“Containing a Faithful Account of the Fortunes, Misfortunes,
Uprisings, Downfallings and Complete Career of the Nickleby Family”
The first chapter of Nicholas Nickleby is full of Dickens’s usual sarcasm. By chapter two, it was reminding me of The Pickwick Papers. The entire second chapter could have been cut from the book, without affecting the story in any way at all. It reminded me of something Jane Austen once said of Pride and Prejudice:
“The work is rather too light, and bright, and sparkling; … it wants to be stretched out here and there with a long chapter of sense, if it could be had; if not, of solemn specious nonsense, about something unconnected with the story …that would form a contrast, and bring the reader with increased delight to the playfulness and epigrammatism of the general style.” (— from a letter to Cassandra, February 1813)
(Not that Nicholas Nickleby is too light, bright, or sparkling!) Like The Pickwick Papers, Nicholas Nickleby contains unconnected stories (“The Five Sisters of York” and “The Baron of Grogzwig” — both in chapter 6) and a host of unconnected incidents and characters. One incident, for example, was put in apparently for the sole purpose of airing something the author disapproved of. After leaving Squeers, Nicholas seeks the position of secretary to Mr Gregsbury, a politician. It is very unlikely that anyone would out-and-out admit to the list of duties this Mr Gregsbury attempts to give Nicholas. Nicholas refuses the job, observing, “I see little to choose, between assistant to a brutal pedagogue [Mr. Squeers], and toad-eater to a mean and ignorant upstart” (Ch. 16). A number of the characters, such as Miss Knag, Mr. Mortimer Knag, the Kenwigs, and Mr. Lillyvick, are put in, not to further the story, but out of Dickens’s love of colorful characters. Also like The Pickwick Papers, Nicholas Nickleby is a bit of a travelogue.
Aside from these things, however, the story of Nicholas Nickleby is good. Nicholas is likable character. Since the strength of the book rests on Nicholas’s shoulders, his being a sympathetic character is important. In this, he succeeds. He is an amiable, energetic, honest young man, willing to work hard despite great difficulties and discouragement.
One of his greatest difficulties comes early on when his uncle, Ralph Nickleby, traps him. Nicholas had no reason to think that his uncle would send him to such a place as Dotheby’s Hall turned out to be. So he went — nearly penniless. Because he was almost penniless, he couldn’t leave without great difficulty. Ralph also ensured that Nicholas would think twice before leaving his situation, by making his assistance to Nicholas’s mother and sister dependent upon Nicholas’s remaining there. Thus Nicholas was trapped. Two things counteracted Ralph’s carefully laid plan, however: Nicholas’s conscience (which made him doubt his right to remain where he was, assisting in Squeers’s immoral activity) and his concern for his family (which led him to fear for what sort of situation Ralph might have placed his sister into).
I do think that despite Nicholas’s good qualities, he was a bit daft to leave his mother and sister to his uncle’s care after what Ralph had done to him. While at the school, Nicholas considered what his uncle might do to Kate, but “[h]e was willing to believe that Ralph Nickleby had conceived a personal dislike to himself. … and tried to persuade himself that the feeling extended no farther than between them.” (Ch. 8). After leaving Dotheboys, he confronts his uncle, but still leaves his mother and sister to his care: “Whatever step you take,” he tells his uncle, “I shall keep a strict account of. I leave them to you, at your desire. There will be a day of reckoning sooner or later, and it will be a heavy one for you if they are wronged.” (Ch. 20). Given the evidence he had of Ralph’s unscrupulousness, I think that this was unwise of Nicholas.
Mr. Squeers is an interesting, though nasty, character. He is a bully who thrives on wielding power over the oppressed, beating down the weak and miserable. He is a believable character — an extreme case, granted, but his character isn’t unusual. Who doesn’t know or know of a person who gets a high from lording it over others? From bullies on the playground to those who abuse their spouse or their children emotionally or physically, it is not an uncommon trait.
Amusingly, several men claimed to have been the original of Squeers! One of them even threatened to bring an action against Dickens for libel.
‘Nineteen, eh!’ said Ralph; ‘and what do you mean to do for your bread, sir?’
‘Not to live upon my mother,’ replied Nicholas, his heart swelling as he spoke.
‘You’d have little enough to live upon, if you did,’ retorted the uncle, eyeing him contemptuously. (Ch. 3)
While being a hard, merciless man, he is still penetrable through a chink or two. He thinks of a time when he was less hard, when he was wounded by his wife’s elopement with another man, when he sorrowed over his son’s (supposed) death. He has a small soft spot for Kate. He still treats her badly, exposing her to insult, and himself calling her a weak and silly girl when she crosses him, and threatens to have her “hauled downstairs like a drunken drab” (Ch. 54). Yet he has pleasure in thinking of her good sense in despising the men he introduces her to (Ch. 28), and in imagining “what his home might be if Kate were there”, feeling himself for the moment “ friendless, childless, and alone” (Ch. 31). He is crushed when he learns that Smike, the boy he “has persecuted and hunted down … to death” (Ch. 60) is his son, yet what most galls him is that his son died loving Nicholas, whom he hates.
