Marnie’s Nickleby Diary, Week One

by Marnie F.

Greetings to all the wonderful commentators here. 

I’ve been reading as much as I’ve been able and have such admiration for all of your Dickens knowledge and analysis. I look forward to the commentary for Nicholas Nickleby. I read Nicholas Nickleby for the first time a little over a year ago and loved it, and then found the RSC adaptation and fell in love with it too.  I hope to contribute to the discussion of both the book and play. I’ll try to keep up.

Boze, you’ve launched us off to a great start with your introduction. Nickleby has so many interesting aspects to it and you summarized many of them wonderfully.  I love reading people who love Nickleby.  As the Stationmaster noted, many people who write commentaries on Dickens’ novels don’t seem to admire or even like it very much, so to get this opportunity to enjoy all things Nickleby is rare – and such a joy!

-Marney F.

Links to my entries, by chapter:

Chapter 1Chapter 2Chapter 3Chapter 4Chapter 5Chapter 6Chapter 7Chapter 8Chapter 9Chapter 10Chapter 11Chapter 12Chapter 13Chapter 14

Chapter 1

In Chapter 1, Dickens lays out not only the recent history of the Nickleby family, but some important themes of the whole book, as we see how they’ve affected the Nickleby family in the past, and how they will come to affect the characters we’ll meet.

Issues having to do with money are pervasive throughout the book, but perhaps more important is how it’s used (as suggested in a recent comment on Oliver Twist’s – and Pickwick’s – benevolent, wealthy characters, money can be used for good or for ill). “Speculation” is a key word, used repeatedly through this family history – nine times in just a few pages. But it’s not just money that is gambled here – its people’s lives, especially through marriage.

Godfrey Nickleby weds an old flame out of “mere attachment”, as she does him.  So “two people who cannot afford to play cards for money, sometimes sit down to a quiet game for love.”  Is Dickens suggesting that it is better to marry for money (that is, someone who is in a good position to provide security for a family) than for love (which brings in the speculation of uncertainty and instability in being able to provide for the family)? Whether he’s saying precisely that or not, he will certainly show us numerous cases of the corruption of families, particularly resulting in abused children, because of the need to support and provide for the family. This is important to Dickens because, as we know, he always felt “abused” because he was sent out to work at the blacking factory to support his family.

It’s not that Dickens doesn’t believe in love – and indeed he shows wonderful examples of it in this novel, and comes down in favor of happy marriages in the end. But I think we can say that Dickens presents marriage as a gamble. Think of Mr. Bumble in Oliver Twist, who, in his greed to enhance his position, gambled in his marriage to Mrs. Corney and ended up losing everything.  I don’t think Dickens is anti-marriage here but he does show us that who is chosen as one’s partner is critically important – and unfortunately subject to speculation, just as money is.

So: marriage as speculation, a gamble; money, or the lack of it, as a corrupting influence on the family; and the resulting bad parents who damage their children even as they struggle to support them. I don’t know that any themes could be more personal to Dickens than these, which is why I think the autobiographical aspects of Nicholas Nickleby have been overlooked; it is intensely so, throughout. They feed straight into that part of his life, his childhood, where he felt most vulnerable, most abandoned, most abused. He releases a lot of pent-up anger in this book, even as we enjoy so many colorful characters and wonderfully comic scenes in it.

Dickens may have projected his own past abused child in the abused innocent Oliver Twist, but Oliver had a loving mother, whom Dickens idealized so that we feel she would have been a “good parent” if she had lived. Nicholas Nickleby, on the other hand, is more about bad parents.  Bad parents abound; and “bad parents” are deeply personal for Dickens.

The first “bad parent” that Dickens shows us is Godfrey’s wife, the mother of Ralph and Nicholas.  She had a negative influence on her sons, telling them stories of “their father’s sufferings in his days of poverty, and of their deceased uncle’s importance in his days of affluence”.  This made the younger son retreat to his quiet farm and shun the world in fear of it, while the elder son learned the lesson from her that the only true source of happiness and power was riches, and he embarked, even in school, on a career in usury.

The second “bad parent” is the next Mrs. Nickleby (mother of Nicholas and Kate) who urged her husband to speculate like Nicholas’s successful brother Ralph, causing him to gamble away their savings.  From my background reading on Nicholas Nickleby, it seems to be generally known and acknowledged that Mrs. Nickleby, mother of Nicholas and Kate, was based on Dickens’ own mother.  In a letter to Mr. R.J. Lane, A.R.A., 1844, Dickens said, relating to some people who looked on certain of his characters as grotesque impossibilities: “Mrs. Nickleby herself, sitting bodily before me in a solid chair, once asked me whether I really believed there ever was such a woman!”  Apparently she never realized Dickens had based Mrs. Nickleby on her.  And Andrew Lang, in an introduction to an edition of Nicholas Nickleby:  “… Mr. Forster hints that Mrs. Nickleby was the real life wife of the immortal Micawber” (who, of course, was famously based on Dickens’ father).

