Dickens wrote Hard Times in 1854, in the middle of a century and an era that prided itself on its social, economic, and scientific achievements. Various hints in the novel make it clear that the novel's setting is more or less contemporary with its composition. The novel is concerned in part with the plight of those, like Stephen Blackpool, whom those achievements have affected negatively or passed by, but more of its narrative actually concerns the lives of the middle and upper classes: factory owners such as Mr. Bounderby and people of means like the Gradgrinds. Rich or poor, however, the lives of all the characters in Hard Times are profoundly shaped by the great changes that attended industrialization in England.
The Industrial Revolution had wrought its major changes by the mid-nineteenth century, and the manufacturing economy was well established in northern cities such as Dickens's fictional Coketown, but its cultural and social effects were still being worked out. Labor relations had been difficult since the beginning of industrialization; a major grievance for the working classes was their lack of political representation. The 1832 Reform Bill extended the vote, but the impoverished masses were still without representation. In the 1830s and 1840s, factory workers, ill paid and laboring under terrible conditions in largely unregulated industries, demanded not only better pay and shorter hours but also more effective political representation through such movements as Chartism. At the same time, the pressures of famine in Ireland (which caused massive immigration) and economic difficulties at home led the 1840s to be called the "Hungry Forties." Revolutions on the Continent in 1848 led many in England to fear that the workers at home would also revolt.
The fiction of the day responded to these concerns in a group of novels, known as "industrial novels" or "Condition-of-England novels," that considered the question of how to resolve the tension between the newly expanded working classes and the owners. Such works as Frances Trollope's Michael Armstrong, The Factory Boy (1839-40), Benjamin Disraeli's Sybil (1845), Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton (1848), Charlotte Brontë's Shirley (1849), and Charles Kingsley's Alton Locke (1850) all deal with such issues. Hard Times was written later than the heyday of these novels in the late 1840s, but it considers many of the same thorny social questions, as does Gaskell's North and South, written in 1855. Dickens added the subtitle "For These Times" to Hard Times when it appeared in its first bound volume edition, underlining the continuing topicality of the social concerns he addresses in its pages.
Of course, Dickens addresses many social concerns besides the abuses of industrial workers. For instance, education, the status of women, and the punitive divorce laws of the time all come in for consideration. Victorian society was grappling with the question of how to change or reform all of these. State-run, broad-based education was just beginning to be implemented by 1853, and the form it would take was still subject to some debate. Married women were subject to their husbands' near-total control, especially in financial matters, at the time Dickens wrote, but agitation for the Married Women's Property Act—not passed until 1870—had begun. Divorce law, by contrast, met with more immediate changes. At the time, divorces could be granted only by Act of Parliament In 1853, a royal commission had recommended the reformation of divorce law so that civil courts could consider and grant divorces. A bill based on these recommendations was considered but eventually withdrawn during the run of Hard Times; it was enacted in 1857.
Although Victorian society was undergoing numerous reforms as Dickens wrote, British culture was also well satisfied with the progress it had made by mid-century. The Great Exhibition, which took place at the Crystal Palace in 1851, showed off the triumphs of British innovation, engineering, and manufacturing, from everyday domestic object to the products of Britain's expanding colonial holdings to the impressive glass structure of the Crystal Palace itself.
The enormous expansion of the railroads, since they were first introduced in Britain in the early nineteenth century, had made travel fast and efficient by mid-century. Railway travel forms an important plot point in Hard Times. Communications, also, had been greatly speeded by the introduction of electric telegraphs, first patented in 1837 and widespread by the 1850s. (Telegraph wires make a brief appearance in Hard Times.)
One of the key events of 1854—Britain's entry into the Crimean War in March of that year—is not evident in the narrative of Hard Times. Dickens would turn his critical eye on the bureaucracy that mismanaged the war in his next novel, Little Dorrit.