blue book

"Blue books" was the Victorian term for Parliamentary reports, generally containing much statistical information, which had blue paper covers.

Mr. M'Choakumchild said he would try me again. And he said, This schoolroom is an immense town, and in it there are a million of inhabitants, and only five-and-twenty are starved to death in the streets in the course of a year. What is your remark on that proportion? And my remark was—for I couldn't think of a better one—that I thought it must be just as hard upon those who were starved, whether the others were a million, or a million million.

Sissy, as Dickens's representative of compassion and humanity in the novel, here takes the part of the small group who has starved. Her attitude implicitly criticizes the great principle of Benthamite Utilitarianism: that a rational society should have as its goal providing the greatest happiness to the greatest number of its members. Sissy's objection to M'Choakumchild's scenario points out the flaw in this reasoning: that the miserable remain just as miserable, whether others are happier or not.

In the hardest working part of Coketown; in the innermost fortifications of that ugly citadel, where Nature was as strongly bricked out as killing airs and gases were bricked in; at the heart of the labyrinth of narrow courts upon courts…

The centers of Victorian cities, lacking good sanitation and desperately overcrowded, were terribly unhealthy. "The Quiet Poor," an article that appeared in Household Words on April 8, describes a similar slum in the London area. (To download the article, see Issue 2.) These two pictures of such areas in Birmingham are taken from an 1880 work, Old and New Birmingham, by Robert Dent:

a good power-loom weaver

The power-loom was invented in 1787, and improved and refined over the years. More than a hundred thousand such looms were operating in the northern manufacturing regions by 1845, but most workers were younger than Stephen, and many were women. Operating the power-loom was physically debilitating and poorly paid, and older men (such as Stephen was, in his milieu, at age 40) often turned to other employment.

This engraving of "Harrison's Improved Power-Loom" is taken from the Illustrated London News of August 23, 1851:

Ten years before the composition of Hard Times, on May 18, 1844, the
Illustrated London News published this engraving of the interior of a
power-loom factory:

The lights in the great factories, which looked, when they were illuminated, like Fairy palaces—or the travelers by express-train said so…

Dickens's description of the lit-up factories ironically mixes the fancy he advocates in Hard Times with the utilitarian atmosphere of the factories. It is telling that only the travelers on the express train—rushing past the factories—can think they look like "Fairy palaces." As Dickens's descriptions make clear, conditions on the factory floor were generally quite different. Nevertheless, British industry's manufacturing prowess was a point of pride for the nation, and as such it was prominently featured at the 1851 Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace (itself sometimes referred to as a "fairy palace"). On August 23, 1851, the Illustrated London News devoted an entire page to an engraving depicting the "machinery department" at the exhibition.

Click on image for larger view

one of the many small streets for which the favourite undertaker (who turned a handsome sum out of the one poor ghastly pomp of the neighbourhood) kept a black ladder, in order that those who had done their daily groping up and down the narrow stairs might slide out of this working world by the windows.

Working-class lodgings were often so tightly packed against each other, and so small inside, that undertakers had to use a ladder to remove the dead. An example of such housing in Manchester appears in a photograph of old houses from Manchester As It Is (1878):

A creature so foul to look at, in her tatters, stains and splashes, but so much fouler than that in her moral infamy, that it was a shameful thing even to see her.

Dickens is here implying that not only is Stephen's wife a drunkard (in itself shameful) but that she is probably sexually immoral as well. In Victorian fiction, women who are adulterous or otherwise sexually transgressive are often described as marked by their "moral infamy."

Mrs. Sparsit netting at the fire-side…

Netting was a form of needlecraft, popular among Victorian ladies, that used linen, cotton, or silk thread to weave mesh purses as well as mesh decorations for handkerchiefs and similar articles. The "cotton stirrup" was used to hold the proper tension for making knots. Dickens surely intends us to see a sharp contrast between Mrs. Sparsit's netting as a leisure pursuit and Stephen's hard, unremitting labor of weaving at the mill. Note that Mrs. Sparsit carries on her hobby instead of taking lunch, as a sign of gentility, while Stephen must forgo his lunch during his one break simply in order to have time to speak to his employer.

These examples of finished netting are from The Young Ladies' Journal Complete Guide to the Work-Table (1885):

played old Gooseberry

"Playing gooseberry" often meant acting as a fifth wheel or an undesired third party, spoiling a tête-à-tête between two lovers. However, here Bounderby is using it an a less familiar sense, simply to mean "to make havoc." Nevertheless, the connotations of spoiling a love affair may hint at one element of Mrs. Blackpool's bad behavior: her adultery, also noted in Bounderby's assertion that she "found other companions"—a phrase that appeared in the version of the novel that appeared in Household Words but was struck from the first bound edition, possibly because of its hints of indelicacy.

Lancashire dialect for "bridge"

Lancashire dialect for "trifles."

I ha' coom to ask yo, sir, how I am to be ridded o' this woman.

At the time Dickens wrote, there were two types of divorce: divorce a vinculo matrimonii (from the bond of marriage), which enabled divorcees to marry again, and divorce a mensa et thoro (from bed and board), which was in effect a legal separation. Church courts could grant the latter type, but a divorce a vinculo matrimonii could only be granted by an Act of Parliament—obviously, a costly proposition, and one involving a great deal of special influence.

However, the laws relating to divorce in England were undergoing reform even as Dickens wrote. In 1850, a royal commission was appointed to consider the laws of divorce; in 1853, the commission recommended that divorce cases be transferred from church courts to civil courts, and that these new courts be empowered to grant both types of divorces. Divorces a vinculo matrimonii were to be granted in cases of adultery, if the husband was suing; if the wife sought the divorce, she needed to show evidence of "aggravated enormity": that is, incest or bigamy on the husband's part. Divorces a mensa et thoro could be granted in cases of adultery, cruelty, or desertion. A bill based on these recommendations was introduced in Parliament during the serialization of Hard Times, but did not reach a vote. In 1857, the Matrimonial Causes Act was passed implementing these changes.

Spite o' all that, they can be set free for smaller wrongs than is suffered by hundreds an' hundreds of us—by women fur more than men—they can be set free for smaller wrongs.

The portion of this passage that follows the phrase "they can be set free for smaller wrongs" is unique to the Household Words edition of Hard Times; it was changed in the first volume edition. Some of the more pointed and topical mentions of divorce in the Household Words text relate specifically to the article "One of Our Legal Fictions," which appeared the week before this number of Hard Times and which discussed some of the injustices to women in particular that were inherent in the laws concerning marriage and divorce at the time. A second reference to the injustices to women in divorce law comes a short time later in the chapter, when Stephen says that the inability to get a divorce "brings many common married fok (agen I say, women fur of'ener than men) to battle, murder, and sudden death." The parenthetical aside is unique to the text in Household Words.

Doctors' Commons

The popular collective name for the canon-law courts in London that had jurisdiction over matrimonial cases. Dickens worked as a shorthand writer in Doctors' Commons from 1830 to 1832. Doctors' Commons was dissolved in 1857, when the Divorce Act transferred authority over such cases to new civil courts.

By Parliamentary

That is, by the cheapest form of rail travel,"Parliamentary" railroad; an 1844 Act of Parliament required all railways to run a daily passenger train at a rate not exceeding a penny per mile.