Charles Dickens was born on February 7, 1812, and spent the first nine years of his life in Kent, a marshy region by the sea in the southeast of England. Dickens’s father, John, was a kind and likable man, but he was incompetent with money and piled up tremendous debts throughout his life. When Dickens was nine, his family moved to London, and later, when he was twelve, his father was arrested and taken to debtors’ prison. Dickens’s mother moved his seven brothers and sisters into prison with their father but arranged for Charles to live alone outside the prison, working with other children at a nightmarish job in a blacking warehouse, pasting labels on bottles. The three months he spent apart from his family were highly traumatic for Dickens, and his job was miserable—he considered himself too good for it, earning the contempt of the other children.
After his father was released from prison, Dickens returned to school. He tried his hand professionally as a law clerk and then a court reporter before becoming a novelist. His first novel, The Pickwick Papers, became a huge popular success when Dickens was only twenty-five; he was a literary celebrity throughout England for the remainder of his life. At about this time, he fell in love with Mary Beadnell, the daughter of a banker. In spite of his ambition and literary success, Dickens was considered her social inferior in terms of wealth and family background, and Mary’s father prohibited the marriage. Several years later, Dickens married Catherine Hogarth. Although they had ten children, Dickens was never completely happy in this marriage, and he and Catherine eventually separated.
Though the young blacking factory employee had considered himself too good for his job, the older novelist retained a deep interest in and concern for the plight of the poor, particularly poor children. The Victorian England in which Dickens lived was fraught with massive economic turmoil, as the Industrial Revolution sent shockwaves through the established order. The disparity between the rich and poor, or the middle and working classes, grew even greater as factory owners exploited their employees in order to increase their own profits. Workers, referred to as “the Hands” in Hard Times, were forced to work long hours for low pay in cramped, sooty, loud, and dangerous factories. Because they lacked education and job skills, these workers had few options for improving their terrible living and working conditions. With the empathy he gained through his own experience of poverty, Dickens became involved with a number of organizations that worked to alleviate the horrible living conditions of the London poor. For instance, he was a speaker for the Metropolitan Sanitary Organization, and, with his wealthy friend Angela Burdett-Coutts, he organized projects to clear up the slums and build clean, safe, cheap housing for the poor.
Though he was far too great a novelist to become a propagandist, Dickens several times used his art as a lens to focus attention on the plight of the poor and to attempt to awaken the conscience of the reader. Hard Times is just such a novel: set amid the industrial smokestacks and factories of Coketown, England, the novel uses its characters and stories to expose the massive gulf between the nation’s rich and poor and to criticize what Dickens perceived as the unfeeling self-interest of the middle and upper classes. Indeed, Hard Times suggests that nineteenth-century England itself is turning into a factory machine: the middle class is concerned only with making a profit in the most efficient and practical way possible. Hard Times is not a delicate book: Dickens hammers home his point with vicious, often hilarious satire and sentimental melodrama. It is also not a difficult book: Dickens wanted all his readers to catch his point exactly, and the moral theme of the novel is very explicitly articulated time and again. There are no hidden meanings in Hard Times, and the book is an interesting case of a great writer subordinating his art to a moral and social purpose. Even if it is not Dickens’s most popular novel, it is still an important expression of the values he thought were fundamental to human existence.