In all the work of the early fifties the idea of muddle is spreading over wider and wider social fields. Hard Times came out between April and August 1854, and Stephen Blackpool’s reiterated comment, ‘’Tis a’ a muddle’ is superficially the least hopeful moral to be got from any novel Dickens wrote. Discussion of the book has often centred too much on Macaulay’s condemnation of it as ‘sullen socialism’, and the almost exaggerated praise that Ruskin gave it in Unto this Last; for it is the least read of the novels and probably also the least enjoyed by those who read it. Even Mr Edwin Pugh called it ‘dry’, ‘hard’, and ‘the least alluring’ of them all. The most common general explanation of the book’s failure is that Dickens was writing of people and things quite outside the range of his own experience. This is, in itself, of course, no explanation at all, or A Tale of Two Cities would stand equally condemned; but the decision to write just when he did about industrial Lancashire with no more experience than deliberate copy-hunting could give him was peculiar in several ways. The fashion for industrial novels was already passing: Martin Armstrong, Helen Fleetwood, Sybil, Mary Barton, and forgotten stories by such people as Camilla Toulmin, belong to the late thirties and forties, the period of Chartism, terrific unemployment and angry strikes.
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