One writer had a comment in passing that Mrs. Nickleby sounded differently in this first chapter than she does later.  That is, in the first chapter, she is a woman of a few, direct, clear words, whereas we know her later for her wandering, confused mind.  The implication is that the shock of the family’s sudden losses – and even, perhaps, the more implicit shock of her being responsible for her husband’s death – caused her mind to unhinge.  Since Mrs. Nickleby was based on Dickens’ own mother, who was probably always the same, and I think there are little indications along the way that Mrs. Nickleby was always this way, I rather think Dickens didn’t mean to imply a change in the working of her mind – but it’s interesting to compare the Chapter One Mrs. Nickleby to the Mrs. Nickleby we encounter later in the book. 

Rachel wrote recently about the importance of remembrance in Dickens’ work. This is true in Nicholas Nickleby too, although not always as prominent.  Memory and its impairment is notable in Mrs. Nickleby. The fact that her mind wanders, her failures of memory and the way she has trouble living in the present but keeps being drawn back to the past – makes it seem that she might have been damaged by the traumas in the first chapter. [Smike comes to mind also as someone with problems of memory due to past trauma.]

Another theme in the book, connected with money and speculation, is the sudden reversal of fortune, something Dickens knew well from his own childhood.  Here, in the first chapter, Godfrey Nickleby has become so desperate to provide for his family that he is on the brink of committing suicide “by accident” when, suddenly, out of nowhere, a black-bordered letter arrives to inform him of his uncle’s death and an inheritance that saves his life and his family. (As happened to Charles Dickens’s father when he received a timely inheritance when he was in prison, and which changed Dickens’ life.) The opposite happens to his son, Nicholas, who speculates to earn money for his family and overnight suddenly loses everything, including – subsequently – his own life. So in a few pages, we get two sudden reversal of fortunes – one on the winning side and one on the losing side.

A couple of brief things we could notice in the first chapter:

  • Dickens had Kate at 14 years of age in this first chapter but changes it, in chapter 3, to age 17.  So in this first chapter, he might not have yet thought through what he was going to do with her.  His later Kate storylines were more age-appropriate for a 17 year old, rather than a 14 year old.  Unless “14” was a ”typo” 😊.
  • Dickens gives us a passing description of the card game of Speculation – which those who have already read the book will remember that Nicholas will play in a later chapter.

Chapter 2

The muffin company chapter is both very funny and revealing. The comparison of the two brothers, Nicholas and Ralph, is a shadow to remember throughout it – one brother is ruined and the other ruins others as he does with the muffin company.  The speculations that make Ralph rich, made his brother poor. Ralph may not have been involved in the investment that ruined his brother, but, as in chapter two, he has ruined others in the same way that his brother was.

So here, in the second chapter, Dickens shows us the actual nuts and bolts of how little investors like Ralph’s brother are manipulated and fleeced by insiders like Ralph. We are introduced to the perfectly named “United Metropolitan Improved Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking and Punctual Delivery Company”.  Even before the public meeting for it, Dickens exposes the scam and how Ralph will profit from it.

Bonney:  “Why the very name will get the shares up to a premium in ten days.”

Mr. Nickleby, smiling: “And when they are at a premium –”

Bonney: “When they are, you know what to do with them as well as any man alive, and how to back quietly out at the right time.”

Mr. Bonney presents the resolution at the public meeting and the new company goes forward as planned.  “…and all the speeches put together did exactly what they were intended to do, and established in the hearers’ minds that there was no speculation so promising, or at the same time so praiseworthy, as the United Metropolitan Improved Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking and Punctual Delivery Company.”

I recently read an article that reminded me how relevant to this very day is this little financial snapshot of Dicken’s:  Warren Buffett Says Markets Have Become a ‘Gambling Parlor’. “It’s a gambling parlor,” Mr. Buffett said Saturday of the markets over the past few years. “I don’t think we ever had anything quite like we have now in terms of the volumes of pure gambling activity going on daily,” Charlie Munger said. Large American companies have “become poker chips” for market speculation. He cited soaring use of call options, saying that brokers make more money from these bets than simple investing. “It’s almost a mania of speculation,” said Mr. Munger. A commenter remarked: ALL financial markets are casinos. At times participants place small bets on low risk. Now just happens to be one of those times when participants are placing huge bets on high risk.

