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