Nicholas Nickleby: An Introduction

Wherein we are introduced to the third of Dickens’ serial novels, Nicholas Nickleby (the fourth read of our Dickens Chronological Reading Club); with a glance at the context of Dickens’ life at the time–with other considerations; Finally, we have an overview of the whole of the reading schedule from 31 May through 4 July 2022; with a look ahead to the coming week.

by Boze

Frontispiece to Nicholas Nickleby, based on the original “green wrapper”

“As he was toiling over the more solemn adventures of poor Oliver Twist, all the humour of the recently completed Pickwick is reaffirmed in Nicholas Nickleby, which has some title to being the funniest novel Dickens ever wrote; it is perhaps the funniest novel in the English language.”

— Peter Ackroyd, Dickens

We meet again, friends, on our first day of reading Nicholas Nickleby! This is an exciting place in our journey because many critics consider Nicholas Nickleby to be Dickens’ first real masterpiece (though lovers of Pickwick might balk at that). If nothing else it’s the first book to demonstrate the full scope of his promise as a novelist, for in this book he weds the comedy of Pickwick and the pathos and melodrama of Oliver Twist with electrifying results. This is a hefty, hilarious, often very dark book, full of incident and eccentrics.

We’ll try not to give away any major spoilers in this post, though there will be discussion of important themes and motifs in the novel. If you’d like to begin the story completely unspoiled, skip down to the reading schedule at the bottom.

General Mems

If you’re counting, today is Day 148–and Week 22–in our #DickensClub! It will be Week One of Nicholas Nickleby, our fourth read of the group. Please feel free to comment below this post for the first week’s chapters, or to use the hashtag #DickensClub if you’re commenting on twitter.

No matter where you’re at in the reading process, a huge “thank you” for reading along with us! Heartfelt thanks to our dear Dickens Fellowship for retweeting these and for keeping us all in sync, and to The Circumlocution Office (on twitter also!) for providing such an online resource for us.

David Threlfall and Roger Rees in the 1982 recorded stage production of Nicholas Nickleby.

A very warm welcome to our newest members, Marnie F. and Sophia G.! Sophia has been reading with us since Pickwick; Marnie connected with Rachel due to a mutual love of the RSC’s recorded stage production of Nicholas Nickleby after reading Rachel’s love letter to it. Marnie will be joining us for the Nickleby discussion, and both she and Rachel have topical posts to share with us this week.

And for any more recent members or for those who might be interested in joining: the updated two-year reading schedule is at this link. If you have been reading along with us but are not yet on the Member List, we would love to add you! Please feel free to message her here on the site, or on twitter.

Nicholas Nickleby in Context

“The Internal Economy of Dotheboys Hall,” by Phiz. From https://www.charlesdickenspage.com/illustrations-nickleby.html

Having narrated the “parish boy’s progress” from criminality to domesticity in Oliver Twist, Dickens set himself a rather more ambitious task with his next novel, which divides its attention between the young hero and his sister, Kate, as they attempt to navigate a world of sadistic schoolmasters, avaricious uncles, rakish gentlemen, failed writers, bad actors, mysterious beggars, and melodramatic milliners. The cast of Nicholas Nickleby surpasses any of his previous books in its enormity and eccentricity; over the coming weeks we’ll meet Newman Noggs, the dissolute but faithful bachelor; Mrs. Nickleby, whose tongue sometimes runs ahead of her brain; Madame Mantalini and her sycophantic ne’er-do-well husband Alfred (“my soul’s delight … my essential juice of pineapple!”); the dastardly Sir Mulberry Hawk; the theater-loving Crummles and their daughter, the Infant Phenomenon; and many, many others. It is a miraculous book, and we are very lucky to have it.

Dickens’ Life in 1838-39 and the Writing of Nicholas Nickleby

Dickens in 1838. “Charles Dickens (aged 26).
Engraved portrait after the 1838 drawing in chalk by Samuel Laurence (1812-1884). An earlier portrait of Dickens by Laurence is dated October 1837.” From https://www.photohistory-sussex.co.uk/DickensCharlesPortraits.htm

The year 1837 was coming to an end, a year that had seen the flowering of the most remarkable literary career London had witnessed in more than two hundred years. The Pickwick Papers had ended and Oliver Twist was in progress. Dickens had ably demonstrated that he was more than just a one-off success: as gifted a comedian as a dramatist, now supremely confident in his talents, he held a mesmeric command over the reading public.