Chapter 3  

Dickens contrasts Ralph and Nicholas:

Ralph: “Stern, hard-featured, and forbidding…the old man’s eyes…twinkling of avarice and cunning.

Nicholas’s face: “open, handsome, ingenuous… [his eyes] bright with the light of intelligence and spirit.”

This contrast strikes Ralph “to the very soul of him whose inferiority it marks. It galled Ralph to the heart’s core, and he hated Nicholas from that hour.”

As Ralph notes this contrast, Dickens plants the seed of Ralph’s hatred at this early point – having barely seen Nicholas. Those who have already read the book might remember Ralph’s later bitter recollection of how people compared him negatively to his brother which is very similar to this comparison (see Chapter 34.) So I think we need to keep in mind, as we see how Ralph’s hatred of Nicholas proceeds, that it may stem from this earlier fraternal relationship – although how much is something else that we can tantalize over.

Ralph remarks:  “… if he [Nicholas’s father] had turned his son into the world, as my father turned me, when I wasn’t as old as that boy by a year and a half [around 17?], he would have been in a situation to help you, instead of being a burden upon you, and increasing your distress.” Dickens seems to suggest Raph’s father threw him out into the working world at a young age – which also suggests an identification of Dickens himself with the young boy Ralph. I wouldn’t have thought of it but Ralph says something in a chapter or two which also seems to suggest an identification with the young Dickens put out to work in the blacking factory. On the other hand, Ralph started out early, in school, in the usury business which suggests he was ready to embrace the “mercantile business”, the working world.

Ralph presents Mr. Squeers’ ad for a teaching assistant. Mark Ford, in his introduction to the Penguin edition of Nickleby, says that “Squeers’s advertisement is closely modeled on the one for Bowes Academy, Greta Bridge, that Shaw regularly inserted in the newspapers, but incorporates features from notices for other schools as well.”  Ralph sells the idea, despite the obvious glaring negatives of it being so far away for so little money – by claiming that Nicholas could make his fortune through it. A desperate Nicholas, with no other prospects and after having made sure that Ralph will support his mother and Kate, grabs at this straw, hoping for the best and putting it in the best light he can for his mother and sister. Ralph will make the same kind of sales pitch for an equally terrible situation for Kate.

Chapter 4  

As the chapter starts, Dickens describes what the names “Saracen’s Head” and “Snow Hill” conjure up in one’s mind: “something stern and rugged. A bleak desolate tract of country, open to piercing blasts and fierce wintry storms – a dark, cold, and gloomy heath.”  Dickens punctures that image as not the reality for the actual place of Snow Hill. And yet, Dickens suggests, we are to be introduced to a stern and rugged equivalent of the Saracen’s Head in Wackford Squeers, and soon after, we will encounter the real world of that “dark, cold and gloomy heath” when Nicholas then journeys up to Yorkshire. So these images are chilling presentiments of Squeers and his Yorkshire. And not just the physical world of Yorkshire but the dark, cold and gloomy world that Squeers has created at Dotheboys.

We get our first glimpse of Squeers’ cruel abuse of boys when Belling sneezes, Squeers berates him, the boy starts crying and Squeers “knocked him off the trunk with a blow on one side of his face, and knocked him on again with a blow on the other.” And then Squeers gives us another chilling presentiment of even more brutality, as he tells Belling: “Wait till I get you down into Yorkshire and then I’ll give you the rest.” It’s annoying to me to read criticisms of Nicholas’s violence in this book when his few extreme actions seem at the very least proportional to the violence he faces and defends the innocent against.

Then, as his new potential customer, Mr. Snawley, enters, Squeers switches over to a hypocritical, solicitous concern for Belling, drawing a benevolent picture of Dotheboys which is aimed not at Belling but at Snawley – our first look at a “theatrical” performance enacted by Squeers for the benefit of a potential new client. Alun Armstrong’s Squeers in the RSC’s adaptation of “Nickleby” gives us the most delicious of such a performance – his arm embracing the fearful Belling, reciting cheerfully his school’s complete advertisement as Snawley, standing behind him, silently reads the ad along with him.

Again, we get a chill as the parent who will deliver his children and the schoolmaster who will receive him and be their surrogate parent conspire together to keep the children at Dotheboys indefinitely into the future–the reference to the boys needing a razor because they will be confined at Dotheboys until they’re old enough to shave. 

