Hard Times . . . . has had its special admirers, particularly among those who see Dickens as a propagandist for their own political-economic ideology. We are told that one Cambridge pundit [F. R. Leavis?], a few years ago, declared that the only Dickens novel worth reading was Hard Times — surely one of the most foolish statements of this age. It would be far more sensible to reverse this judgment, to say that of all the novels of Dickens's maturity Hard Times is the least worth reading. It is muddled in its direct political-social criticism. As a novel it falls far below the standard set by Dickens himself from Dombey and Son onwards. Here for once it is almost as if we are seeing Dickens through the eyes of his hostile critics, for in Hard Times there really are reckless and theatrical over-statements, there really are characters that are nothing but caricatures, there really is melodramatic muddled emotion- alism. On the other hand, only in a few odd places is there any evidence of Dickens's unique grotesque-poetic genius, so obvious in Bleak House. We may join him in condemning an industrialized commercial society, its values, its economics, its education, its withering relationships, but this does not mean we have to pretend an unsatisfactory novel is a masterpiece, just because it favours our side. . . .
The truth is, Dickens did not know enough about industrial England. He had given a public reading in Birmingham, which provided him with some horrifying glimpses of the grim Midlands. Because there was a big strike in Preston, he paid it a visit, but he found no drama there. He came away deeply sympathizing with the men but feeling doubtful about trade union organizers. He was not on any ground familiar to him. So his Coketown is merely a horrible appearance, and in order to offer us a sharp contrast to Gradgrind and Bounderby, their outlook and style of life, he sketches a travelling circus to represent arts, skills, warm personal relationships. But he could have found all these, together with many odd attractive characters, in Coketown, if he had really known it and not simply looked at it from a railway train. As it is, Coketown belongs to propaganda and not to creative imagination. [167-68]
Priestley, J. B. Victoria's Heyday. New York: Harper & Rowe, 1972.
Last modified 4 January 2006