Charles Dickens edited Household Words, a magazine in which he serialized some of his own novels and those of other writers as well. In her biography of Mrs. Gaskell, Jenny Uglow documents the genesis of two novels on related topics which were published in Household Words within one year of each other–North and South and Hard Times:
With the new year of 1854 came greetings from Dickens, promising a business letter from Wills would follow “involving a proposal which I earnestly hope you will consider favorably and accept.” [Mrs. Gaskell] consulted Forster and sent him her outline [for North and South]…By this time Dickens’s own plans were beginning to alarm her. He seemed to be stealing her material, just as he had pinched her story of “the face”… in response to debates in London as well as to events in the North he began to write Hard Times. Hearing that it was due to start in Household Words in April, Elizabeth wrote worriedly to Forster. This time he could not reassure her because he simply did not know:
As to the content which Dickens’ story is likely to take I have regretted to see that the manufacturing discontents are likely to clash with part of your plan…I am your witness if necessary, that your notion in this matter existed before and quite independently of his.
…Dickens promised he had “no intention of striking,” although he would deal with the “monstrous claims at domination made by a certain class of manufacturers…”but I am not going to strike, so don’t be afraid of me.”
Of course, Dickens broke this promise.
The theme and part of the plot of Hard Times are not the only elements stolen from North and South; at least one descriptive passage in Hard Times is lifted directly from Mrs. Gaskell’s novel. Mrs. Gaskell describes how Mr. Thornton, the Manchester manufacturer, takes note of the contrast between his own mother’s sitting room and that of his new acquaintances from the South:
Somehow, that room contrasted itself with the one he had lately left; handsome, ponderous, with no sign of feminine habitation, except in the one spot where his mother sate, and no convenience for any other employment than eating and drinking. To be sure, it was a dining-room; his mother preferred to sit in it; and her will was a household law. But the drawing-room was not like this. It was twice—twenty times as fine; not one quarter as comfortable. Here were no mirrors, not even a scrap of glass to reflect the light, and answer the same purpose as water in a landscape; no gilding; a warm, sober breadth of colouring, well relieved by the dear old Helstone chintz-curtains and chair covers. An open davenport stood in the window opposite the door; in the other there was a stand, with a tall white china vase, from which drooped wreaths of English ivy, pale-green birch, and copper-coloured beech-leaves. Pretty baskets of work stood about in different places: and books, not cared for on account of their binding solely, lay on one table, as if recently put down. Behind the door was another table, decked out for tea, with a white tablecloth, on which flourished the cocoa-nut cakes, and a basket piled with oranges and ruddy American apples, heaped on leaves.
Dickens’s London visitor notes the unfeminine appearance of a room inhabited by the wife of a Manchester manufacturer:
From the mistress of the house, the visitor glanced to the house itself. There was no mute sign of a woman in the room. No graceful little adornment, no fanciful little device, however trivial, anywhere expressed her influence. Cheerless and comfortless, boastfully and doggedly rich, there the room stared at its present occupants, unsoftened and unrelieved by the least trace of any womanly occupation. …‘This, sir,’ said Bounderby, ‘is my wife, Mrs. Bounderby: Tom Gradgrind’s eldest daughter. Loo, Mr. James Harthouse.
Maybe Dickens thought that he could beat Mrs. Gaskell at her own game, but I don’t think there is any level on which he did–always understanding that farce and oversimplification were never her goals.