Then Ralph and Nicholas approach Squeers. Ralph convinces Squeers to take Nicholas as his assistant, although Squeers had been resisting the idea.  Dickens doesn’t tell us explicitly why Squeers changes his mind – only that Ralph asks Squeers to have a word with him, they step apart and “in a couple of minutes Mr. Wackford Squeers announced that Mr. Nicholas Nickleby was from that moment thoroughly nominated to, and installed in, the office of first assistant master at Dotheboys Hall.” Squeers tells Nicholas that Ralph’s recommendation has done it.  The RSC Nickleby actually shows Squeers receiving money from Ralph, making explicit what we just assume in the novel. So, in a sense, Ralph “sells” Nicholas to Squeers, which we might compare to Ralph selling Kate later. We can also compare Ralph paying Squeers to take the inconvenient Nicholas off of Ralph’s hands, in the same way Snawley and other parents pay Squeers to take their inconvenient sons off to Yorkshire.

Chapter 5  

As Nicholas gets ready to leave on the coach for Yorkshire, Mrs. Nickleby laments that Nicholas left without breakfast. Ralph responds with “great testiness”: “When I first went to business, ma’am, I took a penny loaf and a ha’porth of milk for my breakfast as I walked to the city every morning; what do you say to that, ma’am? Breakfast! Pshaw!” This describes Dickens’ own experience when he worked for the blacking factory. Why does Dickens put this portion of his own working trauma in the childhood of the cold-hearted Ralph? Did he think he might have ended up like Ralph if he hadn’t been freed of that part of his life? Is this the first of little glimpses of hidden vulnerabilities that Dickens might show us toward the almost completely hardened, unsympathetic Ralph? I don’t know how much weight to give this one little sentence but it does seem significant that it matches a sore autobiographical spot in Dickens’ memory.

Then Ralph, who has noted Kate’s negative reaction to Squeers nastily forces her to be introduced to Squeers who himself makes a particularly nasty advance to Kate – remarking that if Kate was a teacher in his school, his wife might have reason to be jealous – insinuating that there would be a degrading attraction and more between himself and Kate. Nicholas notices the offense and Dickens indicates that Nicholas might have resorted to violence then and there in defense of his sister if Kate had not recognized the danger and pulled him aside, de-escalating the situation.

Chapter 6  

The two interpolated stories in this chapter apparently were added to fill out a section that Dickens had come up short on. Still, they contain significant ideas and passages that are noteworthy for Nickleby and all of Dickens’ work.

The grey-headed gentleman tells the story of “The Five Sisters of York”.

The youngest sister, Alice, was 16 and she was the luminous heart of the little family of five sisters. When she dies at the end of the story, the remaining sisters have five works of stained glass created. They were fitted into a large window and when the sun shone, streams of light fell on the pavement on which was the name “Alice”. This casts our minds back to the end of “Oliver Twist” where there was a stone with the name of Oliver’s mother: “Agnes”. And, for those who have read Nicholas Nickleby, it casts our minds forward to another gravestone at this book’s end.  And, of course, over all these endings hovers the spirit of Mary Hogarth.

To counter this sad story, Dickens has the merry-faced gentleman tell the merrier story. (Grog zwig – to swig/drink grog, an alcoholic drink; Koëldwethout – also some kind of drink.) The Baron of Grogzwig dispels the dark and melancholy effects of life (such as the loss of loved ones) by repudiating the Genius of Despair and Suicide.

The Baron sat down, depressed, and thought of killing himself.  Then appeared a “wrinkly, hideous figure” – the Genius of Despair and Suicide, who is ready to carry off the baron but the baron argues with him.

The Genius: Quit this dreary world at once.

The baron: I don’t know, it’s a dreary one certainly, but I don’t think yours is much better.”

The baron regains his good humor and “fell into his chair and laughed so loud and boisterously, that the room rang with it.”  This causes the Genius to plunge a stake into his own body and he disappears. I get the idea that Dickens may have himself tended to overcome his own possible tendency to lean to negativity, melancholy, the “dark side” with his sense of humor. So, these “filler” stories seem really very personal for Dickens.

Chapter 7  

Squeers and Nicholas arrive at Dotheboys with the boys. Dotheboys = Do the boys. OK, I admit it. I read the whole book and never saw it. Only later, I finally came across someone who kindly pointed out that Dotheboys was Do-the-boys. So obvious when you see it. And Do-the-boys relates to Knuckle-boy, knuckle the boy. Smike seems to come from “smite”. Dickens gave us Nickle-by before Copper-field; has anyone come across a reason for the coin references?

