Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 649
Chapter 16: Husband and Wife
Mr. Bounderby’s first concern, when he hears that Louisa will have him, is what to say to Mrs. Sparsit, his housekeeper. He is worried that she might have a fit, or cry, or pack up and go to her great aunt, Lady Scadgers—Louisa’s coming will mean her services in his house will no longer be needed. When he does summon the nerve to tell her, Mrs. Sparsit’s reaction is unexpected. She takes it all in stride, as if she’d been expecting the news all along, and her manner toward him changes. She says she wishes he may be happy, but her tone implies that he won’t, and that he is very much to be pitied, as a kind of victim. Bounderby, baffled and resentful but not wanting to lose his prize piece of gentility, proposes that, for the same salary, Mrs. Sparsit stay on as a housekeeper for some apartments above his bank, one of which would be for her exclusive use. This offer Mrs. Sparsit gratefully accepts.
A wedding in one of Coketown’s churches is planned. Mr. Bounderby, as an “accepted wooer,” appears at Stone Lodge, bearing bracelets. The day comes, the couple is married, and they go home to a wedding feast at Stone Lodge. Mr. Bounderby gives a speech of thanks to the assembled guests, very much in the style of all his speeches, on any occasion. He wants his friends to know that he is Josiah Bounderby of Coketown, that marrying Tom Gradgrind’s daughter—who, he says, he believes is worthy of him, just as he thinks he is worthy of her—makes him “feel independent,” that he never looked to such a thing occurring when he was a ragged little street boy, and that he hopes “every bachelor may find as good a wife as I have from the harness in which a conventional hack [horse for hire] like myself works.”
On her way downstairs, dressed for her honeymoon, Louisa encounters her brother. His face is flushed, either from his feelings or from wine. He has been waiting for her. He wants to thank her for being such a game girl, such a first-rate sister.
Dickens offers some uncompromising satire on how the parties concerned in this chapter view the holy state of matrimony. Among them love “took a manufacturing aspect. Dresses were made, jewelry was made, cakes and gloves were made, settlements were made, and an extensive assortment of Facts did appropriate honor to the contract. The business was all Facts, from first to last.” The note of disgust here is striking, and may reflect (as does Blackpool’s trapped frustration) Dickens’ own marital turmoil at the time the novel was written.
Part of the fascination, and much of the comedy, of Bounderby’s dealings with Mrs. Sparsit, and hers with him, is that they need each other to complete their ideas of themselves. Bounderby needs Mrs. Sparsit to maintain his presentation of himself as a man with no connections who is yet successful enough to retain a lady of great social distinction. Mrs. Sparsit needs Bounderby to reinforce the idea of her own gentility, which as the years pass recedes further and further into the past. What is a little startling about their relationship, revealed in this chapter more openly than before, is that Bounderby and Mrs. Sparsit carry on for all the world like an old married couple. (Note, for example, Mr. Bounderby’s remark, “Don’t go to the North Pole, ma’am!” when Mrs. Sparsit draws her chair away from his.) In a sense, then, his upcoming marriage to Louisa will not be his first bad marriage, for all of Bounderby’s harping on his bachelorhood; and Sparsit and Bounderby can be seen to take their place among the other unhappy couples in Hard Times.
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