His brother-in-law, Henry Burnett, sets the stage for the year that would follow, by recounting a small new years’ party he held with some friends in his home at Doughty Street:

“It was near the hour of twelve, when up went the windows, and each person became mute, excepting an excusable whisper now and then from two or three ladies. The constrained silence was at an end as soon as the first stroke of a distant clock came upon the ear. Then a muffled counting was heard from one or two, and then the clear voice of our Host called out ‘Best Wishes and a kiss for each lady, and a Happy New Year to us all!’”

Being a homeowner, preparing for the birth of a second child, continuing to grieve the death of his sister-in-law Mary—the beginning of 1838 saw the twenty-five-year-old Charles Dickens on the cusp of great things. And in March, the opening chapters of Nicholas Nickleby, his third novel, would go to press.

Thematic Considerations

The Horrors of Yorkshire Schools

Oliver had shaken the conscience of middle-class England. Dickens was learning that he had power to effect social change on a vast scale, that he could improve the conditions of the working poor so that they never had to suffer what he had suffered. “What a thing it is to have power,” he once said to his wife, and he was determined in the pages of Nicholas Nickleby to address the cruelties of the infamous boarding school system in Yorkshire, in which young boys had been starved and beaten to death and lost their vision through malnourishment.

Prior to beginning work on the book Dickens took a trip to Yorkshire under the name “Hablot Browne” (the name of his illustrator, who was traveling with him), posing as the friend of a widowed mother who was seeking enrollment for her son. There he met the one-eyed schoolmaster William Shaw, whose boarding school of horrors, Bowes Academy, became a model for Dothebys Hall. It didn’t take long for Shaw to figure out that he was in the presence of the famous Charles Dickens; when the success of Nickleby resulted in the school being shut down he attempted to sue Dickens in vain. Dickens would later insist that the reality of the schools was much worse than anything depicted in the book, but that rendering them with any degree of accuracy would have strained plausibility; in fact, he made the school sequence broadly comical, as he later wrote, “rather than disgust and weary the reader with its fouler aspects.”

Money and the Lack of It

“For gold conjures up a mist about a man, more destructive of all his senses and lulling to his feelings than the fumes of charcoal.”

Nicholas Nickleby, chapter one

Money! At this point in his life Dickens was beginning to feel its life-changing potential. He had secured 2,000 pounds from the writing and publication of Pickwick, and Chapman and Hall offered him 150 pounds for each of the twenty monthly installments of Nickleby, a portion of which he immediately invested in a new bank account. It must have been utterly bewildering to reflect that he was once one of the poor “laboring hinds” doomed to a life of grinding factory work and starvation wages. He had bought a home in London; Catherine was pregnant again; he was earning additional sums from editing the memoirs of the famous clown Grimaldi. The transition from the world of poverty to the world of fame and success weighed heavily on him in the writing of this book, which deals above all with the difficulties of earning one’s living and the frustrations of imprudent parents.

Life as Theater

“In the second quarter of the novel,” writes Paul Benjamin Davis, “Dickens comes closest to finding its thematic center, for Nickleby is, in many ways, a novel about life as theater. Handsome and active in defending the downtrodden Smike or his unprotected sister, Nicholas is a stage hero; he has little inner awareness and does not seem to grow as a result of his experiences … It may be this very theatricality that made the Royal Shakespeare Company’s hugely successful 1980 dramatic adaptation so much more effective than the novel itself. In the stage melodrama we are not so aware of the lack of psychological depth as we are in reading the novel.”

Dickens’s Writing Lab: Plotting, Characterization, Villainy

Nicholas Nickleby has met with some criticism for its haphazard plotting and clumsy coincidences, particularly in the back half; but Dickens’s plotting abilities have taken a considerable step forward from the rambling jollities of Pickwick and the stagey melodrama of Oliver Twist. Here in Nickleby we have the first quintessentially Dickensian novel, if by Dickensian you mean “a deeply detailed and immersive fictional world,” filled with characters from all walks of society and plotted “with cunning and intricacy” to create, by the end of the story, a sense of overwhelming catharsis and satisfaction.