Nicholas’s sister Kate is a charming girl. She is sweet and gentle, but has back-bone in defending her self-respect and her brother. Like her brother, she is willing to work hard. Her first job, as a seamstress, would have been very difficult for someone unused to the work, but she does it without complaining. She falls in love with Frank Cheeryble, a merry, buoyant, upstanding young man. I thought it was dreadful nonsense Nicholas came up with about Kate not being able to marry Frank. The only reason he had was that he was afraid that the Cheeryble brothers (Frank’s uncles, and Nicholas’s benefactors and employers) might not think as highly of him (Nicholas) as they did before. Shame on him! Frank didn’t try to go behind his uncles’ backs, though. He acknowledged his attachment to Kate to them, even though she had refused him. Thankfully, the Cheeryble brothers weren’t as nonsensical as Nicholas and Kate, so Frank gets his girl.
Nicholas’s love interest, Madeline Bray, is a long-suffering, generous girl, working on her own to support her deeply in debt and ill father — though, because of the demands he makes on her time, she is forced to seek financial help from an old admirer of her mother’s. However, she is also gullible and unwise. When her father tries to force her to marry an extremely old, lecherous, but rich, man, Madeline weakly allows herself to be used.
Madeline should have refused Arthur Gride. It would be wrong to marry such a wicked man, apart from any other considerations. She says, “I can discharge the duties of a wife: I can be all he seeks in me, and will.” Did it never occur to her that one of the duties of a wife is to love her husband, as one of his is to love her? That the fact that she loathes him, disqualifies her from being his wife? Also, Madeline knew that this man could have no good reasons for wishing to marry her, knowing as he did that she detested him. These two considerations alone should have been enough. However, she also should not have allowed her father to do her such a wrong, actually helping him in his guilt by her cooperation. In Our Mutual Friend Eugene Wrayburn, tells Lizzie Hexam that her refusal to educate herself does wrong to her dead father, as well as to herself, “By perpetuating the consequences of his ignorant and blind obstinacy. By resolving not to set right the wrong he did you. By determining that the deprivation to which he condemned you, and which he forced upon you, shall always rest upon his head.” (Book 2, Ch. 2). By allowing her father’s dislike of “learning” to harm her, Lizzie compounded his wrongdoing. It’s a pity that Eugene was not there to talk to Madeline, instead of Nicholas, who said nothing very sensible or to the point — except, perhaps his appeal to Madeline to “reflect before it is too late, on the mockery of plighting to him at the alter, faith in which your heart can have no share — of uttering solemn words, against which nature and reason must rebel …. Shrink from the loathsome companionship of this foul wretch as you would from corruption and disease. Suffer toil and labour if you will, but shun him, shun him, and be happy.” (Ch. 53)
As for the other characters, some were amusing, some not so much. I don’t like Mrs. Nickleby. She is selfish, self-important, foolish, and boringly verbose. Her garrulousness isn’t even amusing — as, say, Flora Finching’s is in Little Dorrit. I can’t imagine having to live day in, day out with someone like that, having to humor all that nonsense.
Tilda and John Browdie, friends of Nicholas’s, were delightfully comical and good-humored. The picture of John Browdie stuffing pillows in his mouth to keep from laughing out loud after he has helped Smike escape from Squeers is charmingly absurd. Tilda is a pretty, coquettish, and (unlike her childhood friend Fanny Squeers) honest and well-behaved young woman. She and Mr. Browdie make a charming couple and are a force for good in the story, willing to help even the spiteful Miss Squeers.
Mr. Mantalini is a funny, though bad, person. He is the husband of Kate’s first employer, Madame Mantalini. In numerous hilarious speeches (which are, unfortunately, liberally besprinkled with profanity), Mr. Mantalini declares his love for his wife, whom he calls “my soul”, “My senses’ idol!”, “little fairy”, and multitudinous other appellations — all the while squandering her money and having affairs. Himself he refers to as his wife’s “popolorum tibby” and, when she is vexed with him (which is often) asks, her, “Why will it vex itself, and twist its little face into bewitching nutcrackers?” (Ch. 21) and the like. He is able to talk his wife around with these “endearments” until he completely ruins her and then they live together in poverty as happily as an army of cats and dogs.
The Cheeryble brothers, Charles and Edwin (Ned), were somewhat amusing — especially their interaction with Tim Linkinwater:
‘So he is, brother Charles,’ returned Ned; ‘Tim is a treacherous dog. Tim is not to be trusted. Tim is a wild young fellow. He wants gravity and steadiness; he must sow his wild oats, and then perhaps he’ll become in time a respectable member of society.’ (Ch. 63)
They are two benevolent old gentlemen who worked their way from poverty to wealth and now spend their lives helping others — including Nicholas and his family. They are cheery gentlemen, as their name suggests, but can be a tedious at times.
