A review and synopsis of a novel by Charles Dickens, first published 1854.
Set in Coketown a fictitious northern industrial town during the time of the industrial revolution, this historical novel has two parallel storylines: one relating the life and times of the well meaning but misguided Thomas Gradgrind and his family, his friend Josiah Bounderby, a pompous and boastful mill owner and banker, and their partially self inflicted misfortunes; the other a forbidden love story concerning Stephen Blackpool and Rachel fellow textile workers at Bounderby's mill. A classically good read in the manner expected of Charles Dickens, a real page turner with an interesting insight into the social history of the industrial north in Victorian England.
Thomas Gradgrind - A wealthy, retired merchant and superintendent of the local school board in Coketown, later to become a member of parliament. Slightly misguided, his philosophy is to despise the frivolous and trivial aspects of human nature arising from the imagination and spiritual, accepting only logical reasoning based on hard facts, principles which are strictly applied in the school setting as well as within his own household.
Mrs. Gradgrind - Grandgrind's ailing wife who doesnt share her husband's philosophy but lacks the gumption or energy to oppose him.
Louisa Gradgrind - The eldest of the Gradgrind children, suffers the consequences of an upbringing based on her father's dogmatic philosophy, unable to express her emotions and make decisions for herself. It seems the only person she can relate to or show affection for is her brother Tom, and she leans over backwards to support him.
Thomas (Tom) Gradgrind - The Gradgrind's eldest son, also affected by the problems arising from their eccentric upbringing, who with maturity has become rather selfish and untrustworthy, pursuing a dissolute lifestyle with heavy drinking and becoming addicted to gambling. He callously uses his sister's affection for him to his own advantage.
Jane, Adam Smith, and Malthus Gradgrind - The Gradgrind's three younger children. Jane features prominently later in the novel growing up and much influenced by Sissy Jupe, turning out to be cheerful and affectionate and compassionate.
Josiah Bounderby - A pompous, emotionless and boastful business associate of Mr. Gradgrind. He is a self made man who often puffs up his own image by dishonestly holding forth about his own humble beginnings, his success and wealth the product of dedication, hard work and sacrifice.
Mrs. Sparsit - Bounderby's housekeeper, a widow from a wealthy family now fallen on hard times.She feels slighted and resentful, disapproving of her employer's preference to marry Louisa rather than herself, and spies on the unfortunate spouse when it appears she is having an affair with James Harthouse.
Cecilia (Sissy) Jupe - A circus girl and student at Gradgrind's school later deserted by her father and becoming a housekeeper in the home of the Gradgrind's, wise beyond her years, a great influence for good and one of the unsung heroes of the story.
Stephen Blackpool - A worker at Bounderby's mill, a very likeable character of principle with an alcoholic wife who is mostly absent but appears from time to time to make his life miserable.
Rachael - The friend and object of affection of Stephen Blackpool who believes in, loves and supports this honourable and honest fellow work colleague in his hours of need.
Mrs. Pegler - A mysterious old woman who appears from time to time loitering outside Bounderby properties, her true identity revealed later in the story along with some surprising home truths.
Mr. Sleary - The kind and friendly owner of the circus which employs Sissy and her father. He has a hilariously funny turn of phrase, speaking pearls of wisdom with a distinctive lisp. He is another reliable character, bringing help and assistance in times of trouble for the Grandgrinds.
Bitzer - A fellow classmate and sufferer with Sissy and the Grandgrind children at the notorious school of ignorance, later taking up employment as the light porter at Bounderby's bank.
James Harthouse - A good for nothing privileged layabout looking for an easy life in parliament, who arrives in Coketown as a protege of The Right Honourable Thomas Gradgrind MP who sets out to seduce Louisa Bounderby.
Slackbridge - A rabble rousing orator and union leader recruiting workers at Bounderby's mill who demonises Stephen Blackpool when he refuses to join the union.
Thomas Gradgrind, perhaps the dominant character in the novel, is a well meaning but misguided businessman and school superintendent who is responsible for upholding the ethos, curriculum, and high standards at his educational establishment designed to benefit and turn out well balanced knowledgeable individuals able to succeed in their chosen careers. Completely devoid of imagination and emotion, Mr Gradgrind raises his two elder children, stifling their development by suppressing any notion of things spiritual or artistic, his philosophy, to despise the frivolous and in all matters be governed purely by rational decision making based on logical thinking and hard facts, principles which are applied with equal zeal within the school. Gradgrind applies his rules relentlessly and dominates the household to the extent that his ailing wife becomes ineffectual fading into the background in the presence of the all powerful and overbearing husband. The scenes in the schoolroom centre around pupils Louisa and Tom Gradgrind, Cecilia Jupe a child of the visiting circus whose father is anxious for her to have a good education for an alternative future outside the circus, and Bitzer an awkward pale faced individual. They suffer collectively under the rather eccentric educational regime presumably without the knowledge of Ofsted, the Gradgrind siblings not coping as well as the more resilient Sissy and Bitzer.