Dickens was also beginning to pay more attention to character. His villains and women, in particular, had suffered in previous books from being one-dimensional or non-entities, and he takes measures within this book to correct that. Michael Slater writes: “Despite the basic ‘sketch’ format and the interpolated tales in these initial numbers of Nickleby Dickens was clearly paying attention to characterisation, plot and structure. Ralph Nickleby represents his first attempt, however, crude and perfunctory, to ‘psychologise’ a character, accounting for villainous behavior in terms of response to early experience and upbringing. He looks forward to more complex characters like Jonas Chuzzlewit, Uriah Heep, Steerforth, Tom Gradgrind and Henry Gowan. As regards plot, Dickens lays the ground for a two-strand narrative by providing not only a young hero who has to leave his family to seek his fortune but also a heroine (sister to the hero) whose trials and tribulations will be set in London, and he loses no time in setting his wicked-uncle villain to work.” These early attempts to more fully develop his antagonists and women may not have been entirely successful, but at least he was making the effort, and that effort would bear much fruit in later books.

Additional References

At Books N’ Things, Katie Lumsden, one of the Dickens Club’s favorite vloggers, levels with us about the good and the bad of Nicholas Nickleby—the impressive structure, the sprawling and unruly cast of characters, Dickens’s habit of writing women with no personality (a habit that would extend into his middle period), and his inability to write romance in his early books. There are some light spoilers, but nothing that would ruin the book’s most delectable twists. In a similar vein, vlogger Emmie has been vlogging her way through Nickleby and all the Dickens novels. (Both videos begin with the joyful reading of the opening lines, which are some of Dickens’s best.)

Reading Schedule

Week/DatesChaptersNotes
Week One: 31 May – 6 June1-14Chapters 1-14 constitute the first four monthly “numbers” published March to June 1838.
Week Two: 7-13 June15-26Chapters 15-26 constitute the monthly numbers V-VIII, published July to October 1838.
Week Three: 14-20 June27-39Chapters 27-39 constitute the monthly numbers IX-XII, published Nov 1838 to Feb 1839.
Week Four: 21-27 June40-51Chapters 40-51 constitute the monthly numbers XXIII-XVI, which were published March to June 1839.
Week Five: 28 June – 4 July52-65Chapters 52-65 constitute the monthly numbers XVII-XX (the final month being a double number) published July to September 1839.
Schedule for our 2022 reading of Nicholas Nickleby

A Look Ahead to Week One of Nicholas Nickleby

“Upon my word! Fine beginnings, Mrs. Nickleby—fine beginnings!”

This week, we’ll be reading chapters 1 through 14, which constitute the first four monthly “numbers,” published between March and June 1838.

You can read the text in full at The Circumlocution Office if you prefer the online format or don’t have a copy. There are also a number of places (including Gutenberg) where it can be downloaded for free.

If you’re following along on audiobook, there are several recordings available, among them unabridged versions read by Simon Vance and Alex Jennings (The Queen, The Crown), and a heavily abridged version read by the prince of audiobook readers, Anton Lesser.

Since before it was even finished Nicholas Nickleby has been one of Dickens’s most frequently adapted works; the sheer number of hack dramatists attempting to produce stage versions of the opening chapters provoked Dickens to satirize them within the book in number XV, though without much effect. In recent years there have been multiple noteworthy TV and film adaptations, including a 2001 three-hour TV film with James D’Arcy and Sophia Myles and a 2002 film with Charlie Hunnam and Jim Broadbent. There’s also a filmed recording of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s nine-hour stage adaptation starring Roger Rees, about which much more anon.

37 Comments

  1. ” This is an exciting place in our journey because many critics consider Nicholas Nickleby to be Dickens’ first real masterpiece (though lovers of Pickwick might balk at that). If nothing else it’s the first book to demonstrate the full scope of his promise as a novelist, for in this book he weds the comedy of Pickwick and the pathos and melodrama of Oliver Twist with electrifying results.”

    That’s kind of gratifying to hear because Nicholas Nickleby is one of my favorite Dickens books. Actually, it’s one of my favorite novels ever. But I was under the impression critics generally admired it less. Not that they disliked it on the whole, but they tended to view it as a guilty pleasure. I believe Paul Benjamin Davis’s comments are pretty typical.

