Discovering Dickens - A Community Reading Project

 Discovering Dickens

 Hard Times



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the West End of London, and May Fair, and lords and ladies and honourables

May Fair (usually spelled Mayfair), a small part of the posh West End, was one of the most fashionable and wealthy residential areas of London by about 1800, and remains highly desirable today.

There was a library in Coketown, to which general access was easy. Mr. Gradgrind greatly tormented his mind about what the people read in this library—a point whereon little rivers of tabular statements periodically flowed into the howling ocean of tabular statements…

Dickens was a guest speaker at the opening of the Manchester Free Library on September 2, 1852. Local libraries—firmly established as a public concern by the Public Libraries Act of 1850—were a popular means of providing reading material for the working classes, and the Manchester Free Library was an unusually large and heavily used one. These engravings depicting the Manchester Free Library both appeared in the Illustrated London News. The first, showing the exterior of the building as it was being extended, appeared October 25, 1851; the interior view, which appeared on September 11, 1852, depicts the opening of the library.

after fifteen hours' work

The Ten Hours Movement, a workers' movement advocating shorter work hours, began in the early 1830s. When Hard Times was published, the 1853 Factory Act, which mandated 10 ½-hour workdays and shorter hours on Saturdays, had been in effect for just a year.

They took Defoe to their bosoms instead of Euclid, and seemed to be on the whole more comforted by Goldsmith than Cocker.

Dickens here is making the point that the working people who used the free libraries were more interested in literature, such as the novels of Daniel Defoe (1660-1731), author of Robinson Crusoe (1719), and the poetry and fiction of Oliver Goldsmith (ca. 1730-74), author of The Vicar of Wakefield (1764). Euclid, on the other hand, was a Greek mathematician, best known for his work on geometry, and Cocker was Edward Cocker (1631-75), author of a standard text of arithmetic.

Utilitarians like Gradgrind were concerned about the reading habits of the working class (evangelicals and other religious workers also wished to influence their reading habits). A tabulation of borrowing habits at the Manchester Free Library shows that in the first year of its existence the literary books, including poetry and fiction, was far and away the most popular section, followed by theology and philosophy, history and biology, and scientific works. The most popular book of all, according to an article that appeared in Household Words five weeks before Hard Times began publication, was the Arabian Nights, alluded to several times in Hard Times.



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