Tim Linkinwater, that “wild young fellow”, is an old clerk who works for the Cheeryble brothers. When Nicholas comes to work with him, Tim is afraid that Nicholas may blot the accounts, which he has kept error-free for four and forty years. After observing Nicholas at work, however, he signifies his approval of him: “He has done it,” said Tim, looking round at his employers and shaking his head triumphantly. “His capital B’s and D’s are exactly like mine; he dots all his small i’s and crosses ever t as he writes it. The an’t such a young man as this in all London …. The City can’t produce his equal. I challenge the City to do it!” (Ch. 37)
Mrs. Squeers is a worthy partner to her husband, differing from him only in one point:
… both Mr and Mrs Squeers … held and considered that their business and profession was to get as much from every boy as could by possibility be screwed out of him. On this point they were both agreed, and behaved in unison accordingly. The only difference between them was, that Mrs Squeers waged war against the enemy openly and fearlessly, and that Squeers covered his rascality, even at home, with a spice of his habitual deceit; as if he really had a notion of someday or other being able to take himself in, and persuade his own mind that he was a very good fellow. (Ch. 8)
Mr. Squeers considers her an invaluable woman. He tells Nicholas, “She does things for them boys, Nickleby, that I don’t believe half the mothers going, would do for their own sons.” (Even Nicholas is forced to agree with him there: “I should think they would not, sir” — Ch. 8.) Mr. Squeers tells of his wife’s exploits with great relish. “One of our boys … got a abscess on him last week. To see how she operated upon him with a pen-knife! Oh Lor! … what a member of society that woman is!” he tells Ralph (Ch. 34). Mrs. Squeers is flattered by her husband’s good opinion of her:
‘That’s right,’ said Squeers; ‘and if [Nicholas] has a touch of pride about him, as I think he has, I don’t believe there’s woman in all England that can bring anybody’s spirit down, as quick as you can, my love.’
Mrs Squeers chuckled vastly on the receipt of these flattering compliments, and said, she hoped she had tamed a high spirit or two in her day. (Ch. 9)
Their children, Fanny and Wackford Jr., are dutiful copies of their parents.
Smike is one of the boys that lived with the Squeerses. Left there as a child, he is horrible mistreated used as their drudge. He becomes devoted to Nicholas, who is the only person who has ever shown him any kindness. When Nicholas leaves the school, Smike follows him, living as one of his famiy. Knowing of Nicholas’s fondness for Smike, Ralph Nickleby tries to hurt Nicholas through him (as the Squeers family had done before him). In one such attempt, he forges evidence to “prove” that Smike is the son of a Mr. Snawley. Despite this, Nicholas refuses to give the terrified Smike up to him. From this incident comes an interesting discussion of Nature between Nicholas and Charles Cheeryble. “So deeply rooted does [Smike’s] horror of [Mr. Snawley] appear to be,” said Nicholas, “that I can hardly believe he really is his son. Nature does not seem to have implanted in his breast one lingering feeling of affection for him, and surely she can never err.” Brother Charles corrects him.
“My dear sir,” replied brother Charles, “you fall into the very common mistake of charging upon Nature, matters with which she has not the smallest connection, and for which she is in no way responsible. Men talk of Nature as an abstract thing, and lose sight of what is natural while they do so. Here is a poor lad who has never felt a parent’s care, who has scarcely known anything all his life but suffering and sorrow, presented to a man who he is told is his father, and whose first act is to signify his intention of putting an end to his short term of happiness, of consigning him to his old fate, and taking him from the only friend he has ever had—which is yourself. If Nature, in such a case, put into that lad’s breast but one secret prompting which urged him towards his father and away from you, she would be a liar and an idiot.” ….
“The same mistake presents itself to me, in one shape or other, at every turn,” said brother Charles. “Parents who never showed their love, complain of want of natural affection in their children; children who never showed their duty, complain of want of natural feeling in their parents; law-makers who find both so miserable that their affections have never had enough of life’s sun to develop them, are loud in their moralisings over parents and children too, and cry that the very ties of nature are disregarded. Natural affections and instincts, my dear sir, are the most beautiful of the Almighty’s works, but like other beautiful works of His, they must be reared and fostered, or it is as natural that they should be wholly obscured, and that new feelings should usurp their place, as it is that the sweetest productions of the earth, left untended, should be choked with weeds and briers. I wish we could be brought to consider this, and remembering natural obligations a little more at the right time, talk about them a little less at the wrong one.” (Ch. 46)
Mr. Brooker is a man with a secret which he considers gives him a hold over Ralph Nickleby. I found him an unconvincing character. Or, rather, I found his repentance unconvincing. Notice, he never revealed his information about Smike until he found that he couldn’t make money out of it.
There are many, many other characters — Miss La Creevy, Newman Noggs, Sir Mulberry Hawk, Lord Frederick Verisopht, Mr Vincent Crummles, Walter Bray, Arthur Gride, and others. I was entertained recently when I watched a movie adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby and found that they had cut out a large number of the characters (probably more than half), without damaging the storyline at all.
While I don’t think that Nicholas Nickleby is as well-written as Oliver Twist, it was enjoyable, and much superior to The Pickwick Papers.
I read Nicholas Nickleby from August 17 to September 1, 2012.
The illustrations in this post are by Fred Barnard (1846-1896).