    Actually, you could argue that Dickens is a guilty pleasure for critics in general. The forewords they write for his books, unless those books are A Christmas Carol, Great Expectations and maybe A Tale of Two Cities, tend to be full of criticism of backhanded compliments.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dear Boze, I love your writing–what a marvelous intro!!! I can’t wait to comment at more length within the next day or so, as I’m actually ahead in the readings, and hope to keep on track for Nickleby, and be active in the comments a little earlier.

    Thank you so much for tackling these introductions! A true researcher extraordinaire!

    I added your name to the top of the post as well; even though it shows on the sidebar, I think it was still a bit confusing for some, as to the post author. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What marvelous opening chapters. I’ll try to separate a few thoughts by topic…

    DOUBLING and MONEY.

    In the history of Nicholas’ grandfather, Godfrey, vis-à-vis his own uncle, do we have a sort of “doubling” of what was to come with Nicholas, and Nicholas’ father? At least, the past seems to be repeating itself, and coming around again in a new form.
    It is a history of inheritances, of gains and losses. These quotes were especially striking:

    “…for gold conjures up a mist about a man more destructive of all his old senses and lulling to his feelings than the fumes of charcoal.” (And how Ralph’s senses have become dulled, or lulled into near-oblivion, his better nature, of which we occasionally hear the faintest stirrings, repressed and kept down by work, rush, hurry…and money.)

    “Speculation is a round game; the players see little or nothing of their cards at first starting; gains may be great—and so may losses. The run of luck went against Mr. Nickleby [senior]; a mania prevailed, a bubble burst, four stockbrokers took villa residences at Florence, four hundred nobodies were ruined, and among them Mr. Nickleby.” (Whew! We’ll see this again—but I won’t mention the novel, for spoilers.)

    OUTCAST. LIFELESS.

    In reading Nickleby, my head is always half in the RSC production. In that production, special emphasis is placed on the word “outcast”; and now that I think of it, is this entire novel perhaps about outcasts—versus those who *belong*?

    The **heartbreaking** description of the state of the boys at Dotheboys Hall, particularly in this paragraph:

    “How the last faint traces of hope, the remotest glimmering of any good to be derived from his efforts in this den, faded from the mind of Nicholas as he looked in dismay around! Pale and haggard faces, lank and bony figures, children with the countenances of old men, deformities with irons upon their limbs, boys of stunted growth, and others whose long meagre legs would hardly bear their stooping bodies, all crowded on the view together; there were the bleared eye, the hare-lip, the crooked foot, and every ugliness or distortion that told of unnatural aversion conceived by parents for their offspring, or of young lives which, from the earliest dawn of infancy, had been one horrible endurance of cruelty and neglect. There were little faces which should have been handsome, darkened with the scowl of sullen, dogged suffering; there was childhood with the light of its eye quenched, its beauty gone, and its helplessness alone remaining…”

    At the same time, ultimately, who is more cast-out than Ralph Nickleby, by his own choice?

    At one point it is mentioned in passing re: Ralph Nickleby, “as he was all alone.” I can’t think of a more solitary figure. In remarking on his home in Golden Square (gold=money), he is shown as immediately alone. He doesn’t want to know his family for fear that they might borrow or beg; he doesn’t want to be known at work, except for being rich. Even the precise nature of his work is unknown; there is a hazy cloud about it. Dickens so often equates people with their *work* that when one can’t put one’s finger on exactly what that work is…it perhaps a rather dubious thing!

    There is behind Ralph’s house a “melancholy little plot of ground behind” with its “crippled tree, that makes a show of putting forth a few leaves late in autumn…and, drooping in the effort, lingers on all crackled and smoke-dried till the following season, when it repeats the same process.” Isn’t that Ralph himself? What is such a loveless life but a mere lingering on? Putting on a halfhearted show, but having no real life animating it; its leaves never entirely falling in authentic sorrow or grief, allowing for new and green growth to come up in the Spring.

    PLACE/SOUND.

    Loved the description of Snow’s Hill/Saracen’s Head. Also, the description of Golden Square as a place of *sounds*–in fact, the *people* are *sounds*:

    – “Two or three violins and a wind instrument from the Opera band reside within its precincts”
    – “It is the region of song and smoke”
    – “street bands”; “itinerant glee-singers”

    HILARITY!

    I’m going to start taking lessons in compliments from Mr. Mantalini—I had a near disaster spitting out coffee while reading his terms of endearment (my senses’ idol; the demdest little fascinator!)