Josiah Bounderby is a wealthy businessman, mill owner and banker, friend of Thomas Gradgrind, his housekeeper Mrs Sparsit is a widow from a wealthy family now fallen on hard times. She lives in hope that Josiah will one day pop the question and is patiently waiting for the day, whilst daily reminding him of her virtues and aristocratic connections. Bounderby's friendship with Gradgrind often brings the two families together and it is obvious that Bounderby has a soft spot for Louisa and often indulges her with his attentions, a thing which young Tom spots and will later use to his advantage. An early scene in the story sees Louisa and Tom out and about, diverted and loitering near the circus which has just arrived in town, peeping through gaps in the big-top, fascinated by what is going on inside. They soon find themselves firmly gripped by the ears and scolded, having been discovered by their father and Josiah Bounderby curiously peering into the forbidden world of entertainment and amusement. Naturally they are escorted home to suffer the consequences of their rule breaking, the incident sadly reflecting just one aspect of their very strict imagination stifling upbringing and a most depressing prospect for the future. It's clear from this early indicator that Gradgrind's philosophy might well have disastrous consequences when chickens come home to roost.
As time passes Sissy Jupe seems to be struggling to benefit from the 'excellent' education on offer at the school and having been brought up in a world of entertainment and the creative arts is perceived to be a potential bad influence on Louisa and young Tom with her imaginative mind and way of thinking. When therefore Gradgrind, in consultation with Bounderby decides that Sissy should leave the school, the pair of conspiritors visit Sleary's Circus to inform the unfortunate parent of their decision, only to find the father has taken flight much to the distress of his offspring. Gradgrind rather uncharacteristically takes pity on Sissy and gives her employment in his own home as domestic help for his wife whilst allowing her to continue learning at the school. Louisa by this time is developing into an accomplished and fine looking young woman, albeit with a few emotional hang-ups, a mutual friendship with Sissy and a misplaced and undeserved love and affection for brother Tom. Tom himself has developed into a capable young man but unsympathetic, devious, selfish and with a penchant for heavy drinking and gambling. Through his family connections he obtains employment at Bounderby's bank, although the reader gets the impression he is not very conscientious or industrious and consequently feels a little insecure. Louisa receives an offer of marriage from Bounderby via her father which she is persuaded to accept when all the practical benefits and facts have been explored, despite the thirty years age difference. The arrangement is also welcomed by Tom, who callously abusing his sister's affection for him to his own advantage, sees the arrangement as beneficial to his continuing job prospects. Alas it's a loveless marriage and bound to end badly, especially since Mrs Sparsit's nose has been put out by her perceived rejection as a suitable spouse.
At this point Thomas Gradgrind has become a member of parliament and has sent his protege James Harthouse, a lazy, privileged chancer, to Coketown to meet and greet the good and the great and learn the political skills necessary, with his eye firmly fixed on a life of Riley in the House of Commons. Louisa performs her marital duties in a capable but cold robotic manner, any love she feels reserved only for her undeserving brother. James Harthouse seeks out the new Mrs Bounderby after befriending brother Tom who shares quite a few of the prospective politicians more unwholesome attributes. Recognising the loveless marriage and unhappiness of Louisa the despicable and devious Harthouse constantly pursues his hapless victim, seductively forcing his attentions on her. Of course Mrs Sparsit doesn't fail to notice the vulnerable wife's gradual progress onto the slippery slope that threatens her marriage and makes careful notes to use to her own advantage at the appropriate time.
