Discovering Dickens - A Community Reading Project

 Discovering Dickens

 Hard Times



 Historical Glossary


 Household Words


 Biographical Context


 Historical Context

 Archived Novels







"Poor Sissy! He had better have apprenticed her!…Now he leaves her without anything to take to!"

Childers here is suggesting that Sissy should have been apprenticed to another circus performer, to learn the tricks of the trade. Gradgrind, however, misunderstands him and seems to think he is suggesting that Sissy should have been apprenticed in a more traditional and settled trade. Childers's retort that he was apprenticed at the age of seven reveals the misunderstanding. Gradgrind—believing that the circus is not work but "idleness" (as Bounderby expresses it)—can scarcely believe that it encompasses the usual customs of Victorian working-class life, such as the custom of apprenticing children when young to learn a trade.

The father of one of the families was in the habit of balancing the father of another of the families on the top of a great pole; the father of a third family often made a pyramid of both those fathers, with Master Kidderminster for the apex, and himself for the base; all the fathers could dance upon rolling casks, stand upon bottles, catch knives and balls, twirl hand-basins, ride upon anything, jump over everything, and stick at nothing.

All of the circus acts described here were popular at the time; the "perch act" (in which one performer was balanced "on the top of a great pole") was performed at Astley's Royal Amphitheatre in the early 1850s. The mention of standing on bottles may have been inspired by one act of the well-known French clown Jean-Baptiste Auriol, who performed shooting tricks while balancing on bottles. This illustration of Auriol is taken from the June 9, 1849, issue of the Illustrated London News:

All the mothers could—and did—dance upon the slack-wire and the tight-rope, and perform rapid acts on bare-backed steeds; none of them were at all particular in respect of showing their legs

The implication that the women of the circus were immodest would have been a common assumption at the time, as female performers of all sorts were often considered less than respectable. An article called "Legs"—which, like this number of Hard Times, appeared in the April 15, 1854, issue of Household Words—underscores the connection between those who show their legs and questionable respectability:

Legs have fallen to the province of mountebanks, tight-rope dancers, acrobats, and ballet girls. From neglect they have even fallen into opprobrium; and we cannot find a baser term for a swindling gambler than to call him a "Leg."

People mutht be amuthed, Thquire, thomehow…they can't be alwayth a-working, nor yet they can't be alwayth a-learning. Make the betht of uth, not the wurtht. I've got my living out of the horthe-riding all my life, I know; but I conthider that I lay down the philothophy of the thubject when I thay to you, Thquire, make the betht of uth, not the wortht!

Sleary's speech here is one of the best-known passages in the book, and is a key to Dickens's argument in Hard Times. Sleary's notions—and indeed the entire chapter, depicting the unfamiliar and intriguing world of circus performers—are an important corrective to the Gradgrindian worlds of education and work that we have seen in the first two weekly parts.

Sleary's speech also underscores a more subtle point: "amusements" for some people mean employment for others—even if Gradgrind might not acknowledge it (as we have seen in his confusion over the question of apprenticeship in the circus). Indeed, Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, the great compendium of Victorian work of all sorts, includes performers and circus workers. Mayhew includes an illustration of a clown at a fair:

it was not surprising if they sometimes lost themselves—which they had rather frequently done, as respected horse-flesh, blind-hookey, Hebrew monetary transactions, and the Insolvent Debtor's Court

In other words, the Powlers have spent too much on horses and gambling. The mention of "Hebrew monetary transactions" means that they have borrowed from Jewish money-lenders, generally at high interest rates. The stereotype of avaricious Jewish money-lenders persisted into the nineteenth century, and was frequently to be found in Victorian fiction. The reference to the Insolvent Debtors Court implies that family members were deep enough in debt to be imprisoned for it. At the time, bankruptcy protection was not available to private debtors. (Tradesmen, however, could become bankrupt.) Debtors could be imprisoned at the behest of any creditor and kept imprisoned until the debt was paid. Dickens's own father was imprisoned for debt in 1824 and remained in the Marshalsea Prison for three months; Dickens was to deal at length with the Marshalsea and imprisonment for debt in his next novel, Little Dorrit.



Copyright © 2005 Stanford University. All rights reserved. Stanford, CA 94305, (650)723-2300. Terms of Use