    How can one not LOVE a spoof on parliamentary and investment proceedings with a company called “United Metropolitan Improved Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking & Punctual Delivery Company”…?

    Okay, back to work. I’m trying to start commenting earlier in the week, so there we have it. I have more to write on the interpolated tales, etc, but will save that for elsewhere, & I’ve taken enough time away from work so far today. I’d definitely get a glare from Ralph.

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  4. In doing background reading for “Nickleby” I re-read Myron Magnet’s chapter entitled “The Problem of Aggression” in his 2004 book, “Dickens and the Social Order”. His opening paragraph begins: “‘Nicholas Nickleby’ isn’t just ‘about’ aggression; it is OBSESSED with it. Some act of violence impends or erupts in virtually every chapter, and hatred is the book’s most conspicuous emotion.” (11) Aggression in “Nickleby” is both physical – Squeers – and mental (psychological) – Ralph Nickleby’s schemes. Through these two characters in particular, “the book as a whole makes an extended analysis of aggression” and their “machinations turn the wheels of ‘Nickleby’s’ plot”. (16) After his discussion of this point, Magnet answers the question of “Where is all this aggression coming from?” by positing that “Though Dickens never had a simple view of the question of aggression . . . in ‘Nickleby’ he does have a consistent assumption about its source. It appears to him a constitutive element of human nature, universal among men, with virtually the status of an instinct.” (27)

    So what are we to make of this instinctive aggression? And what is Dickens trying to tell us through his treatment of it here?

    We should by this time be used to such aggression in Dickens. We’ve seen it since the very first sentence of the very first “Sketch” we read, “The Beadle – The Parish Engine – The Schoolmaster”: “How much is conveyed in those two short words – ‘The Parish!’ Though we did not, perhaps, know then – not being born in the 1830’s and thus being unfamiliar with the term – we certainly learned quickly, if not by the end of the paragraph that follows this sentence, then certainly by the end of “Oliver Twist”. Man is BY NATURE cruel. “So endemic is violence in the natural world, so violent are some of the instincts with which nature has endowed living creatures, that some animals devour their babies”. (28)

    In no uncertain terms Dickens shows us devouring our babies! He is, through his explication of aggression, forcing us to be aware of the need for constant vigilance. Without social awareness and involvement human nature will tend toward the path of least resistance – that of survival of the fittest. It is a mark of Society, of Civilization, that we care for those less fit, that we help each other, and thus by doing so we – all of us – survive.

    I realize this is a pretty serious post – Please know that I find “Nickleby” to be EXTREMELY funny. Fanny Squeers is a favorite, as are the Mantalini’s and the Kenwigs’s and Miss LaCreevy!

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    1. A lovely post, Chris. You take on the issue of “violence” (aggression) in NICKLEBY in its various forms and show how endemic it is in that and other Dickens’ novels. (And in British society at large.) I’m just going to expand a bit on that by mentioning the ways in which both Oliver and Nicholas respond to that endemic violence (in its various manifestations) that you point out….

      As Oliver, with his apparent innate goodness, so Nicholas in NICKLEBY. Oliver, although young and small and beautiful, to boot, really carries the moral center of HIS novel. He is constantly at odds with the various instigators and their instigations. When pushed to the wall, he goes into “action,” asking for more food, beating Noah at Mr. Sowerberry’s, becoming a reluctant thief in Fagin’s gang, and willing to disrupt the intended robbery at Mrs. Maylie’s. Due to his age and small stature, however, his various “rebellions” are often non-physical and non-violent–the thrashing of Noah the one exception that I can remember.

      But Nicholas is much older, physically and mentally strong, and seems at the beginning of HIS novel to be able to counter the various aggressions meted out to him and to others. He is willing to punish those who push him too far, physically as well as psychologically. His “physical” reaction to the sadistic treatment by Squeers and his wife of the boys at Dotheboys Hall is a good example of the way in which HE rebels against the status quo at the school. Given his moral and physical development at the beginning of the novel, he seems to be an outgrowth of the much younger Oliver in TWIST. In this more mature self, Nicholas can combat the various aggressions that occur in NICKLEBY and which threaten himself and others. When Fanny and Tilda conspire against him in their tea at the Hall, Nicholas is totally forthright in fending off their flirtations and particularly Fanny’s assumptions that he might fall in love with her. He meets HER sexual aggression with his assertiveness–which amounts to a kind of psychological dampening of her inflated interests in him. In so doing, we see him morally taking the right tack, punishing her psychologically in a manner as effective as his aggressive punishment of her father. In these situations, and in others that follow, we view HIM to be the ethical center of this novel–but in a more forceful way than Oliver. Unlike Oliver, whose rebellions are more passive (for obvious reasons), Nicholas becomes the assertive, sometimes aggressive “enforcer” of his novel.

