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September 21, 2021 | Montreal Dickens Fellowship

Montreal Dickens Fellowship
for the best of times

September 21, 2021

Introduction to “Hard Times”

As you know,I have loved reading Dickens since I discovered an antique set in a second hand furniture store when I was 14 years old.

Dickens has been a companion to me for most of my life. I love that he can make me laugh out loud and make me cry. He is an escape for me in troubled times. I love his language, wit and satire. I love his passion for reform. I love feeling satisfied at the end of his books. Dickens was had his finger in so many pies of his age. I learn so much about so many things. I love history and, because he was so observant, I really feel that I have had a realistic glimpse at the Victorian age. I find that when I am reading a Dickens novel, I cannot put it down. I am usually hooked early on and held by the suspense. His characters are often memorable having such universal traits that they seem fresh even today. Although Dickens words are long and his plots are complex, his themes are clear and his heroes and villains are larger than life and easy to love or hate. As we know, Dickens himself had a very complex life. His books often offer a mystery or secret or even a murder and there is no shortage of suspense. Nor is there a shortage of romance. Although Dickens’s relationships and opinions about women were controversial and his depictions of women often criticized, I think there is a lot of variety in his characterizations of women, ranging from pathetic, bland, one dimensional, innocent maidens to tough, wise matrons. His descriptions are amazing and so detailed, his language delicious!!

So now that we know why I love Dickens, how does “Hard Times” measure up? I must admit that while “Bleak House” has always been one of my most cherished novels, “Hard Times” has long been one of my least favourite books. I found it too short, very dry and harsh. I had a hard time wrapping myself around the utilitarian philosophy. I felt hammered over the head by Dickens worries about the education system. It seemed to lack humour, loveable characters and made me depressed. While I have read and reread most of Dickens’s works, I had only read it a few times and I first read it when I was very young. Perhaps had I read it more, I would have come to see all its redeeming factors.

Indeed it was only when I had the opportunity to moderate a study group at M.C.L.L.( McGill Community for Lifelong Learning) that I came to have a much better appreciation of the book. It really does have many of the features that I love Dickens for. Its plots, characters, themes and social messages are interwoven masterfully and it does offer something for everyone albeit on a smaller scale. More importantly, however, it really offers us a springboard into learning about one of the most fascinating eras in world history (namely the Industrial Revolution), taking it’s consequences on from so many interesting perspectives. I must say, I am looking forward to exploring it with you all and seeing what you make of it!!

“Hard Times” is Dickens’s 10th novel. Written in 20 weekly instalments, it appeared in his journal “Household Words” From April to August 1854, one year after the publication of “Bleak House”. It was written at the suggestion of his publishers to boost sales of the journal. He had not published in weekly parts since Barnaby Rudge in 1841 and found the format “Crushing." “Hard Times” is Dickens’s shortest novel. 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. It differs from his other books also in that there is no preface and no illustrations.( Its action takes place entirely outside London in the fictional northern city of Coketown.)
John Forster in his biography reports that the novel had the desired effect, more than doubling the journal's circulation.

Acceding to his printers' proposal, he wrote the first page of Hard Times on 23 January, 1854. 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.
1. According to Cocker
2. Prove it
3. Stubborn Things
4. Mr Gradgrind's Facts
5. The Grindstone
6. Hard Times
7. Two and Two are Four 8. Something Tangible 9. Our Hard-headed Friend 10. Rust and Dust
11. Simple Arithmetic 12. A Matter of Calculation 13. A Mere Question of Figures
14. The Gradgrind Philosophy

Forster selected 2, 6, and 11 and Dickens had selected 6, 13, and 14. Since both had selected number 6, the new story was entitled Hard Times.
The novel appears to be modelled in part on Elizabeth Gaskell's “Ruth” (published in three volumes in January, 1853). There had been continued widespread worker unrest that year and the rise in workers unions was extremely topical at that time. Dickens had visited factories in Manchester as early as 1839 and was appalled by the conditions of the workers. In Dec.1853 and Jan 1854 articles appeared in Household words called “On Strike” and “Locked Out” based on a workers strike and subsequent lock out in Preston near Manchester. On the 29th of January, 1854, Dickens visited Preston, a northern industrial town undergoing a prolonged weavers strike which had 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.Dickens heard radical Union leader Mortimer Gradshaw speak. He did not like his aggressivity and referred to him as Mr. Gruffshaw in an article he wrote. 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.