I’ve read that “Wackford Squeers” might have been inspired, among other possibilities, by the two hypocritical schoolmasters in “Tom Jones” who hate Tom Jones – Thwackum and Square. Wackford suggests whack or thwack.

When Smike looks hopefully at the pile of Squeers’ letters and asks if anything has been heard about himself, Squeers gives us the first bit of history for Smike: “Not a word, and never will be. This is a pretty sort of thing, that you should have been left here all these years and no money paid after the first six – nor no notice taken, nor no clue to be got who you belong to?”

So, we know that Smike started there as a pupil but has been completely abandoned – and now, unlike the other boys who are paid pupils, Smike has become a drudge, performing any work demanded of him by any member of the Squeers family.

After Mr. and Mrs. Squeers have gone to bed, Nicholas finds Newman’s letter to him. This is a simple, but touching letter, making our hearts go out to Newman.  But it is an informative letter too. We have already heard from Ralph earlier that Newman was once a gentleman, lost his money through investing/speculation and took to drinking. Here Newman tells Nicholas that he “was a gentleman then.” But Newman also tells us that Nicholas’s father had done him a favor “where there was no hope of return”. What a tantalizing piece of Newman’s history – and not only Newman but Nicholas’s father. Just their names: the double “NN” – Nicholas Nickleby (father and son) and Newman Noggs, suggests an association, a connection of some sort. Maybe Dickens just meant to underline the similarity in that both men were ruined – Nicholas speculated; Newman invested – and both ended up ruined. We yearn to know more – how did they know each other? How were they connected?  This is one of those frustrating little ends that Dickens leaves hanging out there – torturing our imaginations with possibilities. 

Chapter 8  

Squeers brings Nicholas into the schoolroom of Dotheboys where Mrs. Squeers is already dishing out the sickening brimstone and treacle concoction to the boys.  Dickens goes into great, painful detail describing the pitiful condition of the boys – in long heartrending sentences – all evidence of “horrible endurance of cruelty and neglect”.  It makes our stomachs churn and our anger rise at the brutality and injustice of this suffering.

As all of you who have read Dickens know very well, Dickens can shift tone suddenly, making a reader – me, at least – queasy with the suddenness of the shift – moving sharply from dark to comic, producing a grotesque effect. So now, from the pitiful images of the boys, we’re treated to the very funny teaching style of Mr. Squeers – as he propounds the spelling and meaning of window (“win der”) and botany (“bottiny”) and explains that “a horse is a quadruped, and quadruped is Latin for beast”. 

Then we get yet another shift in tone with the first touching little scene between Nicholas and Smike. It’s here that Dickens describes Smike as a “poor half-witted creature,” which is not always obvious in the speech that Dickens gives him. Dickens gives us a particularly moving glimpse of how abandoned and alone Smike is – how much more lonely Smike’s position is than even any of the other castaway Dotheboys children. Although Smike doesn’t name the dying boy in this scene, probably not even remembering it – Squeers has already mentioned a boy named Dorker (paid for by Ralph) who died at Dotheboys. We can’t know for sure it’s the same boy but it’s a nice linking.

I would draw a difference between the sad portrait that Dickens paints of the boys at the beginning of the chapter and of Smike’s own sad portrait at the end of it.  The sadness we feel for the boys is a bit more impersonal, more tinged with our outrage at these cruel social conditions, whereas the sadness we feel at Smike’s scene is more personal, more pure pathos. So, in this chapter, we get a whiplash succession of shifts in tone – from grim to comic to pathos.

Dickens might have felt that the abuse of children in Nicholas Nickleby was more personal to him than the abuse he portrayed in Oliver Twist. Oliver’s mother dies in the workhouse; Oliver grows up in an equally impersonal bureaucratic system and setting; but Dotheboys and its ruler is a (surrogate) familial system and setting; its familial aspect is constantly spoken of, hypocritically, by Squeers. It’s this corruption of the family – of what the family ought to be – that increases so much the horror and pain of the physical abuse that the boys endure. This is personal for Dickens, not a matter of an impersonal legal situation. Instead of a loving parent who has been killed by the institution, here the institution and the parent are in league with each other to crush and destroy the child.

Mr. and Mrs. Squeers are grotesque, twisted caricatures of the good parent that we hope every child has.  Mr. & Mrs. Squeers are the worst examples of Dickens’ “bad parents”, but many more will come – the Squeers’ are just the worst example of all of them, the bad end of the continuum of bad parents that Dickens lays out.

