Thursday, April 01, 2010

Pop History Moment: Charles Dickens Published "Hard Times"

On this day in 1854 Charles Dickens sought to give his weekly newspaper Household Words a boost in circulation by serializing his tenth novel Hard Times within its pages; in the weeks that followed readership more than doubled, and by the time the serialization had run its course on August 12th the author had another fat* hit on his hands, despite the fact that it's the most incongruous of all his works...

PhotobucketIn part a specific critique of utilitarianism** (rather than a general criticism of socioeconomic conditions), Hard Times eschews the London setting of all his other works in favour of the fictional Coketown - which was based, in part, on such northern mill towns as Preston. It also, interestingly, was not illustrated - although the illustration, shown at right (of the novel's protagonist Mr. Gradgrind, apprehending his children Louisa and Tom from the circus) was made by Harry French to accompany the serialization in Household Words.

Wildly popular with the reading public at the time, Hard Times has been receiving mixed reviews with critics ever since it first appeared; John Ruskin loved it, while Thomas Macaulay branded it 'sullen socialism', and George Bernard Shaw seemed to want it both ways by declaring it a 'passionate revolt against the whole industrial order of the modern world'***. Dickens, of course, valued people over profits, and for this reason in general - as much as for his experimental zeal in this work specifically - Hard Times remains a stalwart of the stacks at the Pop Culture Institute.

*110,000 words, in fact!
**A typically harsh political ideology for the times, which was as antithetical to Dickens' nature as neoconservatism is to my own.
***Shaw's criticism, true to type, was eminently fair; he felt Dickens failed to grasp the reality of trade unionism in that era, inventing a typically middle-class bogeyman in the character of union leader Slackbridge which Shaw felt was inaccurate. That unions could be as heartless and rapacious and even corporate as those they were intended to rein in, however, wouldn't have occurred to Shaw.
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