“Hard Times” is a cautionary tale about the dehumanization associated with the industrial revolution. Dickens was very afraid of radicalism and violence and revolution that had occurred in other European countries. He was afraid of the antagonism of the unions. He was against the increasingly prevalent philosophy of utilitarianism which saw everyone as a statistic. He was against the “Laisser-Faire” attitude of political economic policy which led to the ever expanding factory system. In the book he campaigned against poor working conditions and championed the importance of imagination vs information in education. He explored the prevalent divorce laws, satirized the hypocrisy he saw in organized religion and upheld his views about entertainment for the poor ( especially on Sundays)

Hard times was well received by the public but many critics thought it was not powerful enough and it was labeled as sullen socialism. It was thought that although he supported workers, he was pandering to the fears of the middle class by not supporting unions. It has grown in critical acclaim throughout the years, however.
George Bernard Shaw, writing in 1912, observed that with the publication of Hard Times:
"You must therefore resign yourself, if you are reading Dickens's books in the order in which they were written, to bid adieu now to the light-hearted and only occasionally indignant Dickens of the earlier books, and get such entertainment as you can from him now that the occasional indignation has spread and deepened into a passionate revolt against the whole industrial order of the modern world. Here you will find no more villians and heroes, but only oppressors and victims, oppressing and suffering in spite of themselves, driven by a huge machinery which grinds to pieces the people it should nourish and ennoble, and having for its directors the basest and most foolish of us instead of the noblest and most farsighted.
Many readers find the change disappointing. Others find Dickens worth reading almost for the first time..."
“Hard Times” was published as a novel at the end of its serialization.

After the initial (serial) unillustrated publication of Dickens's Hard Times for These Times in Household Words in 1854, the first cheap edition (1865) had a single plate, frontispiece by A. Boyd Houghton. For the 1868 Library Edition, painter and magazine-illustrator Frederick Walker,, had provided four drawings to accompany to accompany Hard Times. The next significant artist to illustrate the short novel was Harry French, who provided a comprehensive programme of a frontispiece and nineteen full-size (generally half- page) plates for the Household Edition published by Chapman and Hall in the 1870s. You can see these illustrations at: french/pva202.html

The original manuscript and the corrected proofs for Hard Times reside in The Forster Collection of London's Victoria and Albert Museum.

Dickens’s Life While Writing “Hard Times”

Dickens’s writing of “David Copperfield” in 1849 seems to have been a turning point for him. It was largely autobiographical (though not known at the time) and he seems to have become darker and more introspective in his writing since then.

In 1851, Dickens father had died on the operating table while undergoing surgery for kidney stones (possibly associated with Gonorrhoea). Dickens described it as a bloody slaughterhouse. Several weeks later, his infant daughter Dora died of a respiratory illness. Dickens’s wife Kate was away at the time, at a health ”spa” recovering from depression. She subsequently remained often depressed and focussed on her health.

At the time of writing “Hard Times”, Dickens was 42 years old. He had been married 18 years, had 9 living children ranging in age from 2-17 (7 sons, 2 daughters)
It is said that young as his children were, he already saw signs in them of shiftlessness and irresponsibility. Parenting was very much on his mind when writing “Hard Times”.

Dickens’s family had moved into Tavistock House as he was writing “Bleak House”. It was a big move and he, being a very obsessive individual who liked having control over everything, would he would still have been very involved in decorating, building, financial decisions, etc. They lived with Katherine’s younger sister, Georgiana, who ran the household and was very supportive of Dickens.

Hard Times probes into the issue of divorce and may provide a glimpse into Dickens’s marital relations at the time. Although it was not until May,1858 that he was formally separated from his wife, Katherine, (never divorced), his close friends likely knew that the incompatibility of what he himself called his "miserable" marriage had been of long standing.

Dickens did not live in a vacuum, but was surrounded by a very large extended family that asked a lot of him. He had also become founder and editor of “Household Words” in 1850, a magazine with topical articles and literary contributions. He also continued to run “Urania House” (a house for fallen women) with his patroness Angela Burdett Coutts. He visited it daily and looked after every detail, down to the women’s uniforms, their selections and their discipline. He also continued to walk up to 20 miles a day.
He also gave large dinner parties, grand birthday celebrations for his kids, performed magic shows and toured the country more and more directing and acting in amateur theatricals. In 1853, he began to tour the country reading from his own works for money. He sat on the boards of various committees and wrote many articles and letters. He was troubled by a chronic renal complaint. He vacationed in Broadstairs, Boulogne and Italy and had many friends (one new one was Wilkie Collins).

He was very tired and restless and somewhat depressed feeling unsupported in his marriage.

Next meeting, I will talk about England in1854. I will also give a World time line of events just to put the novel within a historical perspective.
Thank you again Norm! Thanks to everyone for joining us! I look forward to seeing you all next time!

Yours in Fellowship, Ellie