Judith Herrin, ‘Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire’


There’s a great anecdote at the start of Byzantium. The author – a Professor of Byzantine History at King’s College London – is approached by two builders and asked, “What is Byzantine History?” This book is her response to the question posed by the workmen: an attempt to illuminate the world of Byzantium for ‘non-specialists’.

Has Judith Herrin succeeded? I think that’s up for debate. The book certainly borders on the edge of popular history. Accessibility is compromised by the complex language and a seemingly endless cast of historical figures. The latter point can be excused, however, when you consider that 1100 years of history have been tightly-packed into just over 330-pages (Penguin edition).

In favouring a thematic approach, Herrin eschews the cause-effect model that makes chronological accounts – arguably – easier to digest. The result is a fair amount of overlap between chapters, which forces the reader to re-engage with figures, often emperors, at different points in the text. Despite the above criticism, I think Herrin’s thematic focus also has its benefits; the reader is given a holistic overview of Byzantium, with short chapters on anything from Greek Orthodoxy and eunuchs, to The Crusades and the Imperial Court. As a relative newcomer to Byzantium, I learned ‘a little about a lot’, which is essentially what I was after.

The Byzantinism Stereotype

Where the book is undeniably successful is in challenging a near millennia-old prejudice against Byzantium. In contemporary Britain, ‘Byzantine’ is an adjective associated with excessive bureaucracy and backstabbing behaviour.

Herrin picks out the sacking of Constantinople (1204), during the Fourth Crusade, as a pivotal moment in the development of Western anti-Byzantine sentiment. An attitude that was entrenched by French Enlightenment philosophers:

“Yet the modern stereotype of Byzantium is tyrannical government by effeminate, cowardly men and corrupt eunuchs, obsessed with hollow rituals and endless, complex and incomprehensible bureaucracy. Montesquieu developed these caricatures during the seventeenth century as he tried to explain the reasons for the decline of the Roman Empire, and Voltaire gave them greater prominence, adding his own passionate elevation of reason above religion. While the former dismissed ‘the Greek Empire’, as he called it, because of the excessive power of monks, attention to theological dispute and an absence of the recommended separation of ecclesiastical from secular matters, the latter could condemn it utterly as ‘a disgrace for the human mind”. 

In contrast to these views, Herrin shows Byzantium to be a well-oiled and efficient empire, with a centralised system of imperial government in Constantinople. And although high-ranking bishops held political sway and Greek Orthodoxy was ingrained into everyday life, pagan institutions and beliefs also shaped Byzantine identity; the Byzantines saw themselves as Roman, with Constantinople thought of as ‘New Rome’. Byzantine legislation was effectively a continuation of the Roman legal code. And the education system was structured around studying Ancient Greek authors like Plato, Aristotle and Homer.

Europe’s Bulwark

Although the size of the empire shifted over time, enemy forces were a near-constant threat, particularly in Eastern Europe and further West, on the outskirts of Asia Minor. Yet, time-and-time again Byzantium managed to survive incursions and refortify frontiers. Far from ‘cowardly’ or ‘effeminate’, the Byzantines were an effective military force, inheriting their prowess from the Roman army. Mercenaries from across Eurasia – including Vikings and Frankish warriors – strengthened their cause. 

Byzantium’s most telling military contribution was in shielding Western Europe from the expanding Caliphate in the 7thand 8thcenturies. Following Muhammad’s death in 632, the unified tribes of Arabia set about claiming new lands in the name of jihad. They conquered a staggering amount of land, superseding the Sassanid Empire, and taking much of Northern Africa and Spain. 

Yet Byzantium stood firm, checking the marauder’s advance in Asia Minor. Constantinople, with its long and impregnable defensive fortifications, survived two extended sieges (674-8 and 717-18) by the Arabs. Had the gate-keeper of the Dardanelles been breached, the Balkans would quickly have come under Islamic control. 

“By preventing this potential conquest, Byzantium made Europe possible. It allowed western Christian forces, which were divided into smaller units, time to develop their own strengths. One hundred years after the death of prophet Muhammad in 632, Charles Martel defeated Muslim invaders from Spain in central France near Poitiers and forced them back over the Pyrenees. The nascent idea of Europe gradually took on a particular form under Charles’ grandson…Charlemagne”. 


