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Monday, July 30, 2012

Background on Hard Times

Hard Times was written against a backdrop of a changing economic environment in England.  Gone was the cottage industry of Georgian England in which families labored together in the home.  In its place were the factories of the Industrial Revolution in which men (and women and children) were forced to work long hours in unhealthy conditions.  The land bore marks of the Revolution with deforestation combined with significant shifts of population into the cities.  Overcrowdedness produced dust heaps everywhere, creating unsanitary living condition and, unfortunately, contaminating water sources.  Those at the helms of the large factories amass huge amounts of wealth while factory "hands" worked harder for minimal wages.  Is the sacrifice of the many for the few worth the price of Progress?  This is the question Dickens forces us to answer during the reading of the novel.

At the time of the novel's writing, Dickens had not planned to produce another work for at least a year, but circumstances with his magazine Household Words forced him to act earlier.  Readership had dropped significantly and editors believed that having Dickens produce a serial novel for the first time for the magazine would help increase profits.  The editors proved right, though Dickens felt constrained by the limitation of the magazine's publication standards, and the result was his shortest novel.  Nevertheless, Hard Times was highly popular during its serialization.

Dickens prepared for the novel by visiting the municipality of Preston in January of 1854 to gain a perspective of the strike being launched there by cotton mill workers.  Mill owners reacted to the strike with a "lockout," closing down the mills and preventing factory hands from returning to work.  When Dickens arrives, the face off is entering its twenty-third week, though as Dickens remarks, there are no boisterous demonstrations happening, only a pervading "quietness and order," despite its affecting twenty to thirty thousand people.  Dickens supported the ability of the workers to "combine" and called the lockout "a grave error."  Nevertheless, Dickens placed the responsibility on both sides to find a workable solution.  Dickens' visit to Preston provided him with the knowledge he needed to write the scenes of Slackbridge's speeches.

Sources:  Charles Dickens:  His Tragedy and Triumph by Edgar Johnson
"On Strike" in Household Words, 11 February 1954, Vol 8, No 203


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