Dickens the Showrunner: A Cold Open for Hard Times

As a historian who frequently teaches works of literature, I am particularly attentive to historical context. I am also known for my emphasis on genre—one of my favorite sayings is “not every book is a novel.” At the same time, I am occasionally struck by literary techniques that might seem both anachronistic and a-generic. Some authors seem to have been born in the wrong century and to have worked in the wrong genre. Vergil, for example, should have been a screenwriter, as the Aeneid displays a cinematic imagination (a subject for another blog entry). Whereas Charles Dickens, if he were alive today, might be a showrunner, working in television.

Photograph of Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens in 1858

Of course, many of Dickens’ works have already been adapted for TV, especially his biggest hits like David Copperfield and Oliver Twist (not to mention adaptations for stage and screen). But I’ve noticed that one of his lesser-known novels, one that has had very few adaptations, uses a technique that is common in television writing. I’m talking about his 1854 industrial novel Hard Times.

Hard Times famously begins with a schoolroom scene in which Mr. Gradgrind, the owner of the school; Mr. M’Choakumchild, the teacher; and an unnamed government inspector berate the hapless student Sissy Jupe, daughter of a circus clown, for being unable to define “horse” and for expressing a preference for wallpaper with pictures of horses and for flowered carpets. I have previously written about this scene and its connection to the ideas of Henry Cole, one of the designers of the 1851 Great Exhibition and first director of what would become the Victoria and Albert Museum. But today I want to discuss how in this scene Dickens is using a technique more commonly associated with TV: the cold open.

The term “cold open” refers to a TV show jumping right into the action, instead of beginning with the opening titles and theme music (which are delayed until later), in hopes of grabbing the audience’s attention before the first commercial break. Some shows that use the cold open include The Office, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Saturday Night Live.

Like most Dickens novels, Hard Times was originally published serially, a few chapters at a time, in a magazine called Household Words. Dickens therefore shared with TV writers the need to capture his readers’ attention so they would come back for the next instalment. Chapters 1-3 of Hard Times were published together, followed the next week by chapters 4 and 5.

Opening of Hard Times from Household Words
The opening of Hard Times as it appeared in Household Words, 1854

So what makes the beginning of Hard Times a cold open? The very first words of the novel are spoken by an unnamed character, with no introduction:

“‘Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts.  Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, Sir!'”

This utterance simply ends, with not even a “he said.” The next paragraph reads like stage directions:

“The scene a plain, bare, monotonous vault of a schoolroom, and the speaker’s square forefinger emphasized his observations by underscoring every sentence with a line on the schoolmaster’s sleeve.”

The paragraph continues with a physical description of the speaker, who is still unnamed:

“The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s square wall of a forehead, which had his eyebrows for its base, while his eyes found commodious cellerage in two dark caves, overshadowed by the wall. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s mouth, which was wide, thin, and hard set. . . . The speaker’s obstinate carriage, square coat, square legs, square shoulders—nay, his very neckcloth, trained to take him by the throat with an unaccommodating grasp, like a stubborn fact, as it was—all helped the emphasis.”

Only when we turn the page to chapter 2 do we discover that this square lover of facts is named Thomas Gradgrind, as the narrative continues with the interrogation of Sissy Jupe.

The setting for the opening events is finally identified in chapter 5 as Coketown. Dickens introduces Coketown with a musical metaphor:

“Let us strike the key-note, Coketown, before pursuing our tune.”

There follows a lengthy description of Coketown.

“It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes allowed it; but as matters stood it was a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage. It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, and vast piles of building full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness. It contained several large streets all very like one another, and many small streets still more like one another, inhabited by people equally like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours, with the same sound upon the same pavements, to do the same work, and to whom every day was the same as yesterday and to-morrow, and every year the counterpart of the last and the next.”

What does this make chapter 5? It makes it the title sequence, complete with its theme music. Can’t you imagine the camera panning over whatever British industrial city is chosen to play the part of Coketown as the theme music plays?

Perhaps we should expand the adjective “Dickensian” to refer to this narrative technique. Then TV critics could write sentences like this:

In its deft use of the cold open, The Office is a Dickensian look at the early twenty-first century workplace.

Horses on the Wall? A Delightful Dickensian Discovery at the V & A

Last summer my husband and I traveled to the UK for a family wedding and combined it with a brief vacation. Having just binge-watched the mini-series Victoria before we left, the Victoria and Albert Museum (the V & A) was a must-see.

Mosaic on the facade of one of the buildings of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The silhouette behind the figures is the profile of the Crystal Palace. Photo by Teresa Rupp.

