Background.

Hard Times
  • A quiet oval face, dark and rather delicate, irradiated by a pair of very gentle eyes, and further set off by the perfect order of her shining black hair” is a quotation from Hard Times (Book 1, Chapter 10).
  • Hard Times – For These Times (more commonly now known as Hard Times) is the tenth novel by Charles Dickens. It first appeared in weekly parts, published in Household Words, from April to August 1854. The shortest of Dickens’ novels, the story is set in the fictitious northern English industrial mill-town of Coketown.

Context.

This quote is a description of Rachael, a worker at a mill factory in Coketown and a co-worker of Stephen Blackpool. The two are close friends after Blackpool, although married, is estranged from his alcoholic and erratic wife. This description of her face reflects her kind character and a contrast to the filthy nasty side of the surroundings of Coketown.

Illustration from a later edition of Hard Times showing Stephen Blackpool being cared for after his fall into a mine-shaft.
Illustration from a later edition of Hard Times showing Stephen Blackpool being cared for after his fall into Old Hell Shaft, an abandoned mine-shaft on the outskirts of Coketown.

Rachael.

Rachael is a worker at one of Josiah Bounderby’s factories in the polluted mill-town of Coketown. She is close friends with co-worker Stephen Blackpool and helps him with his troubles, which include coping with the alcoholic and erratic wife he has separated from. Rachael is aged 35 and described as having a quiet oval face with very gentle eyes and shining black hair.

Stephen Blackpool.

One of Charles Dickens’s more tragic characters, Stephen Blackpool is a worker at one of Josiah Bounderby’s factories in the filthy mill-town of Coketown. Stephen is aged 40 but is nicknamed ‘old Stephen’ due to his looks from a hard life. He married 19 years previously but is now estranged from his wife due to her drunken behaviour, although she reappears in his life from time to time. Stephen is unable to divorce his wife due to the cost involved, despite being the burden she brings to him. He forms a close bond with Rachael, a co-worker, whom he wishes to marry. After a dispute with Bounderby, he is dismissed from his work and, shunned by his former fellow workers, is forced to look for work elsewhere. While absent from Coketown, he is wrongly accused of robbing Bounderby’s bank. On his way back to vindicate himself, a fall down an abandoned mine-shaft has tragic consequences.

Source.

Taken from the following passage in Book 1, Chapter 10 (Stephen Blackpool) of Hard Times:

It was a wet night, and many groups of young women passed him, with their shawls drawn over their bare heads and held close under their chins to keep the rain out. He knew Rachael well, for a glance at any one of these groups was sufficient to show him that she was not there. At last, there were no more to come; and then he turned away, saying in a tone of disappointment, ‘Why, then, ha’ missed her!’

But, he had not gone the length of three streets, when he saw another of the shawled figures in advance of him, at which he looked so keenly that perhaps its mere shadow indistinctly reflected on the wet pavement—if he could have seen it without the figure itself moving along from lamp to lamp, brightening and fading as it went—would have been enough to tell him who was there. Making his pace at once much quicker and much softer, he darted on until he was very near this figure, then fell into his former walk, and called ‘Rachael!’

She turned, being then in the brightness of a lamp; and raising her hood a little, showed a quiet oval face, dark and rather delicate, irradiated by a pair of very gentle eyes, and further set off by the perfect order of her shining black hair. It was not a face in its first bloom; she was a woman five and thirty years of age.

‘Ah, lad! ’Tis thou?’ When she had said this, with a smile which would have been quite expressed, though nothing of her had been seen but her pleasant eyes, she replaced her hood again, and they went on together.

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A quiet oval face, dark and rather delicate, irradiated by a pair of very gentle eyes, and further set off by the perfect order of her shining black hair.
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