18th May 2020 by

Hard Times at the BMI

In this post, Dr Serena Trowbridge (Birmingham City University), Senior Vice-President of the Birmingham & Midland Institute, discusses Dickens’ role in supporting the B&MI as an educational institution in its early days. By drawing on Dickens’ views on education in his novel Hard Times, this post is a perfect sequel to Dr Pete Orford’s post on the ‘Hard Times 2020 readalong’ in our ‘BMI lockdown life’ series in collaboration with the B&MI blog.

Charles Dickens was interested in education for everyone, and his journalism and fiction bears this out. Most famously, he explores what education should and shouldn’t be in Hard Times (1854). Around the time this was published, Dickens was also involved with the Birmingham & Midland Institute, having offered to support the opening of an organisation aimed at educating everyone in the city of Birmingham. His support took the form of three readings, and by this time Dickens was a celebrity whose readings were invariably sold out. His final reading, from A Christmas Carol, in December 1853, was preceded by a speech. He expresses two main ideas in this speech; firstly, that it was his

earnest hope that the Institute will, from the beginning, recognise one great principle—strong in reason and justice—which I believe to be essential to the very life of such an Institution. It is, that the working man shall, from the first unto the last, have a share in the management of an Institution which is designed for his benefit, and which calls itself by his name.

Secondly, concerning the nature of the work the Institute was to do, he argued that it should be ‘a great Educational Institution, properly educational; educational of the feelings as well as of the reason’. Hard Times indicates the damage that an education not ‘of the feelings’ but only ‘of reason’ can do. Gradgrind famously calls for facts alone:

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.

The language Gradgrind uses is so suffused with metaphor that Dickens is slyly laughing at this attempt at Utilitarian education right from the start; and this phrase alone sums up the very opposite to Dickens’ call for a full and rounded education. The novel sets up Fact as the oppressive counterpart to Fancy, calling for an imaginative, caring education which nurtures children’s minds.

When I teach Hard Times to second-year students studying the Victorians, we visit the B&MI, and begin by talking about this speech. Dickens’ sympathy for the ‘working man’ is evident in this novel, and it seems no coincidence that he was writing it in 1853 when he offered the B&MI his support. These ideas had been with him for a while, however; in a Birmingham speech in 1844 he said:

If you would reward honesty, if you would give encouragement to good, if you would stimulate the idle, eradicate evil, or correct what is bad, education — comprehensive liberal education — is the one thing needful, and the one effective end.

We use the wonderful resources of the Birmingham Library to explore Victorian approaches to education, since there is a section on education in the older books hidden away in the basement. The students appreciate the opportunity to browse the library for books which support their learning, as well as to look at early illustrated editions of Dickens’ work. Our visit usually begins with a tour of the building by the Librarian, which outlines Dickens’ relation to the B&MI as well as the multiple ways in which the Institute and the Library are rooted in Birmingham’s rich history.

Second-year students with Simon Callow, 165th president of the B&MI

I am now very happy to support this series of #BMIlockdownlife posts, which takes the BMI to another level of education in the digital space, specifically in collaboration with the CLiC project. Complementing the material resources of the BMI, the free CLiC web app provides digital access to Dickens’ novels and new opportunities to study his work, especially at a time when the BMI can’t physically open its doors.

Dr Serena Trowbridge, Reader in Victorian Literature at Birmingham City University and Senior Vice-President of the Birmingham & Midland Institute

Suggested citation: Trowbridge, S. (2020, May). Hard Times at the BMI [Blog post]. University of Birmingham: CLiC Fiction Blog. Retrieved from 

Enjoyed this post? The Birmingham & Midland Institute has set up a fundraising campaign to “offset the income which would usually keep the BMI running as the social and cultural hub that it should be, and encourage you to donate to what is an important lifeline for many older people in our society.” Check out their fundraiser here.

Author: Serena Trowbridge

Dr Serena Trowbridge is Reader in Victorian Literature at Birmingham City University, where she teaches modules on literature and nineteenth-century psychology, poetry, Victorian literature, and Gothic. Her research interests include Pre-Raphaelitism in art and literature, Victorian poetry, Gothic, the environment in literature (eco-criticism) and Victorian institutions. She is Senior Vice-President of the Birmingham & Midland Institute and Vice-President of the Pre-Raphaelite Society.

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