What Sissy Jupe Didn’t Know about Horses

Charles Dickens (1812–1870), the great English novelist, was a keen observer of social differences. Mr Gradgrind was Sissy Jupe’s overbearing teacher in Hard Times (1854). Here, Dickens uses the character of Sissy Jupe to illustrate the disjunction of school-talk and the family-talk for a child from a 19th century working class family:

“Girl number twenty,” said Mr Gradgrind, squarely pointing with his square forefinger, “I don’t know that girl. Who is that girl?”

“Sissy Jupe, sir,” explained number twenty, blushing, standing up and curtsying.

“Sissy is not a name,” said Mr Gradgrind. “Don’t call yourself Sissy. Call yourself Cecilia.”

“It’s father as calls me Sissy, sir,” returned the young girl, in a trembling voice and with another curtsey

“Then he as no business to do it,” said Mr Gradgrind. “Tell him he mustn’t. Cecilia Jupe. Let me see. What is your father?”

“He belongs to the horse-riding, if you please, sir.” Mr Gradgrind frowned, and waved off the objectionable calling with his hand.

“We don’t want to know anything about that here. You mustn’t tell us about that here. Your father breaks horses, don’t he?”

“If you please, sir, when they can get any to break, they do break horses in the ring, sir.”

“You mustn’t tell us about the ring here … Very well then … Give me your definition of a horse.”

(Sissy Jupe thrown into the greatest alarm by this demand.)

“Girl number twenty unable to define a horse! … Girl number twenty possessed of no facts, in reference to one of the commonest of animals!” …

The square finger, moving here and there, lighted suddenly on Bitzer …

“Bitzer,” said Thomas Gradgrind. “Your definition of a horse.”

“Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs too. Hoofs hard but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.” …

“Now girl number twenty,” said Mr Gradgrind, “you know what a horse is.”

She curtsied again, and would have blushed deeper, if she could have blushed deeper than she had blushed all of this time …

Dickens, Charles. 1854 (1945). Hard Times. London: Collins. pp. 16–18, 16, 15. || Amazon || WorldCat