiences, amid the shifting tectonic plates of European politics. Dickens can also be relied upon to craft for the reader extravagant phrases in which to luxuriate and there can be few more famous openings.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going directly to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way….”
The novel is split into three ‘books’. ‘Book the first’ (“Recalled to life”), set in 1775, introduces Mr Jarvis Lorry, dutiful employee of Tellson’s bank and regular traveller between the firm’s London and Paris offices. He is to chaperone Miss Lucie Manette, whom he previously escorted to safety in England upon the death of her parents, back to Paris, to explore news that her father may in fact be alive. Dr Manette was a physician of some repute and has been imprisoned for many years ‘in secret’ before being released, an apparently broken man, to the dubious care of his former servant, Monsieur Defarge, now proprietor of a wine shop in the St. Antoine district. Indeed, Dickens’ description of the garret room in the attic used to incarcerate Dr Manette, as surely as the Bastille, the pitiable occupant and the loathsome landlord quickly establish for the reader a vignette of the approaching tempest and the descent into wider chaos.
Book 2 – “The Golden Thread”, picks up the story in London five years later (1780) and establishes Manette’s daughter, Lucie, as another key character. Uniting her father “to a Past beyond his misery, and to a Present beyond his misery…” Lucie dotes on her resurrected father and nurses him back to relative health and in so doing comes to the attention of another imperilled refugee from France, Charles Darnay and the two English lawyers who help successfully defend him from a charge of treason at The Bailey.
Notwithstanding Darnay denounces his heritage, the nephew of a despised French Marquis, any return to the country of his birth is likely to be fraught with danger. Moreover, his marriage to Lucie and their subsequent child confers similar risks to his family. Throughout, Dickens cultivates a stark contrast on either side of the channel and the operation of Tellson’s bank as the means of connecting affairs in Paris and London feels remarkably contemporary. But, while England plays host to the peaceful pursuit of life among family and friends, exemplified in Charles and Lucie, in France Monsieur and Madame Defarge are at the eye of the revolutionary storm. By 1792, the rising tide of discontent is watched ominously, as the Monseignor are scattered and take to their elite heels. For those with foresight, a foreign bank is a sensible depository for assets, but also acts as a magnet for revolutionary agents, to ensnare the treacherous upper class and slake the public thirst for bloody retribution.
However, though safely ensconced in England, when Darnay receives a letter from an imprisoned loyal servant of his family, clearly he does the honourable thing and returns to France, leaving letters for his wife and father-in-law.
Finally, Book 3 – “The Track of a Storm” magnifies the tension surrounding Darnay’s inevitable imprisonment and impending execution, through the selfless courage of his family and friends, who attend despite the risks. The cat and mouse tactics of Madame Defarge especially, desperate to seal the fate of the whole family, merely preying on casualties of a depraved process of social cleansing.
Still, cometh the hour, cometh the man and the final sacrifice is tragically heroic, but Dickens also reinforces the notion that nobility of character is not the sole preserve of the aristocracy. Indeed, the doctor, the banker, the lawyer and the daughter are all exceptional in their courage and fortitude and provide a glorious panoply of the human spirit. Again, Dickens has the turn of phrase to match the poignancy of the moment
"…It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
For me, this is tale that stands the test of time and though the reader glimpses exceptional demonstrations of love, its examination of the corrupting potential of power is the more potent lesson, as is the need for good people to show courage and resolve for what is right.
In a timely update of the story, an adaption by BBC Radio 4 last weekend also gave the tale a contemporary twist, linking London instead with Aleppo (Syria). It remains powerful stuff, though perhaps sobering that the human experience continues to incorporate such destructive tendencies centuries later.
I LOVED this book.... aside from the beheading, starving, and taxing people. That wasn't nice. I really enjoyed the story though and I'm so glad I finally read it. I gave it to my husband and insisted he read it too. I hope he will but he doesn't seem willing.
I totally cried at the end. I tried to pretend I was a tough old broad and not a sissy crybaby but I failed. I bet my husband cries more than I did if he reads it. He is a bigger sissy than I am (but don't tell him I said that.)
I ordered a nice hardcover book copy on ebay today that has 3 of Dickens books, including this one, and it will look nice on my shelf. It also has Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. I hope I'm happy with it when it comes. There are never enough pictures on ebay listings. I also find it annoying that they don't give you any idea of size. I want to know I'm not going to end up with a tiny book with text I can't read. I think that should be automatically provided in the listing so I don't have to ask every time.
My husband said I should get a book of the complete works of Charles Dickens. LOL Wouldn't that be one HUGE book?
I did buy a paperback copy of The Old Curiosity Shop today. It looks brand new but I got it at a used bookstore for $2.75. I saved a whole $2.25 off the listed price! I love deals no matter how small.
Anyway, I will have to write a review another time. I had a big day and I'm exhausted. I will probably have to pay for it tomorrow. I guess we will see. There was a small fair type deal at a place call Calypso Farm up in the hills here. It is in a small community called Ester. It was a bit of a drive but I enjoyed it. They had Shetland sheep and were shearing them so those wanting to learn could watch. I watched the first one. They had several people selling wool roving and yarn, spinning kits and knitted and crocheted garments. Several people were spinning yarn. They also had food, including pizza baked on a wood stove. We are both dieting so we decided to pass. It was also very, very muddy and the food was up hill through the mud. We had to park on the side of the road and walk up this steep, sloppy muddy driveway (at least a block long) with water running down from the snow melt. I didn't think to wear my mud boots since it isn't that muddy at my house and we have a lot less snow. I had my wedge heeled faux suede ankle books on and hope they aren't ruined. Walking up there was not fun at all. I enjoyed talking to the people showing their wares and bought some turquoise blue yarn. I got a little over 6 oz and saved 50%. My husband went up to look at the food place to scout things out while I was looking. He was a pretty good sport since he had ZERO interest in anything there (poor guy.) He said there was a lot of dangerous food items for dieting folks there. I wanted to go check it out but when I looked up and saw the way was still steeply uphill through 4 inch sloppy mud I decided to pass. We went somewhere else and I ate a salad with grilled chicken that was much lower in calories. So, I got some exercise, ate healthy, and got 4 new books! I say that is a good day. You can see some pictures I took on my instagram. I still have a few pictures I need to add so hopefully I'll get that done soon. I'm so exhausted I can hardly move. I know I will be hurting tomorrow but at least it will be worth it. I'll just chill out and read if I'm able.