I’ve barely touched on it in this post, but theology and theological debate also defined Byzantium over the course of its history. From the Iconoclast Controversies of the 8th and 9th centuries to the eventual Triumph of Orthodoxy and the East-West Schism of 1054. I found Herrin’s commentary on the early development of Eastern Christianity particularly interesting.

To summarise, Byzantium is an impassioned and subjective defence of the once-great empire. Light on narrative, it tackles overarching themes – religion, governance, war – and dispels a host of historical misconceptions.


Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Tom Holland, ‘Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom’ Review



Millennium is Tom Holland’s panoramic journey through the two centuries either side of the year 1000. It is, in many ways, a rebuke to the stigma surrounding the Dark Ages in popular and academic circles. Rather than regurgitate the accepted narrative of cultural decline commonly attributed to the period, Holland argues that it was, at this crucial juncture in history, that the foundations of the modern West were slid agonisingly into place. 

On a brief side note, if you are more interested in Tom Holland’s study of Late Antiquity, In the Shadow of the Sword, please click this link to be re-directed to my review. 

The Antichrist and The Second Coming

Central to the narrative in Millennium is the notion – located in the apostle John’s writings in the New Testament – of the Antichrist springing up on Earth and ushering in the Second Coming. Christians held that the Antichrist would emerge on the anniversary of Christ’s birth, so the years predating the millennium were fraught with anxiety across Christendom. That the latter half of the 10th century was particularly destabilising, only served to re-enforce the belief that Christ’s adversary could rise up and instigate a wave of destruction at any moment

But the year passed and Antichrist did not appear. Attention now turned to the year 1033, a thousand years on from the crucifixion of Christ, as a likely date for impending Armageddon. Jerusalem had long been fabled as the site of the final showdown between good and evil: after the Fatimid caliph, Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, ordered the sacking of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1009, this reality appeared closer than ever. Pilgrims across the West flocked to the Holy City in the ensuing decades, eager to catch the exact moment that Christ would rise from the dead. 

But the year passed and Antichrist did not appear. Attention now turned to the year 1033, a thousand years on from the crucifixion of Christ, as a likely date for impending Armageddon. Jerusalem had long been fabled as the site of the final showdown between good and evil: after the Fatimid caliph, Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, ordered the sacking of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1009, this reality appeared closer than ever. Pilgrims across the West flocked to the Holy City in the ensuing decades, eager to catch the exact moment that Christ would rise from the dead.

Tom Holland, ‘Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom’

But once again, the year 1033 passed inconspicuously by and nothing out of the ordinary came to pass. Christendom took this as evidence that the end was not nigh; imbued with a newfound optimism, popes, monks and bishops set about creating a new religious order, while kings and princes started to stitch together new empires.

The Twin Pillars of Christendom: Church and State

The uneasy relationship between Church and State is a recurring theme in Holland’s account of the years 900 – 1100. On Christmas day 800, Pope Leo III had crowned Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor of the West, a high point in relations between the two parties. A devout Catholic, the focal-point of the Carolingian Empire set about consolidating Christianity’s presence in his domain. However, in the following centuries, politics and religion would increasingly clash in the West. 

The decline of the western half of the former Carolingian Empire (West Francia) had led to a power vacuum. Dukes, counts and castellans fought to retain, and expand, their regional power bases. Peasants were helpless in the face of armoured men on horses – knights – and even the clergy suffered, especially from land loss. Bishops in Southern France ushered in the Peace of God in 989 at the Council of Charoux, a mass peace movement that threatened feuding nobles with religious sanctions. Ecclesiastical legislation sought to regulate warfare and protect the vulnerable, and was supported by vast crowds in open-space councils. 

In the latter 10thcentury, Holland explains, there emerged a succession of ‘Reforming Popes’ bent on increasing papal authority and stamping out impious behaviour within the Catholic Church, particularly simony and priestly marriage. Gregory VII, formerly Hildebrand, and Urban II, otherwise known as Odo of Châtillon, were two key figures. 

Gregory VII was hellbent in his conviction that he was God’s vice-regent on Earth, and that the central role of the Catholic Church was to unify the entire world into a single, Christian society. He clashed increasingly with Henry IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, over the appointment of bishops in a stand-off that became known as the investiture controversy. Although lay powers had traditionally invested bishops with their power, Gregory VII believed in papal supremacy over secular might. 

