The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

X. Dickens

§ 13. Hard Times

These drops continued to spread and to ink the water for some time, if not for ever, afterwards. The year 1854 was a rather disastrous one in Dickens’s annals. It saw the production in book form of two works, both of which had previously passed through Household Words. Of the deplorable Child’s History of England, it is not necessary to say more than that it is, perhaps, the capital instance of a man of genius, not tempted by the well-known “want of pence,” or by anything except his own wilfulness, going far out of his way to write something for which he was (in everything but the possession of narrative faculty) absolutely disqualified. But Hard Times, the other fruit of that year, cannot be passed over quite so lightly. The book has had its admirers; and for at least one thing that it gives us—the Sleary group—some readers, at any rate, would put up with even worse company. There is certainly genuine pathos—whether overdone or not is, perhaps, a matter of taste—in the Stephen and Rachel part, while (a thing which has sometimes escaped even laudatory critics) Louisa, though she is made the cause or occasion of some of the least good parts of the book, is more of a real live girl of the nineteenth century than Dickens ever achieved, except in the more shadowy sketch of Estella in Great Expectations. But these good things, comic or pathetic or analytic, are buried in such a mass of exaggeration and false drawing that one struggles with the book as with a bad dream. There are, unfortunately, many such young whelps as Tom Gradgrind, and many such cads and curmudgeons as Josiah Bounderby; but Dickens has made Tom nothing but a whelp and Bounderby nothing but a curmudgeon and a cad. Now, that is not the way in which the actual Creator makes people; or, if He very occasionally does so, these exceptions are not to be used in art by His imitators in fiction. The elder Gradgrind, on the whole, and especially towards the end, has more verisimilitude; but he himself, for a long time, his school and the society of Coketown generally, with Mrs. Sparsit and her visions about Louisa in particular, have got hopelessly into the world of ugly and preposterous fantasy—a world where, to adapt the classical myth, Phobetor reigns, his sway untempered by Icelus—upon which Dickens was too often tempted to draw. The book seems to have been rather popular with foreign critics, partly because it has a certain unity of plot and action, and, perhaps, also, partly because it gives a picture of England unfavourable, indeed, but rather consistent with the continental view of us. But it is difficult, from the standpoint of comparative and impartial criticism, not to put it lowest among Dickens’s finished novels.