Chapter 9  

Fanny Squeers has fallen for Nicholas and sets up a tea party which is attended by her friend Tilda, Tilda’s fiancée John Browdie and Nicholas. As they drink tea and eat bread and butter, John accidentally insults Nicholas and upsets Fanny; Tilda proposes a card game where Nicholas accidentally insults John and upsets Fanny.  The card game that they play is called “speculation.” The words “They sat down to play speculation” should put us in mind of chapter one, regarding Godfrey and his wife: “Thus two people who cannot afford to play cards for money, sometimes sit down to a quiet game for love.” According to the Penguin edition, speculation is a card game in which trumps are bought and sold. Again, in chapter 1, the game is described: “Speculation is a round game; the players see little or nothing of their cards at first sitting; gains may be great – and so may losses.” Dickens seems to be comparing this game with love and marriage where the two “players” may not really know what they’re getting before “playing”/marrying.

Nicholas accidentally stirs up trouble and hard feelings when he innocently chooses Tilda for his partner, as he is clueless that Fanny is in love with him and Tilda is attached to John. There follows a very funny, rather precarious card game where two happy players play against two irritated players who become more annoyed as Nicholas and Tilda win repeatedly and enjoy each other’s company.

Tilda contributes to the instability of the party by teasing Fanny for being out of sorts. Meanwhile John’s temper rises through the card game until he final erupts and stalks out, demanding Tilda come with him.

Fanny bursts out weeping and Nicholas leaves thinking:

“This is one consequence of my cursed readiness to adapt myself to any society into which chance carries me. If I had sat mute and motionless, as I might have done, this would not have happened. I was glad to grasp at any relief from the sight of this dreadful place, or the presence of its vile master. I have set these people by the ears and made two new enemies, where, Heaven knows, I needed none. Well, it is a just punishment for having forgotten, even for an hour, what is around me now.” 

Although the trouble Nicholas has created for himself by joining in the game of speculation won’t turn out to be lasting, his next and similar misstep (stirring up trouble by forgetting where he is and making enemies as a result) will cause far worse damage – for himself, but more so for Smike.

Chapter 10         

Mrs. Nickleby is undeniably one of the most dear, lovable, funny characters that Dickens has ever written. However, Dickens is not uncritical of her. Dickens shows how easily Ralph manipulates Mrs. Nickleby into feeling critical of her late husband and sorry for herself: “at last she had come to persuade herself that of all her late husband’s creditors she was the worst used and the most to be pitied.” But then Dickens adds the effect of the anxiety of poverty on Mrs. Nickleby’s heart and mind: “Such is the irritability of sudden poverty. A decent annuity would have restored her thoughts to their old train at once.” Here Dickens suggests that Mrs. Nickleby’s loving feelings for her husband could be restored if her poverty was relieved – suggesting that her wandering mind might be healed as well.

Did this reflect Dickens’s experience of his own parents – the effects that sudden poverty had on his mother’s feeling and treatment of her husband when Dickens was younger? Did Dickens see his own mother changed by their fall into poverty?  If so, critics of the book, who seem to be only enamored of the wonderfully comic nature of the wandering speeches of Mrs. Nickleby, might be missing a strongly autobiographical dimension to these scenes in the book.

Ralph tells Kate and her mother that he has found Kate a position with a milliner and makes the situation sound as attractive as he did the assistant teacher situation for Nicholas. 

Ralph and Kate go to Madam Mantalini’s. As they wait for Madame Mantalini, her husband comes in and we are introduced to probably the most wonderfully flamboyant and most “theatrical” of all the theatrical characters in this novel. His name “was originally Muntle” which he had converted into Mantalini because his new wife considered “that an English appellation would be of serious injury to the business”. Further than that, Dickens tells us that Mantalini had married on his looks (his whiskers and moustache) and he was living off of his wife – “his share in the labours of the business being at present confined to spending the money, and occasionally when that ran short, driving to Mr. Ralph Nickleby to procure discount – at a percentage – for the customers’ bills.” (We will see more of this in a later chapter.) But he gushes exaggerated love expressions to his wife who can’t resist them and him.

Madame Mantalini marrying Muntle/Mantalini was a gamble for her. Is it a speculation for both of them? This more dangerous, underlying aspect of their relationship is ever-present as we follow their entertaining story and as we enjoy and laugh at their colorful scenes and lovemaking. Underneath their wonderfully funny relationship, a serious game is being played out with their lives.