Over the course of his papacy, Gregory VII excommunicated Henry IV three times for disobeying him, the king famously walking over the Alps to Canossa in an attempt to secure the Bishop of Rome’s forgiveness. Henry IV even appointed an Antipope, Clement III, to try and wrestle away power from the incumbent pope. The events lead to a growing tension between the Church and State, which was only partially resolved in 1095, when Urban II called for the nobility to wrestle back authority over the Holy Land from Muslim infidels. The call was answered, and Jerusalem finally fell to the Crusaders in 1099.  

The Edge of Christendom 

Millennium adopts a notably Christian-centric perspective of the High Middle Ages; the spread of Christian doctrine across Europe is viewed as fundamentally beneficial – a process that served to prop-up, and enlarge, kingdoms and empires. 

Considerable attention is afforded to the periphery of Christendom in the first half of the book, particularly the pagan forces dwelling to the north and east of Europe. Holland offers detailed accounts of how the Kings of East Francia brought the Wends and Hungarians to submission, the baptism of the Duke of Poland (966), Rollo and Alexander of Kiev’s respective conversions to Christianity (911 & 988), the desolation of the Umayyad caliphate in Spain and the spread of Christian belief in Scandinavia. 

Over the roughly 200 years that Millenniumcovers, Christendom succeeded in not only shoring up its outposts, but expanding across vast swathes of land formerly inhabited by non-believers. 

Feudal Order

Narrative history is, by nature, less focused on why things happen, and more concerned with capturing historical events in an enticing and exciting manner. Invariably, Millennium suffers from the same fate. However, a chapter in the middle of the book, ‘Yielding Place to New’ is Holland at his analytical-best. 

The chapter zones in on the emergence of a new social order in the late 10thcentury, one that empowered local powers and detrimentally affected the multitude: the peasantry. Holland finds the first roots of what would become feudalism in France. He argues that the fashion for building castles – which, had initially flourished in Italy – made it easier for dukes and princes to harass rural dwellers. 

Indeed, the castle, in Holland’s eyes, was an almost mythological-like structure that began to dominate the French countryside in the Dark Ages: a power symbol that instilled fear into the hitherto free lower classes. As warring lords began to assume control over dotting farmers, the faintest signs of feudalism started to appear. 

Conclusion

Holland’s narrative-driven, ambitious and colourful take on narrative history offers a lot for readers. I learned a considerable amount about Norman efforts in Southern Italy, the formation of East and West Francia and popular religious prophecies in the period. 

Don’t expect 400 pages of systematic analysis and insight, but do expect a sound overview of developments in Europe across the High Middle Ages. 

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Eugene Rogan, ‘The Arabs: A History’


A combination of job searching during a pandemic and the lengthy nature of Eugene Rogan’s The Arabs: A History has meant that I haven’t posted in over a month. But I’ve got a few hours free on a Tuesday morning and I thought I would write some words on Rogan’s study of the Arab World given how much I enjoyed it. The Middle East, North Africa and the Arab states have always fascinated me, but my knowledge of each has generally been limited to isolated articles found on BBC News or in The Economist. To really grasp the geopolitical complexities and understand how the modern Middle East came to pass, I wanted to read a comprehensive investigation, one spanning multiple centuries, empires and states: this is how I stumbled across The Arabs: A History

One thing that immediately stands out upon reading the text is its scope. It begins in the outskirts of Aleppo in 1516 with the Mamluk sultan, al-Ashraf Qansuh al-Ghawri, preparing to fight (and be defeated by) the rising star of the region, the Ottoman Empire, and culminates with the popular uprisings associated with the Arab Spring. Although Rogan’s history is predominantly a modern one – the 16th– 18thcenturies are treated quite briskly – his narratives moves swiftly across different decades, events and regions in a manner that is coherent and nods towards a ‘bigger picture’. Certain nations take centre stage – Egypt, Syria, Israel – but this is because they represent the major diplomatic and military players across the study. 

While Rogan occasionally digresses to celebrate Arab culture and achievement, his story of the Arab world is ultimately marked by unfulfilled dreams and struggle. The Israel-Palestine conflict is afforded the most attention in the book. It develops into a multi-faceted symbol that represents the failure of the Arab states to work together in order to stifle the influence of foreign powers. Other key themes include: sectarian conflict; pan-Arabism; the failings of secular nationalist governments; and the legacy of colonialism. Overall, then, it is a tale of determined rebellion and desire for self-rule, Arab unity but also disparity. 

“The Arab people are haunted by a sense of powerlessness . . . powerlessness to suppress the feeling that you are no more than a lowly pawn on the global chessboard even as the game is being played in your backyard. Unable to achieve their aims in the modern world, the Arabs see themselves as pawns in the game of nations, forced to play by other peoples’ rules”.

