By 1854 Chartism was moribund, but militant trade unionism lived on in the north of England, producing some of the most prolonged strikes and lockouts of the century. The strike and lockout at Preston in 1853-54, for example, lasted more than eight months, convincing many observers that, although Chartism no longer flourished in factory towns, the classes there were still mightily and dangerously opposed. Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell were two such observers; . . . . Hard Times and North and South ostensibly propose that social cohesion can be achieved by changing the relationship between family and society, by introducing cooperative behavior, presumably preserved in private life, into the public realm. [Gallagher 147]

Unfortunately, by the time that one of the "men of the sixties," Harry French, was contracted by Chapman and Hall in the 1870s to produce a series of twenty illustrations for the Household edition of Hard Times for These Times (1854) many of these larger social issues that so absorbed Dickens in the 1840s, the heyday of Chartism, were no longer apparent to a new generation of readers. Indeed, following French's narrative-pictorial programme, one might easily miss the industrial setting (derived directly from Dickens's impressions of Preston during that protracted strike) and implicit social criticism entirely.

The Theatrical Properties in the Plates

A catalogue of the material objects in French's plates reinforces his middle-class interpretation of Dickens's industrial novel: gentlemen's frock and tail-coats appear in twelve plates; ladies’ bonnets in eleven (the head-covering worn by Mrs. Gradgrind in plate 13) is of the indoor variety that had gone out of fashion for all but elderly women by 1870); carpets, paintings, and tables of various types in eight; top hats in seven; both stuffed chairs (associated with males, and with Louisa) and frame chairs in six; canes ("No gentleman was ever without one or its doppėlganger, the tightly furled umbrella," remarks Pool), pots (both functional and decorative), and elements of nature (especially grass) in five; fireplaces, books, posters, and candles in four. An interesting sartorial change is exhibited by Louisa's dresses, which are light-coloured from plates 1 through 13, and then dark after her mother's death and the start of her incipient affair with Harthouse. Bounderby introduces his wife, the chief ornament of his establishments, in a room full of furniture (two paintings, two vases, a table, and a stuffed chair), a fact which suggests that she, too, is a possession, her capital being conversation larded with "lots of expensive knowledge" and her expensive clothing (symbolic of conspicuous consumption). In short, we have abundant evidence of the affluence of the newly-rich Coketown industrialists Bounderby and Gradgrind with only the slightest suggestion (the smokeless industrial chimneys in the backdrop of Plate 8) as to its source. Thus, the artist seems to have deliberately avoided vivifying Dickens's indictment of industrial society; we never see the machinery that sounds like melancholy, mad elephants, and legions of phallic factory chimneys spewing forth serpents of smoke. In this respect, French's omitting the demagogic Slackbridge and reducing Stephen's numerous rescue party of workmen to a mere three in Plate 17 is significant.

The Opening Plates: Looking Well Ahead

Through the opening plates, illustrating Sleary and his daughter in their formal attire as entertainers to the masses and Thomas Gradgrind as the marriage-broker for his fellow industrialist and political ally, Josiah Bounderby, Harry French sets the keynote for his interpretation of the novel. He balances two of the plots by introducing simultaneously three of the story's pivotal figures: Louisa (depicted twelve times in twenty plates, and the only character to appear singly), Gradgrind (depicted five times), and Sleary (depicted twice). The next most frequently depicted characters in French's plates — Stephen, Bounderby, and Harthouse — present elements of the romantic, criminal, union, and divorce subtexts. Nowhere, however, does French realise the most distinctive features of Dickens's industrial novel, Coketown's factories and school. French's thirteen interiors encompass a middle-class vision of modern urban reality, from the comfortable parlour, booklined study, and various bedrooms of upper-middle-class Stone Lodge (depicted six times), through Bounderby's town and country residences (three scenes), and lower-middle class Stephen's confined but respectable world (four scenes). Sleary's circus, whose characters bridge these worlds, is depicted four times, both before and behind the scenes. The absence of Bitzer and the schoolroom sequence, as well as the absence of the union organizer, Slackbridge, combined with the prominence he has given Louisa, implies that French read the novel as Louisa's bildungsroman, a reading that is not consonant with Dickens's larger sociological intentions for the novel as signaled by its full title, Hard Times for These Times, and by the opening schoolroom scene. Rendering Louisa the primary and Stephen the secondary protagonist, French has attempted to balance opposite gender, class, and age perspectives, but has thereby necessarily eliminated competing readings that might, for example, confer upon Sissy Jupe as the advocate of "fancy" a place of greater prominence, and demonstrate how Bitzer and Slackbridge are the natural growths of an artificial society created by the production of goods in factories and by relationships that reflect the new cash nexus rather than the old loyalties and obligations of man and master.