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      1. Lennie, I love that you bring out an important “hidden” quality of Oliver – in your description of some of the actions he takes in OT – and in comparison to Nicholas. I’m so used to reading criticisms of Oliver as a passive character that I’ve entirely overlooked those actions as you describe them. A great way to recover, in a sense, the value of the much-abused (critically) character of Oliver.

        And your description of Nicholas’s action against Squeers as a “rebellion” is so perceptive. I think of CD walking around the actual site of Greta Bridge, Shaw Academy and the graveyard where so many boys were buried and conjuring up Nicholas, as perhaps a projection of himself, a grown man of action, rebelling against these horrendous conditions, personified by Squeers.
        Marnie

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    2. Chris, I really like your idea – or the one you quoted from Magnet – of the aggression in Nickleby being physical (Squeers) and mental (Ralph). Squeers’ aggression is physical but I don’t think it’s being driven by hatred, but – as you describe “instinctive aggression”. His attitude toward the boys, chillingly, reminds me, primally, of predator with his prey, an example of a force of Nature at its rawest and most elemental. There’s no reasoning with such a Force to make it stop. It can only be vigorously defended against. And so, Nicholas erupts in his own aggression against Squeers, but for me, his violence is absolutely defensive, justifiable and even admirable.

      On the other hand, Ralph’s aggression is non-violent in a physical sense but derives from hatred. Critics often describe Ralph as driven by love of money but I think he only uses money as a weapon. I think he had a kind of free-floating undercurrent of hatred toward the world at large and used money to strike out at everyone and everything he held in contempt. And then Nicholas came along. As I mention in chapter two of my Diary, something in Nicholas seems to touch on a sore spot for Ralph (perhaps relating to his earlier relationship with his brother) that makes him hate Nicholas right from their first meeting. And so that free-floating hatred inside Ralph crystallized around Nicholas, who then becomes the focal object of Ralph’s hate, which grows throughout the novel.
      Marnie

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  5. Nicholas Nickleby might be my favorite Dickens book, but I have to admit it doesn’t have the most engaging opening. I mean it’s witty, but it takes until Chapter 3 or maybe even Chapter 4 to really get into the story. Oliver Twist, on the other hand, is gripping right away.

    I just love Miss La Creevy! It’s hard to say why. She doesn’t do a lot. Her dialogue is just very fun to read. You’ve got to love her speech about the serious and the smirk. If you look at people’s pictures on social media, you’ll see it’s true.

    In general, I think Dickens did a better job with the good characters here than he did in Oliver Twist. Not that the heroes were badly written there. I’m a fan of Mr. Losberne in particular. But you probably wouldn’t want to read a whole book just about them. With Nicholas Nickleby, I think a book just about the good characters would still be engaging, not as fun as it is with the villains but still good.

    Speaking of villains, I think the Squeers family might be the best example of characters you love to hate in Dickens and that’s saying quite a bit!

    I suppose the interlude in Chapter 6 with the two travelers’ tales is technically a flaw. I don’t see a problem with the stories in Pickwick since there are so many of them that they just feel like part of the material, but it’s odd that Dickens would use this device for just one chapter in Nicholas Nickleby and then never again. But I really don’t mind them when I read the book. Neither of them may be the best thing Dickens ever wrote but they’re not bad and they do foreshadow what kind of a book this will, containing both melancholy melodrama and boisterous comedy.

    I first became acquainted with the story of Nicholas Nickleby when I was around 19 and a big part of the appeal of it for me was an ordinary guy my age standing up to bullies in such a spectacular fashion.