Light is shed not only central political figures – the likes of Yasser Arafat of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and General Nasser of Egypt – but everyday people inhabiting the towns and cities that constitute the Arab world. So, we hear of Ahmad al-Bayari ‘al-Hallaq (the Barber of Damascus) and study his diary, gaining his perspective on public morality and the strength of the Ottoman Empire in the mid 18thcentury. And we listen to the voices of women who risked their lives to shelter PLO members, and academics prompted to flee their homes for fear of retribution after criticising domestic regimes. 

The Arabs: A History is written in an accessible style that wouldn’t deter even the most inexperienced student of the Arab World. It is also a sympathetic and fair account of happenings in the region, with great impartiality shown towards the Palestine-Israeli conflict, and rightful criticism directed towards global superpowers like the US, Britain, France and Russia for their (often) miscalculated dealings in the Middle East. 


Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Competition and Co-operation in Charles Dickens’ ‘Hard Times’

Today I stumbled across a few of my old essays from university and thought I’d share one. The essay in question felt pertinent in the current climate given its focus on competition and co-operation. It explores the contrasting value systems in Charles Dickens’ great satirical novel, Hard Times

Discuss Competition and Co-operation in Hard Times

Much of the narrative tension in Hard Times revolves around the ‘opposition of two value systems’. The circus, espousing co-operation and empathy, is a site where counter-cultural ideas are expressed and practiced. In contrast, the prevailing ideology is one that permits conflict, promoting self-interest at the expense of others. Mr Bounderby and Bitzer come to embody this hegemonic world-view, and Sissy Jupe the former. Competition is ubiquitous throughout Coketown, and is embedded into institutions like the school; it is the circus-folk’s marginalised existence that shields them from this destructive force. Dickens mistrusted the ‘reductive but compelling account of laissez-faire capitalism’ offered by political economy. His depiction of a hyper-competitive environment, where social relations are warped and ethical development is shackled, speculates on the potential damage to a society built on the mantra of self-interest.

Centred around the fundamental value of Fancy, the circus purports an ethical code in opposition to the prevailing ideology of the novel. Analysing the meaning of Fancy in Hard Times, Sonstroem concludes that one aspect relates to ‘fellow feeling: compassion, sentiment’. The human ‘pyramid’ that the circus men enact highlights these ideals in practice; based on mutual experience and interdependence, the pyramid requires each man to respect and trust his fellow showman. The circus folk’s commitment to forming co-operative relations is apparent throughout, particularly in their treatment of Sissy Jupe following her father’s disappearance. Indeed, Sleary proposes the formation of a surrogate family, promising the girl that ‘Emma Gordon… would be a mother to you, and Joth’phine would be a thither’ (p. 41). In attempting to alleviate the burden on Sissy and replace the familial ties she has lost, Sleary demonstrates an instinctive desire to provide for the girl, altruistic behaviour that is commonplace in the troupe. Further, the narrator implies that it is Mr Childers’ manners and craft that prompt Gradgrind’s compassionate proposal: ‘he had sought to conciliate that gentleman, for the sake of the deserted girl’ (p. 37). Childers, in part, secures Sissy the right to an education, allowing her the opportunity to fulfil her father’s will. 

If the circus is the main site of co-operation in the novel, then Sissy is its agent. Her presence ensures that the doctrine of compassion reverberates around the narrative despite Dickens’ limited engagement with the circus. In the wake of Louisa’s emotional breakdown, Sissy offers her companionship: ‘‘‘I would be something to you, if I might”’ (p. 209). Laid bare is Sissy’s genuine desire to form intimate relations. Although shunned by Louisa following Bounderby’s proposal, she retains no ill-feeling, and her honesty and warmth suffuse through Stone Lodge. Jane’s ‘beaming face’ (p. 204) is attributed to the humanising influence of her adopted sister, and contrasts with the ‘doubtful flashes’ (p. 17) evident in a young Louisa, schooled instead in Gradgrind’s repressive theories on human nature. The major triumph of Sissy – and indeed the values she symbolises – is her confrontation with the James Harthouse, who antithetically epitomises rugged individualism. Spurred by the ‘commission of.. [her].. love’ (p. 215), Sissy pressures Harthouse into leaving Coketown, temporarily renouncing his self-interest in a complete subversion of character. The use of the noun ‘commission’ implies that she cannot but submit to a deep-rooted impulse to protect those around her. Harthouse’s departure is, then, a victory for solicitousness over egocentrism. 