Chapter 11       

When Kate expresses sorrow at leaving Miss La Creevy, we are glad to hear Miss La Creevy declare that they haven’t seen the last of her (meaning we won’t see the last of her either), and what Dickens has Miss La Creevy say clinches our warm feelings toward her: “if in all London or all the wide world besides, there is no other heart that takes an interest in your welfare, there will be one little lonely woman that prays for it night and day.”

Newman arrives and escorts them to a rundown, depressing house on Thames Street in the poor East End. “It was a picture of cold, silent decay.”

Newman brings them into one room where there had been some attempts to make it habitable – a few chairs and table and fire laid ready. Mrs. Nickleby assumes they can be attributed to Ralph’s consideration but Dickens lets us know it was Newman’s kindness. So now Mrs. Nickleby and Kate have one more poor, lonely friend in Newman – in addition to Miss La Creevy.

Chapter 12       

Fanny is devastated by having been rejected by her father’s lowly “man”. She determines to “set mother against him” even more. From then on, the whole Squeers family treats Nicholas with even more malicious indignity, but worse than that, having noticed Smike’s attachment to Nicholas, they take their malice for Nicholas out on Smike, the easier target. He was used to drudgery and being pushed around but now he endures “stripes and blows, stripes and blows, morning, noon and night.”          

Smike: “They are more hard with me than ever… But for you, I should die. They would kill me.”

Nicholas: You will do better…when I am gone.”

Smike picks up this small ray of hope: Should I meet you there?

“Willing to soothe him,” Nicholas – not having yet made the determination to leave which would mean endangering his mother and sister – “with the same human intention” tells him “you would and I would help and aid you.”

And so the stage is set for the climactic scene to come for this first section of the book.

Chapter 13         

Literary critics of Nickolas Nickleby usually conspicuously focus on all the colorful characters in the book (Mrs. Nickleby, the Matalinis, the Crummles, etc.) while they treat Nicholas perfunctorily at best, seeming to struggle to say something positive about him – even though he is the central character, the hero, of the story.  Smike, arguably the second most important character in the book, also tends to be marginalized as if reviewers want to avoid him and the whole distasteful (to modernists) subject of pathos.

Needing to say something about the titular hero of the novel, critics often describe him as bland, generic, a stick figure, a stock figure – that is, as unimportant.  The character is so much richer to me. For instance, in a novel where one of the key themes is “bad parents”, I suggest that Dickens presents Nicholas as his model of the good parent. And to me, he is a moving and inspirational model of a good parent. Nicholas is the good parent in contrast to the whole succession of bad parents that parade through the novel from Mrs. Nickleby to Mr. and Mrs. Squeers and Mr. Snawley and more to come.

A few critics have pointed out that Dickens was a new parent when he started Nicholas Nickleby and had three children by its end. However, I haven’t read a review of the book that mentions that Dickens, even before he married, had taken into his home his own younger brother, Fred, and seemed to be a surrogate parent to him, and saw to his education. Did Dickens feel his own parents could not provide to Fred the care and guidance that the boy needed? It certainly seems that Dickens was already acting as the good parent to Fred even before he had children of his own.  Certainly, we can question how good a parent Dickens turned out to be later, but here in this early part of his life, the role of being a good parent seems to have meant a great deal to him and it is strongly reflected in Nicholas Nickleby and its central character, Nicholas. It seems to me those literary critics have not taken this aspect of early Dickens seriously enough. When they do notice all the bad parents in the book and their abused children, they don’t seem to make the connection to the contrasting Nicholas-Smike relationship and how important it is to Dickens. Again, it may have to do with an aversion to its pathos. “Some people, I believe, have no hearts to break.” (Of course, the same happened with Oliver Twist, where colorful characters like Fagin and Artful Dodger get more critical attention than Oliver; or in The Old Curiosity Shop, where Dick Swiveller is celebrated but Little Nell is tiptoed around, if not bludgeoned, by critics. Yet this is where Dickens’ heart was – at least at that time.)

I thought I’d use this chapter to discuss Nicholas himself and his relationship with Smike because this chapter is so key, so climactic, so pivotal; it changes everything.  In this chapter, Nicholas takes two important forceful actions and changes from a passive figure to the active, inspiring hero we want to see.

  • He steps up to defend and protect Smike, and to beat Squeers. 
  • Nicholas becomes the good parent who rescues the child from the bad parent (as Dickens “rescued” his brother Fred), the one who defends, protects, guards, cares for the child – as Dickens longed for his own parents to do for him as a child.