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    1. Stationmaster,
      Your mention of Miss La Creevy reminded me that, when re-reading the book and loving the character as I do too, I was surprised that it seemed that CD didn’t portray her in a totally favorable light in her first appearance in chapter 3. How did she strike you in that first scene in chapter 3, compared to the unquestionably sympathetic character we’re so familiar with? I wonder if CD, at that point, hadn’t meant for her to become so important a character in the narrative, but maybe decided that Kate and her mother needed one person to be their friend and support in London and so warmed up to the character – causing us to warm up to her. By the time Kate was sitting for Miss La Creevy’s miniature and Miss La Creevy called Ralph “the old savage” and declared that he probably could afford to grant a small allowance to his niece and her mother, she had won me over completely!
      Marnie

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m so sorry I didn’t notice your question about Miss La Creevy before! It’s possible Dickens suddenly changed his plans for the character. From what I understand, that wasn’t unprecedented for him. I don’t know if I’d bet on it though. While she seems like she’s more easily manipulated by Ralph in her first scene, it’s not so notable that it can’t be reconciled with her later cynicism about him. (She’d just met him after all. When I read the book the first time, I just assumed she’d gotten to observe him more between then and Chapter 10.)

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    2. Marnie: I think Jung and Freud would have a field day with these two “characters.” Their personalities, I believe, are (and must be) filled with self-hatred, and they project that “feeling” out upon the victims that they both want to destroy the most. Each of these men, as you say, are really “predators”–particularly in the ways that they seek out their victims, that they sort of sniff around them, sneering at their weaknesses and then take a kind of sadistic thrill in what they can “do” with them (Of course “DO” THE BOYS Hall comes first to mind), whether they be children or” Lords” of one kind or another. They prey on these beings, and just “kill” them, either harshly or softly.

      From a Jungian perspective, they are totally out of touch with their sensitivities toward children (NO ACTIVATION OF THE CHILD ARCHETYPE) and their general disregard toward people in general (NO ACTIVATION OF THE ANIMA within). Both of these key parts of their personalities have been relegated to their respective shadows, have, in fact, been split off at an early age, as their selves (personalities) have become increasingly more one-sided and ossified. In this regard, I’m beginning to see that the novels and stories of Dickens are filled with these “wooden” men AND women, totally cut off from the caring sides of their selves.

      I will say this about Ralph, though, that there are times when the anima/child archetypes break through just a teenie bit, and he begins to have some sense of the inappropriateness of what he is up to. Hence, the “second thoughts” that he has about turning loose Hawk and Verisopht on Kate…. (Talk about predators!)

      I’m a novice, compared to most if not all of you, in the reading of Dickens as a whole, but I’d bet that I’m (we are) going to come across more of these kinds of characters in our future readings. Thus, I guess what I’m saying is this: Dickens had an uncanny awareness of human psychology and really made the best of his instincts as he more and more thought about these injurious characters and what motivated them. They are the “destroyers” in his novels, and he felt–like Nicholas–to hold these evil beings accountable for what they have “done” (DO the boys, DO the folks!) to those around them.

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      1. I would not want to be anywhere near these “wooden” men and women, these destroyers, in life – but Dickens surely makes them into fascinating characters, even in the terrible damage they do to everyone around them.

        I, too, am very much a novice when it comes to Dickens, but his writing and everyone’s reflections here make me want to go on and read more.

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  6. I forgot to say above that the only good character in the novel I don’t really like is Tilda Price. She seems like kind of a jerk. You could argue though that she’s not supposed to be a good character at this point in the story.

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    1. Oh Stationmaster, I “love” Tilda–or at least the way Mr. D portrays her. The Vignettes involving her and Miss Squeers are just priceless (no pun intended). Note the reference to Austen’s MANSFIELD PARK–FANNY Squeers vs Matilda PRICE…. Lordy, LOTS of Austenian references in the opening chapters of NICKLEBY–the first paragraph for one! So many echoes of SENSE AND SENSIBILITY and PRIDE AN PREJUDICE

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      1. I actually love her too in that the game of oneupmanship (upwomanship?) between her and Fanny is hilarious. I just think she’s kind of a jerk from a realistic perspective, ragging on her friend’s looks, which she knows are a sensitive subject for her, and enjoying the prospect of stealing her alleged admirer. Not that Fanny’s such a great friend herself or anything.

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  7. Women, women, women everywhere in the opening chapters of NICKLEBY! Whether good or bad, innocent or evil–it’s just damn nice to have a sense of the feminine beginning to happen in Dickens. Got in touch with his anima, did he? We saw the beginning of this “feature” with Rose and Nancy in TWIST, but now we are experiencing the presence of women at all “levels” of society. There is more than a hint of Austen, here!! More later….

