NOTES ON ISSUE 2: HISTORICAL GLOSSARY
PART 2 OF 4
"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
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
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.