Antithetical to the circus is the school, a space in which co-operation is limited. The Coketown school is under the influence of the caricatured utilitarian dogmatist, Mr Gradgrind, and his Philosophy of Fact. Singled out in front of the class, Sissy is noted to have ‘blushed’ (p. 8, 10, 11) multiple times in the chapter ‘Murdering the Innocents’, a telling indicator of her shame. As the chapter title suggests, the school is a hostile environment in which relations are governed by fear and students are ridiculed into conformity. If, as Humphrey contends, the novel bemoans the lack of  ‘moral virtues.. in personal relations but also the work-place and government’, it looks towards educational institutions also. As later in Hard Times, Sissy represents an incongruous force; quizzed on the basic tenet of political economy, she replies to Mr M’Choakumchild ‘To do unto others as I would that they should do unto me’ (p. 57). Paraphrasing Matthew’s ‘Golden Rule’, Sissy’s answer reads as a satirical riposte to the cold-hearted self-interest at the basis of Gradgrind’s philosophy. Her misplaced allusion to Christian ethics is Dickens’ affirmation of a world-view that promotes mutual respect and and affection. 

Stephen Blackpool’s rescue in ‘The Starlight’ is one example of co-operation that is not spearheaded by Sleary or his company. Inter-class synergy is vital to the effort, as representative members of the middle-class like the ‘surgeon’ (p. 248) unite forces with working-class men counting a ‘pitman’ (p. 250), to achieve a shared goal. There is an organic quality to Dickens’ description of the community: ‘Every one waited with his grasp set, … ready to reverse and wind in’. (p. 250). Uniformity of action turns the individual members of the rescue party into a collective force for good. When Stephen is raised from the Old Hell Shaft ‘A low murmur of pity went round the throng, and the women wept aloud’ (p. 251). The capacity for empathy amongst the community is highlighted, closely mimicking the allusions to crying noted earlier in the novel when Stephen is ostracised for refusing to join the Union. In the absence of Slackbridge’s divisive discourse, the people rally together, a nod to the potential inherent in society for co-operation.

Returning again to Sleary’s troupe, the ending demonstrates their ability to co-operate with wider society – namely the Gradgrinds – despite apparent ideological differences. Their willingness to help those outside of their peripheral existence is not reflected by Coketown’s inhabitants, who largely perceive the circus-folk as ‘useless vagabonds at best, and at worst as evil seducers of the ignorant and unwary’. The narrow-minded, prejudicial attitude is epitomised by Gradgrind, who initially comes to tell Sissy that ‘her connexions made her not an object for the school’ (38). Bigotry is thus an integral part of the hegemonic culture. Sleary, however, challenges this notion by preventing Bitzer from incarcerating Tom and risking Bounderby’s wrath. He tells Sissy ‘The Thquire stood by you, Thethilia, and I’ll thtand by the Thquire’ (266), invoking the spirit of solidarity synonymous with the circus. In allying with Gradgrind, Sleary looks beyond their philosophical differences and rewards empathy with empathy. The closing scene functions as a reverse of the second chapter, with Gradgrind becoming student, not teacher. Here a new philosophy is preached, built around ‘a love in the world, not all Thelf-intheretht after all’ (p. 269); it is a message of inclusivity and acceptance that serves to complete Gradgrind’s metamorphosis. 

Having analysed ‘co-operation’ in some detail, the remainder of this essay considers ‘competition’ in Hard Times. As Hilary Schor asserts, Dickens sought to ‘represent the systems of thought that both produced and sustain[ed]’ the miseries of industrialism. The ideology of laissez-faire capitalism, one such thought, is epitomised by Mr Bounderby, the self-centred and cold-hearted industrialist. Recalling those who exploited him in his mythologized childhood, Bounderby claims ‘‘They were right; they had no business to do anything else’ (p. 21). Exposed is a world-view that naturalises competition and equates ruthless individualism with what is morally sound. Bounderby’s belief that struggle is a fundamental part of society distorts his perception of industrial relations. He identifies a chasm between man and master, policing his workers, whose sole aim is ‘to be fed on turtle-soup and venison, with a gold spoon’ (p. 120). This anxiety centres around a fantasy that Coketown’s employees are seeking to profit at his expense. The implication that the workers are somehow work-shy and hedonistic is grossly misinformed, but the discourse of antagonism at the core of Bounderby’s attitude skewers his view of reality. He is, on a symbolic level, the product of a socio-economic system that validates conflict in the name of individual gain. 