We were thrilled to discover a small special exhibit in celebration of the bicentennial of both Victoria’s and Albert’s 1819 births entitled “Building the Museum.”1 The exhibit chronicled the role of the Queen and the Prince Consort in the planning of the Great Exhibition of 1851 (also known as the Crystal Palace) and how the V & A grew out of it. We’d just seen the Victoria episode on the Exhibition, so this was perfect. We must have looked interested, because a docent stationed in the gallery came over to us and gave us an impromptu tour.

One of the things we learned was that Henry Cole, who organized the Great Exhibition, was also the first director of what became the V & A. Cole saw the mission of the new museum as educational, and part of that mission was to elevate the taste of the public. To that end, he put on an exhibit in 1852 called the “Gallery of False Principles” that provided both good and bad examples of design (the press referred to it as the “Chamber of Horrors”). The “False Principles” included decorating a home with representations of objects rather than the objects themselves. For example, one of the items in Cole’s original exhibit also included in the”Building the Museum” exhibit was a sample of wallpaper printed with a pattern of Gothic architectural ornamentation. This is a “false principle” because the papered wall doesn’t really have Gothic ornamentation on it but only a printed representation of it.

”False Principle #31: Imitation of Architecture.” Wallpaper sample exhibited in Henry Cole’s 1852 exhibit, ”Gallery of False Principles.” Photo by Teresa Rupp.

Another example, our docent explained, would be a flowered carpet. At that point I interrupted her, saying, “It’s just like that scene in Dickens’ Hard Times where the government official tells the students that they shouldn’t have flowered carpets or wallpaper with horses on it!” The docent responded excitedly, “Wallpaper with horses was one of the examples!”

I teach Hard Times every fall in my modern European history class. The novel, first published in 1854, is set in Coketown, a fictional northern English industrial city. Hard Times opens with a scene in a school founded by Mr Thomas Gradgrind, a wealthy industrialist who believes in teaching only Facts.2 Gradgrind, along with an unnamed visiting government official (referred to only as “the gentleman”), is visiting a class taught by Mr M’Choakumchild.3 The gentleman asks the students,

“Would you paper a room with representations of horses?”

Some say yes, some no, whereupon the gentleman explains,

“Do you ever see horses walking up and down the sides of rooms in reality—in fact? Do you? . . . Why then, you are not to see anywhere, what you don’t see in fact; you are not to have anywhere, what you don’t have in fact. What is called Taste, is only another name for Fact.”

In case the children didn’t get the point, he poses another question:

“Would you use a carpet having a representation of flowers upon it?”

One of the students, Sissy Jupe, daughter of a circus clown, says she would. When the gentleman asks her why, she says,

“If you please, Sir, I am very fond of flowers.”

“And that is why you would put tables and chairs upon them, and have people walking over them with heavy boots?”

“It wouldn’t hurt them, Sir. They wouldn’t crush and wither, if you please, Sir. They would be the pictures of what was very pretty and pleasant, and I would fancy—”

“Ay, ay, ay! But you mustn’t fancy,” cried the gentleman, quite elated by coming so happily to his point. “That’s it! You are never to fancy.”

This opening scene sets up the conflict between Fact (represented by Gradgrind and his school) and Fancy (represented by Sissy and the circus) that drives the rest of the novel. (Spoiler alert: Fancy wins.)

I was very pleased to be able to show my students this fall the photo I took of the objectionable Gothic wallpaper. I couldn’t take a photo of the equestrian wallpaper, as it wasn’t included in the “Building the Museum” exhibit, but I have since found it in their collection.

”False Principles 35.” Wallpaper sample exhibited as part of Henry Cole’s ”Gallery of False Principles” and satirized by Charles Dickens in Hard Times. Photograph © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

I had always assumed that the nameless government inspector who intimidates poor Sissy Jupe was exaggerated to the point of absurdity in order for Dickens to make his point about the weaknesses of an education based solely on Fact. I was stunned, but delighted, to learn that the character was not an exaggeration but was, if you’ll pardon the expression, based on fact—a thinly disguised version of Henry Cole. The inspector’s closing remarks could easily have been spoken by Cole:

“You are not to have, in any object of use or ornament, what would be a contradiction in fact. You don’t walk upon flowers in fact; you cannot be allowed to walk upon flowers in carpets. You don’t find that foreign birds and butterflies come and perch upon your crockery; you cannot be permitted to paint foreign birds and butterflies upon your crockery. You never meet with quadrupeds going up and down walls; you must not have quadrupeds represented upon walls. You must use,” said the gentleman, “for all these purposes, combinations and modifications (in primary colors) of mathematical figures which are susceptible of proof and demonstration. This is the new discovery. This is fact. This is taste.”

Having served his philosophical and narrative purpose, the gentleman from the government with the limited taste in wallpaper does not appear again in the novel. Maybe Dickens didn’t give a name to the character because he knew that 1850s readers would recognize him as Henry Cole–and now you can, too.