The second strand of the story revolves around the romance between Stephen Blackpool and Rachael, work colleagues at Bounderby's Mill. Stephen is in an unhappy marriage with an alcoholic wife who is absent from home most of the time but returns on occasion, compounding his misery and highlighting his dilemma and frustrations. He is desperate to divorce his wife and marry Rachael but the expense and difficulties surrounding such a plan will surely prove an impossible obstacle to negotiate. Rachael was once a friend of Stephens wife and is very sympathetic for her welfare and aids the unfortunate husband when the addict falls sick. Stephen Blackpool's problems are made worse when Slackbridge a militant rabble rouser arrives in town and begins to recruit mill workers into a union to improve their conditions. Blackpool for various reasons finds himself unable to join and is denounced by Slackbridge and sent to Coventry by his fellow workers as a result. Now apparently isolated and friendless, except of course for the fiercely loyal Rachael, Stephen is summoned to an audience with Bounderby to answer some questions about the apparent increasing dissatisfaction amongst the millworkers. The kindly weaver is not forthcoming with any information, or criticism of his colleagues or indeed their employer, much to the annoyance and frustration of Bounderby who, in a fit of rage accuses Blackpool of being a trouble maker and sacks him. Having been present at the fateful interview, Louisa takes pity on the now unemployed millworker and visits him to offer money, which of course he is too proud to accept. Sadly now with a tarnished reputation Stephen's employment prospects locally are seriously affected and he has to leave town, whereabouts unknown except to Rachael with whom he corresponds occasionally.
Louisa's marriage is by this time reaching crisis point as James Harthouse pursues his prey with increasing determination, Mrs Sparsit stumbles on a clandestine meeting between Mrs Bounderby and her erstwhile lover when she becomes privy to what she believes is their planned elopement. Tension mounts as Mrs Sparsit hastens to London, where the mill owner and banker is on a business trip, to impart the news. However her plans go awry when it becomes clear on his return that Louisa has rejected the lover, deserted her husband and gone back to her father. At this point the identity of the mysterious female that often appears in town near the Bounderby premises is revealed as Bounderby's mother, who now exposes the mill owner and banker as woefully dishonest about his heritage, having come from a relatively privileged background rather than the humble beginnings he has always boasted. Mrs Sparsit is subsequently banished from the house and has to find other accommodation with relatives. Stunned by the distress of his daughter and the stressful confrontation with the slighted husband, Gradgrind has a remarkable new epiphany resulting in reconciliation between father and daughter, when he sees the error of his ways and realises the extent of the damage he has done. Sissy is also much moved and angered by her friend's abominable situation and pitiful emotional state and spurred into action, the courageous ex-showgirl sets off in search of James Harthouse, and showing her true mettle delivers the most magnificent and satisfying dressing down ever, reinforced with additional veiled threats; sufficient that, humiliated by this humble but determined adversary, he promptly acts on her advice and removes himself from the town and out of harms way. Over the following few weeks Louisa steadily recovers her composure, nursed back to health by the ever faithful Sissy and younger sister Jane who has now developed into a fine young well adjusted woman, much influenced by the former child of the circus.
Events move rather more quickly from here on in, Tom's behaviour is beginning to become a little strange and when money goes missing from the bank suspicion is falling on the recently departed Stephen Blackpool despite the unlikely circumstances surrounding the theft. Tom is the main accuser pointing the finger at the unhappy millworker, having witnessed him loitering on several occasions outside the bank late at night, failing to mention that this was with his own connivance. Louisa, Sissy and Rachael are convinced of Blackpool's innocence and Rachael is persuaded to write to Stephen urging him to return and prove his innocence. After much delay no reply is received, but with their faith in Blackpool's innocence undiminished, his supporters decide he is being prevented from returning for some reason and set off to find him, re-tracing the most likely route he might have taken out of Coketown. By complete accident they stumble on sounds coming from a disused mine shaft and raise the alarm, gathering local volunteers who rally round with ropes and rescue equipment to recover the injured victim who has fallen into the chasm during the hours of darkness. The severely injured man is rescued from the pit and identified as Stephen but sadly he dies desperately protesting his innocence to his friends and explaining his presence outside the bank on several consecutive nights. Sissy, sensible throughout now puts two and two together and, persuading the rest of the family Tom has some questions to answer, he is confronted with their suspicions and confesses his guilt. Brought down by his gambling debts, the miserable and undeserving Grandgrind is spirited away from the law and the wrath of his employer using the good offices of Sissy and Mr Sleary the kind circus owner, via Liverpool to a new life in the Americas.
Palfreyman, June 2023
Farthingale Publications: ..... Is a hobby web site containing articles of local interest to Lancastrians, some favourite walking and cycling routes, selected words and poetry, and some writings of more general nature as well as the authors own picture gallery. Access is available via the homepage and menu at the head of the page or via one of the direct links below.
