From the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, Britain became known for its production of cotton textiles. Technological advances such as the spinning jenny (1764) and Eli Whitney's cotton gin created fast and efficient factories, mainly based in the north of England; Manchester became known as "Cottonopolis". Britain would buy cotton from India, process it, and sell the finished textiles to its captive colonial markets in Africa, India and China.
By the 1840s, Britain's demand for cotton was outstripping supply. It was time-consuming and costly to ship all its raw cotton from India, and the mechanized industry was using more cotton than India could produce. Britain began to look to America and the West Indies for raw cotton: it was easier to ship straight across the Atlantic, and cheaper as it was produced by slaves. As a result, cotton cultivation became the prime occupation of slaves in the United States.
Cotton plants are low-growing shrubs with sharp seed pods that can cut skin; picking cotton is back-breaking work.
Charles Dickens (1812-1870) is arguably the most famous British author of the Victorian era. His novels have never been out of print, and continue to be widely read and adapted today. After his father was imprisoned for debt, Dickens worked while still a child in a shoe polish factory. These events instilled in him a life-long sense of social injustice often explored in his novels. His work was initially published in serial form: Dickens wrote as it was published, enabling him to adjust plots in response to his audience's wishes.
In 1842 Dickens visited America for the first time, spending a month in New York City and meeting with President John Tyler in Washington. The trip resulted in two works, American Notes for General Circulation and Martin Chuzzlewit, which is partly set in America. American Notes was controversial as it strongly condemned slavery, and Martin Chuzzlewit likewise provoked outrage for its portrayal of America as an uncivilised wilderness populated by a range of sly or stupid characters.
The magazine Household Words was edited by Charles Dickens himself. It was published from 1850 to 1859, priced at tuppence, and contained fiction and non-fiction largely aimed at social reform. As well as a number of serialised novels by Dickens himself, the magazine also published works by other Victorian writers such as Elizabeth Gaskell and Wilkie Collins.
This novel is Hard Times, published in Household Words from April 1854. It is set in the fictional town of Coketown, based on Dickens' visit to Preston. The novel explores themes such as utilitarianism, factory working conditions, and trade unionism, but has had a mixed response from critics since its publication. The novel was John Ruskin's favourite of Dickens' work, but George Bernard Shaw later criticised the accuracy of its portrayal of trade unions, and more generally questioned Dickens' understanding of the underlying social issues.