Discovering Dickens - A Community Reading Project

 Discovering Dickens

 Hard Times

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Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth, England, in 1812, the second of eight children of John and Elizabeth Dickens. He spent his early years at Chatham, in Kent. In 1823, the family moved to London, where John Dickens—never financially stable—was eventually committed to Marshalsea Prison for debt, remaining there for three months. While his parents and siblings lived in the debtor's prison, as was common practice at the time, Charles was sent to work at Warren's Blacking (a manufacturer of shoe-polish), where he worked pasting labels on bottles. During the separation from his family, Dickens managed to support himself on the meager wages (six shillings a week) of his work as a child laborer, but he was alone as a child in an enormous city, and was frequently hungry. This youthful experience haunted him all his life. Although he never revealed the experience publicly—telling only his close friend (and future biographer) John Forster—he often made veiled references to it and to the period of his family's indebtedness in his fiction.

After this shattering experience, Dickens was able to return to school until the age of 15, after which he began work as an office boy. He soon taught himself shorthand and entered journalism as a parliamentary reporter. In addition to his reports on the House of Commons, he began to contribute articles and sketches, and quickly gained a reputation as the popular journalist "Boz." His first long work of fiction ­ The Pickwick Papers ­ was serialized in 1836-7. The publishers Chapman and Hall originally commissioned Dickens to provide a text to run alongside plates by a popular artist, but Dickens's writing soon became the focus of the serial, proving immensely popular. Upon receiving the commission, Dickens married Catherine Hogarth (the wedding took place two days after the first installment appeared); the marriage unfortunately was never happy, though it produced ten children.

The serial format of Pickwick proved so successful that Dickens continued to use the form for all his novels. His next work, Oliver Twist (1837), began running before Pickwick ended, and was followed in short succession by Nicholas Nickleby (1838-39) and The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-41). His phenomenal early success led to an extremely busy period of travel and writing; Dickens's entire career was marked by enormous energy and a propensity to take on vast number of projects. After the mid-1840s, his novels—including Dombey and Son (1846-8), David Copperfield (1849-50), and Bleak House (1852-3)—were not only longer but also more serious in theme and more complex and ambitious in design.

This shift, together with the demands of weekly journalism after Dickens founded Household Words, left him nearly exhausted after the run of Bleak House. He intended to take a rest from writing (though he continued his busy schedule of giving readings, editing, and producing amateur theatricals, among other activities), but Dickens's printers and partners in Household Words were disappointed by the journal's declining sales, and in December 1853 they convinced him to write another novel to boost circulation. The result was Hard Times, which began publication in Household Words on April 1, 1854, running for twenty weekly numbers. The numbers were strikingly short, because of the short format of Household Words, and Dickens—now accustomed to writing at length in the more luxurious format of the long monthly serial—chafed under the restrictions. In a letter written in February 1854, a few weeks into the novel's composition, he wrote:

The difficulty of space is CRUSHING. Nobody can have any idea of it who has not had an experience of patient fiction-writing with some elbow-room always, and open places in perspective. In this form, with any kind of regard to the current number, there is absolutely no such thing.

Hard Times may be short, but it continues in the vein of serious social criticism established in Bleak House. In part, the serious subject matter and air of reportage in Hard Times may be attributable to its context in Household Words, where the major issues of the day were frequently considered. Such topics as industrialism, unions and strikes, the divorce law, and education were all considered in the journal's pages before and indeed during the run of Hard Times. Although Household Words employed many writers (none of whom received bylines, in accordance with common practice of the day), Dickens had editorial control over the articles published there. Just before writing Hard Times, Dickens traveled to the industrial north—specifically to the town of Preston, where there was a major strike in 1853-4, and to Birmingham and Wolverhampton. In Preston, Dickens observed a labor meeting, on which he drew for scenes in Hard Times; in Birmingham and Wolverhampton, and particularly on the railway journey there, he found many of the key images he used in the novel.

The serialization of Hard Times accomplished its goal of increasing the circulation of Household Words, which rose to 70,000 to 80,000 copies by the end of the novel's run—the best sales to date by far. Dickens followed Hard Times with Little Dorrit (1855-57), and then with two works that were to become among his best-known: A Tale of Two Cities (1859; serialized last year by Discovering Dickens) and Great Expectations (1860-61; serialized in 2003 by Discovering Dickens). This period, however, was not a happy one for him personally. He separated from his wife in 1858 and appears to have had an affair with a young actress, Ellen Ternan. His next—and last—major novel, Our Mutual Friend, appeared in 1864-65. By then, his health was no longer good, in large measure because of his punishing schedule of public readings and other work. He traveled to America in 1867-8 for a lecture tour that caused his health to decline still further, and upon his return to England he collapsed in the middle of a reading. His novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood was appearing serially in 1870 when Dickens suffered a stroke and died. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.

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