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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES

 

There are those who feel that Dickens so idealized Catherine's sister Mary (whose death at seventeen devastated Dickens) that no one could hope to compare with her. This worship of the ideal woman can be seen in many of Dickens's female characters: Agnes Wickfield in David Copperfield, Esther in Bleak House, Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, Kate Nickleby in Nicholas Nickleby, Sissy Jupe in Hard Times, and others. Some readers feel that this need to put certain women on a pedestal prevented his female characters from attaining the depth and complexity of their male counterparts.

Dickens's vanity grew with his success, and he began more and more to see Catherine critically. The couple began to separate, first emotionally, and then literally. You'll see in Hard Times how his frustration at the divorce laws found its way into that novel.

Dickens began to see a young actress, Ellen Ternan, who at eighteen was young enough to be his daughter. He loved her deeply, and she was at his side when he died.

Dickens's writing skills and his social conscience merged when he began a weekly periodical in 1850. He invited many of his friends to contribute history, fiction, reviews, and essays that portrayed social matters. The purpose of the periodical was "to cherish the light of Fancy which is inherent in the human heart." (Remember this phrase as you read Hard Times.)

Each issue (or number) of the magazine, called Household Words, dealt with a social problem: government aid for education, alcoholism, illiteracy, factory accidents, industrial schools. These articles often championed radical ideas, and they were so skillfully blended with entertainment that the magazine was an enormous success. Pioneers in sanitary and housing reform gave Dickens much credit for bringing their causes to the general public.

It was at a time when sales of Household Words were low that Dickens decided to write a weekly serial that would match the popularity of some of his earlier works. Since his previous novels had been written in monthly numbers, the task of writing weekly episodes was exhausting. Yet he was spurred by the challenge of writing about the horrors of the Industrial Revolution that had so shocked him in Manchester fifteen years before. In this way Hard Times was born and helped the magazine's popularity considerably. Dickens said at the time that the purpose of the novel was not to create social unrest, but to foster understanding between management and labor.

Hard Times has not enjoyed the critical success of such Dickens's masterpieces as David Copperfield (1849-50) and Great Expectations (1860-61). Some readers have charged that it does not explore factory life with the same perceptive detail with which he exposed the courts in Bleak House. (And it is strange that, for all of the talk of worker hardship in Hard Times, Dickens never takes us within the factories themselves.) Some readers even point to the Stephen Blackpool sequences as melodramatic and unbelievable.


The novel does have its champions; some regard Hard Times as one of his finest works of satire. They cite its economy (it is one of Dickens's shortest novels), its passion, and its prophetic portrait of social ills in their praise of the book. As always, Dickens tells a wonderful story, one with suspense, humor, deeply felt emotion, and tenderness. Dickens the entertainer is never blotted out by Dickens the reformer.

How successful was Hard Times as a document of radical social change? It's often impossible to gauge the exact influence a book has on a culture, since its effects materialize slowly. And Dickens was not the only writer pointing to the hideous results of industrialization. (Elizabeth Gaskell, another novelist and a friend of Dickens, wrote about similar topics in such books as North and South.) Yet his immense readership guaranteed that the public would become aware of the plight of the factory workers in greater numbers than could be reached by any newspaper.

By the 1890s, conditions for the workers had improved somewhat, thanks largely to the workers themselves, who formed trade unions that forced reforms on employers. Even though Dickens criticizes the unions in Hard Times, he would have been the first to applaud these reforms. Such passionate social critics as George Bernard Shaw acclaimed Dickens as a supreme influence on the betterment of English society. (He thought Dickens's novel Little Dorrit was as radical and rebellious a work as Karl Marx's Das Kapital.)

In 1858, Dickens began to give a series of public readings from his own work. He was a marvelous performer, as popular onstage as he was in print. But the exhausting performances damaged his health, which declined seriously over the next few years.

Despite illness he took a trip to America. He had been there years before, and a resulting book, American Notes (1842), made some Americans furious at the way Dickens had portrayed them. But during this visit in 1867, he was greeted with a frenzy we might reserve for a rock star today.

Dickens returned to England in extremely poor health. He died of a paralytic stroke on June 9, 1870. At the time, he was writing The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which he never finished.

Even if you've never read a Dickens novel, it's likely that you know his work anyway. Countless movies, television shows, musicals, and plays have been based on his work. Scarcely a Christmas season goes by without a new version of A Christmas Carol (1843). So you may "know" Dickens without having read a word of his writing. But there's no substitute for his own words. No adaptation can do justice to his genius. Like all great writers, Dickens created worlds both recognizable and magical. Like Shakespeare, Dickens embraced all levels of society and invested each one with his own generous touch of humanity.

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