Hard Times was serialised from 1 April to 12 August, 1854, the mythical Coketown based in part on Preston, which he had visited in January of that year. Hard Times more than doubled the circulation of Household Words, but its popularity has not been maintained because it was written as propaganda. The book was dedicated to the historian and essayist Thomas Carlyle, in the belief that he would sympathise with the feelings expressed therein.
Dickens described the appalling conditions of life in factory towns; preached that the poor were entitled to the same justice, the same healthy conditions, the same freedom, as the rich; attacked every kind of public pest, especially those whose love for the public was really a love of publicity; and above all ridiculed the typical bureaucratic mentality which substituted scientific accuracy for imaginative reality, convinced that facts and figures were all-important, while fancies were beneath contempt (Pearson 211).
In terms of length, the average monthly instalment of a Dickens novel is 18,500 words, whereas the average weekly instalment of Hard Times runs a mere 5,000. At 117,400 words, Hard Times is shorter than either A Tale of Two Cities (146,500 words) or Great Expectations (189,000 words), both serialized in Dickens's second weekly periodical, All The Year Round (1859 and 1861 respectively). It is also much shorter than its weekly predecessors, The Old Curiosity Shop (227,500 words) and Barnaby Rudge (263,650 words), both published in Master Humphrey's Clock (1840-1841). Since Dickens' average monthly novel runs 357,000 words, Hard Times is roughly one-third the length of his average monthly. It has roughly two dozen characters, half of whom are principals.
As Gerald Giles Grubb and others have noted, the proposal to publish Hard Times in weekly serial did not come from Dickens but from the printers of his magazine, Household Words, who were concerned about declining sales. John Forster in his biography reports that the novel had the desired effect, more than doubling the journal's circulation. Even though Dickens, now forty-one, had hoped for a year's rest after his labours on Bleak House, he had written a children's history of England, edited articles for his weekly journal, and plunged into amateur theatricals after August, 1853. Acceding to his printers' proposal, he wrote the first page of Hard Times on 23 January, 1854 (details follow on page 5). The semi- annual meeting of the meeting of the joint proprietors of Household Words (established in 1850), determined to stem the magazine's sagging sales and profits, exhorted Dickens, its editor, to write a serialized novel for the weekly. In response to that December 28th, 1853, resolution (Dickens having absented himself from the meeting to read A Christmas Carol and The Cricket on the Hearth in Birmingham), on January 20, 1854, he sent ten of twenty possible titles for the new novel to Forster, asking him to select the best three. Dickens also short-listed three: the common title between the two lists was Hard Times. On the 29th of January, 1854, Dickens visited Preston, reporting by correspondence to Forster that the Lancashire industrial town was remarkable in respect to others of its kind only in its absence of smoke.
The novel appears to be modelled in part on Elizabeth Gaskell's Ruth (published in three volumes in January, 1853), according to Norman Page in the November, 1971, issue of Notes and Queries . Mrs. Gaskell's Bradshaw, for example, corresponds to Dickens's Gradgrind. K. J. Fielding in "The Battle for Preston" ( Dickensian50 : 159-162) suggests that Hard Times has its origin in the Preston weavers' strike, which began in October, 1853, over the workers' demand for a ten per cent wage increase. It idled some 20,000 mill workers for at least thirty-seven weeks. The Preston strike may also be reflected in the industrial novel North and South, which Dickens published for Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell in Volume Ten of Household Words , immediately after the conclusion of Hard Times in Volume Nine.
Like Bitzer, Coketown is the product of Thomas Gradgrind's system of facts. It opposes the world of fancy and illusion that Sleary's circus (with whom we enter the town and the story, a fact emphasized by the BBC television adaptation) represents; its only purpose is to enrich the factory owners, epitomized by Josiah Bounderby. However, Bounderby is not the story's only villain: young Tom Gradgrind, amoral and egocentric (like Bitzer), uses Stephen Blackpool as a scapegoat; James Harthouse, the capable but indolent aristocrat, attempts to seduce Louisa; and Slackbridge, the union demagogue, ostracizes Stephen to maintain the honour and solidarity of Coketown's workers. The last of these villains is probably based on Grimshaw, an actual union agitator whom Dickens satirized in the article "On Strike" as "Gruffshaw."
Aside from its offering what K. J. Fielding terms "a comprehensive vision of [Dickens'] contemporary society" ("Dickens and the Department of Practical Art" 270), Hard Times provides a glimpse into its author's marital relations at the time:
Dickens' growing dissatisfaction as a husband is scarcely hinted at in the letters of 1853- 54, and its existence can only be reconstructed in the light of later events. It was not until May, 1858, that he was formally separated from his wife, Catherine, but as his close friends knew, the incompatibility of what he himself called his "miserable" marriage had been of long standing. When he pictures the unhappy yokings of both Stephen Blackpool and of Louisa Bounderby, and when his characters discuss the need for breaking the marriage- tie if it has become a mockery, the novelist seems once again to have been introducing issues which had engaged his own ardent interest at the time Hard Times was taking shape. (Ford and Monod ix)
The original manuscript and the corrected proofs for Hard Times reside in The Forster Collection of London's Victoria and Albert Museum.
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Last modified November 18, 2000