We note that Louisa Gradgrind in Plate 1, like Josephine Sleary in Plate 2, has been "well trained" (I: 15). Louisa, having already been alerted the previous night about a "serious" matter her father wishes to discuss with her after breakfast in his study, is initially silent in the letterpress, expressive perhaps of her shock at her father's choice of bridegroom for her. Barely twenty, she has been the object of Mr. Bounderby's observation since she was fifteen (in the opening chapters); he is at least fifty--and even the dispassionate Mr. Gradgrind concedes that "There is some disparity in [their] respective years" (Book I, Ch. 15).

After the brief, cool, and reasonable dialogue depicted in the plate (we note the thermometer that French has placed by the window registers no temperature), silence once again supervenes. Dickens emphasizes the emotional vacuum by the "hollow" ticking of a clock (not shown in the plate) and "distant smoke black and heavy" casting a pall over the father-daughter relationship and Louisa's hopes. In contrast in French's Plate 1, only thin whisps of smoke escape from the domestic chimneys of the houses outside Gradgrind's study window. Since, according to the third chapter of the first book, "Stone Lodge was situated on a moor within a mile or two of . . . Coketown," the presence of buildings outside the study window undermines the authority of the plate. The illustrator has placed the factory buildings across the street to juxtapose the business-like nature of the marriage proposal and the commercial activity that supports the capitalists Bounderby and Gradgrind. The factory system cannot admit sentiment, nor, implies French, can Gradgrind's conception of marriage. "A window looked towards Coketown; and when [Louisa] sat down near her father's table, she saw the high chimneys and the long tracks of smoke looming in the heavy distance gloomily" (Book I, Ch. 15).

However, the ledger, the books, and the overflowing waste-paper basket add nuances to the scene that we have over forty pages to ponder before we arrive at its textual counterpart. Here text is generated and stored; but here, too, text is sometimes discarded. In terms of Louisa's story, this scene is crucial, a turning point from childhood to adulthood for both her and her brother. Ironically, both father and daughter seem to be chatting affably in French's illustration, so that the reader might be misled by it into believing that Louisa's welcomes the news of Bounderby's proposal, the reasonableness of which, as the rational (and rationalizing) Mr. Gradgrind notes, is supported by a statistical analysis of domestic and foreign marital ages worthy of the Reverend Thomas Malthus himself. "The disparity . . . , therefore, almost ceases to be disparity," but Louisa in French's illustration does not seem terribly convinced. French's Gradgrind is indeed no "Blue Beard," but a well-dressed, upper-middle class Victorian in a room if not "stern" is certainly tidy and orderly, though, as we might expect given the gentleman's Utilitarian character, entirely devoid of the kind of bric-a-brac and excessive ornamentation for which Victorian houses are still remembered.

The only two plates that are out of sequence — Gradgrind's delivering Bounderby's offer of marriage, and the vignette of Sleary and his daughter in their circus attire (which may allude to events either early or very late in the novel) — forewarn us of the importance of responsible parenting in Dickens's story. Whereas Sleary (presumably a widower) has raised his daughter to assume a role in the "family business" so to speak, Gradgrind (about to become a widower)employs marriage to cement his personal and political alliance with a fellow industrialist. Perhaps French has connected these scenes to point out that Gradgrind is not the ogre of the schoolroom he appears to be in the opening scenes, but a fundamentally decent man like Sleary. Both fathers, moreover, expect their daughters to "perform" in the manner in which they have been "trained" — but Louisa's role will leave her little room to be herself because it will force her to submerge her inner life.

Related materials

References

The Annotated Dickens, Vol. 1. Ed. Edward Guiliano and Philip Collins. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1986.

Dickens, Charles. Hard Times with twenty illustrations by H. French. London: Chapman and Hall [1875?].

Du Maurier, George. "The Illustrating of Books. From The Serious Artist's Point of View. — I." The Magazine of Art, Vol. 23. London: Cassell, 1890. Pp. 349-371.

Gallagher, Catherine. The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction 1832-1867. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Hammerton, J. A. The Dickens Picture-Book. London: Educational Book [1910].

Pool, Daniel. What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.


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Last modified 21 September 2007