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Charles Dickens In Manchester

Jonathan Schofield explores the novelist’s city connections as the Library Theatre delivers a production of Hard Times

Written by . Published on June 18th 2011.

Charles Dickens In Manchester

CHARLES DICKENS was a frequent Manchester visitor. He knew the city well, as a public speaker, a friend of some of the famous Manchester families and through a sister who lived here. He even came as a tourist during the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition in 1857.

How often have we heard, as an all-convincing argument, that "a little learning is a dangerous thing?" Why, a little hanging was considered a very dangerous thing."

The Library Theatre’s present production of 'Hard Times' in Murray’s Mills is inspired in location. It explores patterns of behaviour which confused Dickens in Manchester and other industrial towns (click here for a review).

This confusion was expressed in the novel through the battle between Fact v Fancy: hard utilitarian truth and the engine of industry versus abstract qualities of sympathy and beauty expressed through education.

Dickens felt that with education every person would have the opportunity to make the most of what life offered, irrespective of the demands of industry. Beauty and its appreciation, for example, was as much a part of our three score years and ten as graft.

In the Athenaeum (now part of Manchester Art Gallery) in 1843 he expressed these thoughts in 2400 words of trademark, crafted, language; a roller-coaster speech of punchy sentences separated by emotional appeals to the audience in the most purple of prose. The Athenaeum promoted study and education for the working classes.

Dickens’ said of the educated working class man: “Though he should find it hard for a season to keep the wolf of hunger from his door, let him but once have chased the dragon of ignorance from his hearth, and self-respect and hope are left him. You could no more deprive him of those sustaining qualities by loss or destruction of his worldly goods, than you could by plucking out his eyes, take from him an internal consciousness of the bright glory of the sun.”

He castigated the wealthy who would deny the poor this opportunity to see past their own lives to the world beyond.

 “How often have we heard from a large class of men wise in their generation, who would really seem to be born and bred for no other purpose than to pass into currency, counterfeit and mischievous scraps of wisdom, as it is the sole pursuit of some other criminals to utter base coin--how often have we heard from them, as an all-convincing argument, that "a little learning is a dangerous thing?"

“Why, a little hanging was considered a very dangerous thing, according to the same authorities, with this difference, that, because a little hanging was dangerous, we had a great deal of it; and, because a little learning was dangerous, we were to have none at all.

“Why, when I hear such cruel absurdities gravely reiterated, I do sometimes begin to doubt whether the parrots of society are not more pernicious to its interests than its birds of prey. I should be glad to hear such people's estimate of the comparative danger of "a little learning" and a vast amount of ignorance; I should be glad to know which they consider the most prolific parent of misery and crime.”

As noted above Manchester raised mixed emotions in Dickens.

It was ‘a great town’ where each person was a ‘bee in this vast hive’. It was ‘a little world of labour’ with ‘numerous and noble public institutions’. But it could also be hideous. ‘It contained several large streets all very like one another, inhabited by people equally like one another…. all went in and out around the same hours, with the same pavement, to do the same work, and to whom every day was the same as yesterday and tomorrow’.

Perhaps it was all too much for even Dickens. 'Hard Times', from which the last quote is taken, was his only novel to look directly into the face of the industrial monster and the society it had created.

Yet despite this horror of the machine, Dickens knew many of the key Mancunian figures of the age and seems to have liked them if never completely understanding what drove them.

The Grant brothers who had factories in Ramsbottom, and were active in Manchester society, became friends. They ended up as characters in his novel ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ as the jovial and attractive characters, the Cheeryble brothers.

He had deeper links with the city too. Dickens’ sister Fanny lived in Ardwick with her husband Henry Burnett, both were musicians and music teachers. During visits in the early 1840s it seems Dickens refined his thoughts for  ‘A Christmas Carol’. His sister Fanny, who he knew as Fan, is the model for Fan in the book and Tiny Tim is based on Fanny’s frail son.

In 1848, his sister died of consumption, her son died a year later. The shock of losing his favourite sister inspired Dickens to write the partly autobiographical novel ‘David Copperfield’. This was his own favourite work.

It’s tempting to think of Dickens walking with his sister in Ardwick, and maybe in the distance, through the forests of chimneys, catching a glimpse of the then well-known Mr Murray’s Mills - presently hosting the Library Theatre’s interpretation of his own words.

There’s some irony in that. Here is the Library Theatre commandeering one of the old mills, to put on a play - a piece of Fancy. Industry has gone, and art has stormed its walls.

You can follow Jonathan Schofield on Twitter here @JonathSchofield

Thanks to Budby on Flickr for the splendid Murray’s Mill image. Click here for more of the man’s excellent work.

Hard Times is produced by The Library Theatre. The production is sold out but there are a few tickets reserved for sale on the day at a Midland Hotel Box Office between 5.30 and 6.30pm. Venue: Murrays’ Mills, Murray Street, Ancoats, Manchester M4 6JA. Performances until Saturday 2 July 2011. Monday-Saturday 7.30pm (admission times 7pm, 7.05pm, 7.15pm). Tickets Mon-Thu £20 (concs £15), Fri/Sat £22.

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