It is also Bounderby who Dickens employs to critique the organic vision of society at the heart of political economy. Hard Times is particularly conscious that ‘industrialising, commercial society featured economic losers as well as winners, have-nots as well as haves’. This reality is apparent in the Stephen-Bounderby dynamic. For, it is Bounderby’s fear of insubordination amongst his workers (‘chaps who have always got a grievance’ (p. 143)) that prompts him to cruelly dismiss Stephen Blackpool, whose subsequent fall into an old mining shaft completes a metaphorical descent into hell. The presence of ‘economic losers’ like Stephen and fundamental power imbalances in the novel problematises the view that free competition might create ‘a rational, mutually beneficial and dynamic way of connecting people’. More broadly, the hardship of the workers is a reminder that in such a system for one to prosper many must suffer. The Hands live in a ‘labyrinth of narrow courts upon courts’ (p. 64) where the macabre motif of the ‘black-ladder’ (p. 67) is a stark reminder that death looms ever present. This claustrophobic, hellish evocation of Coketown contrasts patently with Bounderby’s arcadian country grounds: ‘a rustic landscape, golden with heath’ (p. 157). 

The fractious nature of Coketown is further attributed to a flawed educational system. Bitzer, the austere bourgeois aspirant, is shown to be a product of his schooling. Likened to a vampire, Bitzer’s ‘cold eyes’ and skin ‘so unwholesomely deficient in… natural tinge’ (p. 9) hint at both his future parasitic behaviour, and also his emotional detachment: common traits within an ideological apparatus that ‘consciously institutes division’. During the scene in the school Gradgrind sets up a paradigm of competition that the impressionable Bitzer will follow throughout the novel. In an act of public shaming, Gradgrind shouts “Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!”’ (p. 9), humiliating Sissy for placing imagination above fact. A repeat incident occurs some two chapters laters, whereby Bitzer imitates his pedagogue, asking Sissy ‘‘if she would know how to define a horse to-morrow’ (p. 29). Evidently Bitzer’s propensity to expose those who are vulnerable or unconventional is formed in Coketown’s educational academy; a failure to properly cultivate his youthful ‘imagination leads to egocentrism and a lack of understanding for others’ as the narrative continues. 

Bitzer, then, develops into a competitive and exploitative individual in the mould of Bounderby. He comes to hold the ironically ‘respectable office of general spy and informer’ (p. 109) in the bank, claiming a small bonus at christmas. Espionage is an apt service for the light porter, who is willing to sever relations in the name of material gain. Bitzer believes rational behaviour is that which benefits the self, and is consequently troubled because the Hands do not betray their Union, relinquishing the opportunity to ‘earn a trifle now and then, … and improve their livelihood’ (p. 112). In his view betrayal is a means to an end – and the underlying motive, social elevation, always justifies the means. Burdened by his stunted moral development, Bitzer retains a calculated and removed outlook that is sub-human in nature. Despite the tension in penultimate chapter, he calmly foresees his future prosperity: ‘I have no doubt that Mr Bounderby will then promote me to young Mr Tom’s situation’ (p. 264). The dialogue is bereft of emotion, and Dickens details no hint of hesitation on the part of Bitzer, even though Tom is sure to be imprisoned as a result. He has become robotic in his ways: an example of the danger to one’s humanity posed by Gradgrind’s marrying of utilitarian ethics and political economy. 

If Hard Times can, and should, be read as a critique of rampant individualism and conflict in society, the ending somewhat problematises this interpretation. In ‘Final’ the omniscient narrator relays the future prospects of the characters; Bounderby, who will soon ‘die of a fit in the Coketown street’ (p. 272-73), is clearly punished for his belligerence. Nevertheless, it is Bitzer who escapes repercussions, described as ‘the rising young man… who had won young Tom’s place’ (p. 272). He has ascended from relative poverty into the aspiring middle-class, usurping Tom at the Bank. Immoral behaviour notwithstanding, this ranks as a success for the philosophy of self-interest. Dickens is not however endorsing Bitzer’s actions, instead, his victory functions as a caution that the ‘self-interested, materialist emphasis of political economy.. [could].. dominate and thus diminish humanity’s potential’. The narrator’s final comment: ‘Dear reader! It rests with you and me’ (p. 274) stresses the reader and writer as agents alike in countering the ethical rot that Dickens had delineated in the novel.

