"Macaulay, with unerring inaccuracy, called Hard Times 'sullen socialism.' If he had called it rampant anarchism, he would have been nearer the mark, if still wide of the target" — Hesketh Pearson, Dickens, London: Cassell, 1949. Page 212.
On 7 February 1812, Charles Dickens was born at a modest house in Mile End Terrace, Landport, a suburb of Portsmouth, where his father was a clerk in the Navy Pay Office. He was the second in what would prove to be a family of six children. When John, the son of a footman and a housemaid and a young man of tastes too extravagant for his income, was imprisoned at the Marshalsea, London, for non-payment of debts in mid- February, 1824, Charles began the daily grind at Warren's Blacking at 30 Hungerford Stairs, the Strand, London. Torn from his beloved books (his favourite being The Arabian Nights) and family, and living away from home in a garret, the sensitive twelve- year-old worked alongside such common boys as Bob Fagin, gluing labels on pots of shoe-polish at six shillings a week. Although his father was released on 28 May, 1824, as an insolvent debtor, the experiences of those three months in the rat-infested warehouse and the dismal prison were seared into the boy's memory. An inheritance from the paternal grandmother provided sufficient (though temporary) financial relief for Charles to resume his formal education. For the next two-and-a- half years he attended Wellington House Academy, Hampstead Road, as a day student. The school gave the young man who would become England's leading novelist at the age of 24 plenty of grist for the mill of his imagination: a sadistic Headmaster ignorant of everything except the use of the cane, a burned-out Latin master, a fat dancing master. In addition to some familiarity with such subjects as penmanship, English composition, history, geography, French, and mathematics, Dickens acquired, as Hesketh Pearson remarks in his biography, "a profound respect for money. He won several prizes and ended up as first boy. . . . . With another boy he issued a weekly newspaper, written on copybook scraps . . . [and] wrote and produced plays, one of which dealt in blank verse with the purely imaginary atrocities committed by the father of a pampered pupil" (12).
Early in 1827 the Dickens family was again feeling the pinch of unpaid bills when Charles's elder sister, Fanny, met a young solicitor who agreed to obtain for her brother a post as clerk in the law offices of Ellis and Blackmore, Holborn Court, Gray's Inn. Charles was now fifteen years old. However, a second, more likely career opened for the young man through his father who, having been pensioned off from the Navy Pay Office at the end of 1824, had been working as a shorthand reporter to a newspaper, covering debates in the House of Lords. Covering the Commons' debates, Dickens launched himself into fiction-writing with Sketches by Boz and The Pickwick Papers, published in monthly instalments from April, 1836, to November, 1837. There followed a brilliant succession of bildungsroman and picaresque novels that made their young author a household name throughout the English-speaking world.
By mid-century, however, Dickens's work as a quaint anecdotalist--"The Fielding of the Nineteenth Century"--was over. Gradually he had become a satirical and sometimes bitter critic of social vices, as in Bleak House (published monthly from March, 1852, to September, 1853) and an analytical novelist trying to sift the meaning of his own anguished childhood and rise to stardom in David Copperfield (again, published monthly--from May, 1849, to November, 1850). The year prior to his attempting his first weekly serialization for his journal Household Words, Dickens had begun his celebrated public readings which brought to life such memorable characters as Scrooge, Fagin, Nancy, and Sykes. Three years prior to Hard Times his father had died. Charles Dickens's third and final daughter, Dora, was born and died in 1850; his seventh and last child, a boy, had been born in 1852. When, exhausted from the mammoth labour of writing Bleak House, he began writing his new industrial novel in January, 1854, death, parents, parenting, and children were much on his mind. So, too, were the protracted mill strike at Preston in Lancashire, the problems of the working poor ("They are born at the oar, and they live and die at it," he wrote to a correspondent. "Good God, what would we have of them!"), and the money morality of the factory system.
Related Materials on Hard Times
- Charles Dickens's Hard Times for These Times as an Industrial Novel
- Charles Dickens's Hard Times: Bibliography of Suggested Readings
Last modified 8 June 2007