THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
In 1839, Charles Dickens, whose popular novel Oliver Twist had just been published, took a trip to Manchester, a city in northwest England. It was a trip that was to change his life and result in one of his most bitter and controversial novels, Hard Times.
In Manchester, Dickens was taken to see cotton mills typical of those that had sprung up in northern England as a result of the Industrial Revolution. The invention of the steam engine in the late eighteenth century was a major force behind this "revolution." Power became accessible and inexpensive, and factories boomed with production.
There was a darker side to this teeming productivity, however. The methods of organizing the workers for maximum efficiency often led to miserable working conditions; long hours, hard work, dangerous machinery. Young children were often put to work, despite laws that were meant to prevent the abuse of minors. Workers were housed in slums with filthy sanitation. Factories poured poisonous smoke into the atmosphere, darkening the skies and threatening the health of anyone who lived in the town.
Laws were passed that offered some protection to these workers, but factory owners often disregarded them, and the laws were difficult to enforce. So the dangerous machinery and poor sanitation continued, and many owners felt they had no responsibility to their employees except to pay them wages that were established by the laws of supply and demand. Prosperity, so said many in charge, depended on high profits and inexpensive labor.
The basis for much of this abuse, according to writers such as Dickens and the Scots essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle (to whom Hard Times is dedicated), was the political philosophy of Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism had its roots in the laissez-faire doctrine of the Scots economist Adam Smith, expressed in his book The Wealth of Nations (1776). Laissez-faire means, in the original French, "leave alone," and Smith's book detailed his opposition to governmental interference in the economy of a nation.
Smith's ideas were elaborated by the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, the founder of Utilitarianism, and then further developed by the English economist and philosopher John Stuart Mill. In simple terms, the Utilitarians sought "the greatest happiness for the greatest number"- in other words, whatever was correct for the majority, particularly in regard to economic profit, was thought to be correct for everyone. The Utilitarians brought about important social reforms.
Yet, as Dickens and others pointed out, Utilitarianism was subject to abuse, particularly where the poor minority were concerned. In striving for greater profits that would benefit the nation, management often exploited the workers, and politicians winked at their exploitation. In Hard Times, Gradgrind Sr. is portrayed as a strict Utilitarian, who practices his philosophy at home and in the school he governs. Like others of his kind, he sees little reality beyond profit and loss.
After visiting Manchester, Dickens wrote to a friend: "I went to Manchester and saw the worst cotton mill. And then I saw the best... There was no great difference between them." The workers made a lasting impression on Dickens. He wrote: "...what I have seen has disgusted me and astonished me beyond all measure. I mean to strike the heaviest blow in my power for these unfortunate creatures."
For Dickens, striking the "heaviest blow" meant using his pen. Few writers have ever been so popular in their lifetimes. His work combines elements of hilarious and thrilling entertainment with sharp condemnations of society, and many readers believe he blended these elements more skillfully than any other novelist in the English language- before or since.
Born in Portsmouth, England, in 1812, he was the son of John Dickens, a clerk for the Navy. The elder Dickens, who later moved his family to London, was known as a warm-hearted, generous man, who, however, often found himself broke. (In the novel David Copperfield, Dickens offers a fictionalized portrait of John Dickens in the character of the lovable but irresponsible Mr. Micawber.)
John Dickens's free-spending ways resulted in two traumatic incidents for young Charles. At the age of twelve, when his family's finances slipped badly, Dickens was forced to work in a blacking factory (which manufactured boot blacking or shoe polish). Dickens was devastated! He felt abandoned and discarded by his family. The lofty ambitions to become a man of learning crumbled. Throughout his life he refused to discuss the experience with anyone but vowed he would never again have to endure such hardship. His wife and children never knew until after his death that he had worked in a factory as a child.
The terror and anger this incident caused found its way into several of Dickens's novels as he created many children orphaned or abandoned by their parents: Jo in Bleak House, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby and his sister Kate, Sissy Jupe in Hard Times, and others. While some accuse Dickens of often sentimentalizing these characters, others point to how those young people reflect the deep sense of rejection he must have felt.
The second traumatic incident occurred soon after Dickens left the blacking factory, when his father was arrested for debt and sent to prison. For three months Mrs. Dickens and her children lived there with him, allowed their freedom during the day, but locked in at night. Charles lived elsewhere, hating the confines of the prison and embittered at the complicated laws that kept his father there. Little by little, Charles Dickens was developing the soul of a reformer. Life in a debtor's prison became the basis for one of his more complex and mature novels, Little Dorrit.
A change in his father's fortunes allowed Charles to return to school. He had always been precocious, reading hungrily whatever he could- newspapers, history, fairy tales, all of which influenced his later writing. A love of the theater inspired him to create lively characters, suspense, comic high spirits, and excitement in his work.
After leaving school, Dickens worked for a time as an office boy in a law firm, and then as a newspaper reporter, writing general news for one paper, reporting on the affairs of Parliament for another. It was through these jobs that Dickens developed a lifelong distrust of the law, a contempt that emerged in such novels as Bleak House and Hard Times.
He began to write short fictional sketches about London life and characters, using the pen name "Boz." The broad appeal of these sketches led one editor to ask Dickens to try an experiment- to write a novel in serial form, several chapters per month. Novels were usually published in three volumes, making them expensive for the average person. Publishing them in a monthly magazine would make them more accessible and inexpensive.
The result was The Pickwick Papers (1836-37), an immediate success. It may be difficult to understand how the weekly installments of a book could create the fever pitch of excitement that Pickwick did. But if you remember that, without television or movies, Victorians turned to books for their entertainment, you might understand that they awaited the next installment just as eagerly as you may look forward to a new episode of your favorite television show. "Boz" was the toast of London, and everyone wanted to know who he was.
Dickens soon dropped his pen name as he continued to write serials, sometimes beginning one at the same time he was writing another. And while Pickwick Papers is a comic romp through the towns and countryside of England, the later novels began to explore some of the murkier aspects of big city life in the nineteenth century. Oliver Twist (1837-38) examines the plight of the poor who lurked in London's underworld. Nicholas Nickleby (1838-39) deals in part with the abuses of schools that mistreated and victimized their students. Bleak House (1852-53) looks at the weighty and impossibly complicated affairs of the court system.
Yet if Dickens had been nothing more than a moralizing social critic, it's unlikely that his works would be read and enjoyed today. He was, first and foremost, one of the supreme entertainers in literary history. His books have intricate plots, memorable characters, brilliant comedy, intense emotion. But Dickens, despite his popularity, was constantly afraid of losing his public. If the sale of a magazine that contained one of his serials began to drop, Dickens might alter the plot in some way to bring people back. That he was able to combine popular appeal with literary genius (second only to Shakespeare, according to many) is a testament to his incredible skill.
Unfortunately, Dickens's personal life did not always match the success of his writing career. At the time he was writing The Pickwick Papers (1836) he married Catherine Hogarth, the daughter of one of his editors. For a time the marriage was quite happy, and Catherine eventually bore him ten children. But as the years passed, Dickens began to find his wife lazy, clumsy, socially inept- not at all the kind of wife he felt a man of his stature deserved.
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