Although Hard Times is sceptical about the systems of thought informing conceptions of social relations, there is a sense of optimism in the organic model offered by the circus. Incidents like the removal of Stephen Blackpool from the Old Hell Shaft also signal co-operative and sympathetic behaviour in practice. As aforementioned, this is offset by the desire to compete that is so ingrained into the psyche of many characters, and has disastrous implications for, amongst other things, industrial relations and human potential. A social apparatus founded on a belief in individual self-interest is thus shown to inevitably lead to conflict. Most worrying is the notion that in striving for success one must invariably trample upon others: Bitzer and Bounderby even equate this notion with what is rational, or morally sound. Considering that Hard Times celebrates moments of co-operative behaviour, for additional research it would be apt to consider Dickens’ negative portrayal of the Union, as this has not been considered in this essay.

Quarantine Reading

So I wanted to write a short post covering what I have been reading during quarantine. Being a furloughed worker during lockdown has given me ample time to tick off some of the novels on my book bucket list. That said, I have not been too formulaic, and often ordered a book on a whim, or been drawn to a particular/author genre after reading literary articles online. As a result, my list is quite eclectic, but this is true of my normal reading patterns. I’m always branching out and, perhaps like many others, daunted and impelled by the notion that there is still a lot out there I haven’t encountered. 

Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is a novel that has been on my reading bucket list for a few years. During my first year at university, I delved into a lot of Russian Literature in my spare time (Gogol’s Dead Souls and Grossman’s Everything Flows are memorable), and this is perhaps where the desire to read The Master and Margarita sprang from. At the beginning of lockdown I was looking for a comic novel and Bulgakov’s work fitted the bill. In Will Self’s introduction to the translation I read, he alludes to the novel as a precursor to the magic realism popularised by Latin American authors like Jorge Luis Borges. This analysis really stuck with me throughout: Bulgakov’s Moscow is simultaneously ordinary and realistic, as well as fantastical and supernatural. Woland’s (Satan’s) party and Margarita’s flight across USSR stand out as particularly magical episodes. From a purely comic perspective the novel did not disappoint. The magic show at the Variety Theatre, where Bulgakov critiques the greed and materialism of the Moscow elite, was another highlight. 

I read Julian Barnes’ England England alongside The Master and Margarita. I don’t want to go into too much detail because I dedicated a whole post to the novel, but it was my first experience with Barnes and I enjoyed it so much that I recently ordered The Sense of Ending, his 2011 Man Booker Prize winning work. 

Next up was Chuck Palahniuk’s cult classic Fight Club, another on my list. I’d watched the film a few times and loved it, and a lot of people had suggested that the book was even better. I found the book actually triggered a more emotional response – Palahniuk writes in direct, graphic, savage and visceral prose. The narrator – Tyler Durden – is despairing and distant, and his thoughts capture the generational psychosis that Palahniuk was so perturbed by. I also enjoyed Tyler’s ruminations on IKEA furniture (“I want to be that type of person, so I buy products that cohere with that sense of image”) and the attack on consumer culture. The book is short, punchy and damning, and achieves a lot in only 200 odd pages. 

Since finishing my English Literature degree last year I have been reading a lot of non-fiction, a conscious break away, I think, from three years of studying fiction. I’ve tried to fill in gaps in my historical knowledge by reading texts on specific historical events/peoples (lately I’ve turned my attention to the Vikings, the Medici and the Egyptians). A limited understanding of the Normans and   the subsequent Norman colonisation of England impelled me to read Marc Morris’ The Norman Conquest. This is a great piece of historical fiction – Morris’ vast narrative is accessible and moves at an appropriate pace without compromising on essential details. It pays close attention to contemporary evidence, demystifying popular assumptions about the Normans and their involvement in England. Upon finishing, I had a much better understanding of the historical process and the staggering impact that William the Conqueror’s fated journey across the Channel had on English secular and religious society. 

I’ve now moved on to the daunting prospect of David Foster Wallace’s acclaimed work Infinite Jest. My former colleague, also a friend and science fiction fan, gave it to me as a secret santa gift at last year’s work Christmas party. I started it soon after receiving it but became disillusioned after 50 or so pages and moved on to different pursuits. Now, with time in abundance, I’m ready to give it a second go.