Local Interest: Richmond Hill Dairies; Mind Your Language; John Lancaster Wigan MP; Thomas Aspinwall Miners Agent; Thomas Aspinwall Obituary; Upholland Telephone Exchange; Thomas Linacre School Wigan; God's Choir; Scot Lane School Wigan; The Lindsays of Haigh; Dust Upon God’s Fair Earth; The Nurburgring 1960; Wigan Advertisements 1960; Wigan Soldier Missing in Action; It’s a Funny Life; Private Thomas Whitham VC; Isaac Watts 1674 - 1748; Wigan Old Bank 1792; The Brocklebank Line; John Byrom 1692 - 1793; The Holy City Liverpool; Jubilee Park Memorial, Ashton in Makerfield; Little Ships at War 1918; A Cricket Calypso; Not Much of a Warrior; Peveril of the Peak.
Walking & Cycling: Moss Eccles Tarn; Abbey Lakes to Coppull Moor; Chorley Ice Cream Walk; Douglas Valley Dawdle; Three Counties Cycle Ride; Haigh to Borsdane Wood; A Lancshire Linear Walk; Blackrod or Bust; Cycle the Sankey Valley; Cycle the Monsal Trail; Wigan Circular by Bike; Freshfield to Crosby; Irwell Valley Trail (Bury to Rawtenstall); Irwell Valley (Bury to Salford).
Words & Poetry: Only a Cranky Owd Foo'; Martin Chuzzlewit; Dover Harbour; Rogue Herries; The Heart of Midlothian; King Cotton; The Family Man; The Pickwick Papers; The Fair Rosamond; The Fair Rosamond Comic; A Legend of Montrose; When Winds Breathe Soft; The Wreck of the Hesperus; God Bless these Poor Wimmen that's Childer; Dombey and Son; Aw've Turned me bit O' Garden O'er; On Th' Hills; Four Favourite Poems; The Darkling Thrush; The Glory of the Garden; The Rolling English Road; The Antiquary; Hymn Before Action; Dust upon God's Fair Earth; Mind Your Language; Jeff Unsworth’s dialect poetry; Martyrs of the Arena; Th' Coartin' Neet; Boat Song; Toddlin' Whoam; A Lancashire Mon; Calm is the Sea; The Bride of Lammermoor; Redgauntlet; A Tale of Two Cities.
Wallgate Chronicles: Hugo Boss comes to Wigan; In the footsteps of the Manchester Rambler; Fun with Trigonometry; Surprise at the Philharmonic; The Marriage of Figaro; Cat Bells; A Walk in the Hills; Eay Times Uv Changed; Fidelio; The Ravioli Room; Desert Island Discs; Travels in Time 1960; Travels in Time 2010; The Spectroscope; The Bohemian Girl; Bookcase; Barnaby Rudge; Romance on a Budget; The Battle of Solferino; The Getaway Car; The Switchroom Wigan; The Force of Destiny; Adolphe Adam; The Fair Maid of Perth; Ivanhoe; Semele; Lohengrin; The Old Curiosity Shop; Hard Times.
Selected articles from the above listed:
Richmond Hill Dairies - Pemberton - These pages contain some personal memories from my youth and my association with Richmond Hill Dairies, a local business I grew up with and remember with some affection. A well known and important feature of the local community in its day and part of the heritage of Pemberton, this is my attempt to commit some small snapshot of its history to print, I hope these pages paint a worthy picture.
Mind Your Language - A humorous poem by "the bard of Haydock" George Anderton, inspired by memories of a trip to Bad Canstatt, Stuttgart Germany with the Haydock Male Voice Choir in 1975. This publication will bring a smile to the faces of not only those members who were there at the time and know the people involved but the wider population of Haydock as well who speak the language.
Wigan and the American Civil War - Wigan Coal and Iron Company, The Right Honourable John Lancaster MP for Wigan, the Confederate Raider Alabama, USS Kearsarge, Cherbourg and the yacht Deerhound all feature in the last great sea battle of the American Civil War.
Wigan Old Bank 1792 - A tragic boating accident on Windermere and a surprising journey through the social history of Wigan during the reign of Queen Victoria, highlighting the relationships between four families who played an important part in the commercial development of the town.
The Brocklebank LineDaniel Brocklebank (1741-1801), shipbuilder and mariner, a brief biography, and some background detail of his family and the shipping line he founded.
Little Ships at ZeebruggeAn account of a heroic attempt to block the port of Zeebrugge during the first World War, to protect supply routes into the UK by denying enemy submarines based there access to the open sea.
A Cricket Calypso - A short biopic of cricketer Cyril Washbrook and a snapshot of his career including his role in the West Indies tour of 1950 recorded in the lyrics of the Cricket Calypso.
Not Much of a Warrior - Wigan RLFC in the fifties and sixties, through rose coloured glasses. A golden age of legendary players and memorable moments, along with some personal memories.
Lyme Hall, Disley, Cheshire