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  8. Not to burst anyone’s bubble, but according to John Forster, Dickens was unfamiliar with Jane Austen at the time of writing “Nickleby” – the similarities must therefore be a case of very great minds thinking alike!:

    “Nothing certainly could express better what the new book [“Nicholas Nickleby”] was at this time making manifest to its thousands of readers; not simply an astonishing variety in the creations of character, but what it was that made these creations so real; not merely the writer’s wealth of genius, but the secret and form of his art. There never was any one who had less need to talk about his characters, because never were characters so surely revealed by themselves; and it was thus their reality made itself felt at once. They talked so well that everybody took to repeating what they said, as the writer just quoted has pointed out; and the sayings being the constituent elements of the characters, these also of themselves became part of the public. This, which must always be a novelist’s highest achievement, was the art carried to exquisite perfection on a more limited stage by Miss Austen; and, under widely different conditions both of art and work, it was pre-eminently that of Dickens. I told him, on reading the first dialogue of Mrs. Nickleby and Miss Knag, that he had been lately reading Miss Bates in Emma, but I found that he had not at this time made the acquaintance of that fine writer. (Forster, “The Life of Charles Dickens” Vol. One, Ch. IX, 167-168)

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    1. Kind of hard to believe, though, with the “FANNY PRICE” allusion I’ve just mentioned…. Is this a case of “Trust the Tale not the Teller”? Mr. D might have decided not to divulge his reading of Austen? Who knows.

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      1. It was these comments that sent me to research the question – I was also surprised that CD claimed no familiarity with Austen. Seems to me that he’d enjoy her novels!

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    1. To clarify the above statement: It’s a very tenuous connection, but I’m thinking more directly of the early relationship between Harriet and Mr. Martin and their eventual marriage–and its similarity to the pairing of Tilda with Johan Browdie and their subsequent marriage. From Emma’s viewpoint, it’s a pairing “beneath” her protege, Harriet, and this is similar to the way in which Fanny feels, jealously, about Tilda’s partnering with Browdie. I think, she’d maliciously thwart THEIR engagement–if she had the means!

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  9. On another plane, why is Nicholas constantly being seen as the consummate eligible bachelor? The first sense of this comes with the segments with Fanny and Tilda, but later in Portsmouth, he is once again besieged by more women. Any comments or ideas about this phenomenon? Is he sort of the “Cary Grant” of this novel?

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    1. A lot of it is probably just to show that he’s good looking. This is the kind of story where the main heroes, Nicholas and Kate, are also extremely attractive physically. (I don’t mean that as a criticism. It’s part of the fun.) With Fanny though, it also probably has to do with him being a member of the gentry albeit not a wealthy one. Marrying above her class, apart from the obvious appeal, would be a great way for her to outdo Tilda in the husband department.

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    2. well, if he’s anything like the way Roger Rees plays him in the RSC stage play (even though he was nearly 20yrs older than NN was supposed to be…the magic of the stage…age doesn’t really matter!! 😍😍🥰), then I can well understand why he was besieged by women!! (Although personally my heart belongs to Edward Petherbridge’s Newman Noggs 🖤🖤🖤🖤)

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  10. Gentle reminder to all our regular readers to please INVEST in the United Metropolitan Improved Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking and Punctual Delivery Company! I’ve visited the houses of the poor, and have found them destitute of the slightest vestige of a muffin, or a crumpet, which I suspect some of these poor souls to not taste from year’s end to year’s end!

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    1. How could I resist a pitch like that? The poor things. I can’t imagine my house being without a muffin – or a crumpet.

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  11. I got the screenplay for the 2002 Nicholas Nickleby movie from Scriptfly.com and there’s a really funny line included in that draft which was cut from the final film. I hope it isn’t a breach of copyright to share it here.

    It’s from the scene of Nicholas’s rant against Fanny. As in the book, he says, “I have not one thought, wish or hope connected with her. Unless it be-and I say this not to hurt her feelings but to make my own clear: unless it be as part of the picture I keep in my mind of being one day able to turn my back upon this accursed place, and never to think of it with any feeling but loathing and disgust.”

    After he leaves, Tilda says to Fanny, “Remember, dear, he said that not to hurt your feelings.” LOL

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