There are common criticisms of this scene:

(a) criticizing Nicholas’s “violence” against Squeers. I would argue that Nicholas’s violence on Squeers is in no way out of proportion to Squeers’ own brutal violence. Also, Dickens carefully tells us that Nicholas resorted to violence only after trying to intercede and protect Smike non-violently. (“You have disregarded all my quiet interference in the miserable lad’s behalf; you have returned no answer to the letter in which I begged forgiveness for him…Don’t blame me for this public interference. You have brought it upon yourself; not I.”) It seems to me that Nicholas’s action against Squeers was entirely justified. 

(b) Nicholas’s “stagy rhetoric” in this scene.  Where many critics wince at Nicholas’s language, I cheer at both his actions and his language.  If I could have been at the RSC’s stage play of Nicholas Nickleby, I would have stood, clapped and cheered at this moment.  There’s hardly a moment in all my years of reading that has moved me to cheer more strongly.

  • The second, and arguably, the more important action that Nicholas takes in this chapter is at the very end, where he steps up again and accepts Smike – not just as a friend, but as his “charge”. It is this moment – more important than the protection from Squeers (which is an action of only a few moments in Nicholas’s life), which is the more life-changing action of taking someone as a charge for his lifetime. He’s not just making a friend; he’s taking on a lifetime responsibility for someone who’s utterly dependent on him as a child to a parent. Adopting Smike, Nicholas takes on the role of parent. This scene where Nicholas extends his hand (and his life) to Smike is perhaps the most important in the book.

Chapter 14         

In Chapter 14, we’re introduced to a new family. Mrs. Kenwigs married for love but below her “class” (she was from a “genteel family”). Doing this, marrying Mr. Kenwigs, was a gamble for her. How does that piece of speculation work out for their family, and how are their children affected by it? As we follow their story, Dickens is laying the ground for another speculative love and marriage in the making here.

Mr. Lillyvick reminds us of another uncle [Ralph] who is either expected to do something for his nephews/nieces. In order to earn that assistance from him, Mr. & Mrs. Kenwigs must theatrically shower Lillyvick with flattery, and more than that, they have to use their children to ingratiate and influence their well-positioned, well-capitalized patron. The children are being taught, as Ralph was by his mother, what is important in life – power and riches.

13 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for sharing these marvelous reflections, Marnie!!! You definitely gave me new insight, & I’m looking forward to rereading it more slowly, and add to the conversation. 🙂 Of course, LOVE that you refer to the RSC Nickleby, too 🙂

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    1. Thank you so much, Rachel, for all of your warm encouragement and for helping me to get started on WordPress and working to get my post ready and to publish it for me. As a newbie, I’m still struggling with getting used to WordPress, so I hope everyone will be patient with me.
      Marnie F.

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  2. “Godfrey Nickleby weds an old flame out of “mere attachment”, as she does him. So “two people who cannot afford to play cards for money, sometimes sit down to a quiet game for love.” Is Dickens suggesting that it is better to marry for money (that is, someone who is in a good position to provide security for a family) than for love (which brings in the speculation of uncertainty and instability in being able to provide for the family)?”

    I always interpreted that line as being ironic.

    I also interpreted Ralph as blackmailing Squeers into hiring Nicholas, implying he’d tell people the truth about how Dorker died if he didn’t.

    I just thought I’d mention that the movie, The Man Who Invented Christmas, features Dickens’s mother, though she doesn’t do much, and it did a great job making her seem like a real, non-caricatured version of Mrs. Nickleby. Same with Dickens’s father and Micawber.

    Since we’ve discussing the “theatricality” of Nicholas Nickleby, among of other things, I thought I’d mention that the opening credits for the 2002 movie adaptation are a great nod to this. They show a Victorian dolls’ theater with dolls of the characters in the story, who appear when their actors are credited. They also show prop shoes when the costume designer is being credited, a cardboard bag of money for the producers, etc. It’s really clever.

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    1. Stationmaster,

      “I always interpreted that line as being ironic.” That’s how it struck me too at first. I did come to feel that it connected to the larger context of the speculative theme that I think Dickens was getting at in the chapter, and in the book itself. A great line, isn’t it?

      Ralph blackmailing Squeers with Dorker’s death. Oh, I like that idea. I’m influenced by the sight in my mind of the RSC’s Squeers pocketing money from Ralph, but yes – wouldn’t such blackmail be just like Ralph. I can see that alternative scenario. All we know is that Ralph did something to influence Squeers to take Nicholas – money or blackmail would be Ralph’s usual weapons of leverage.

      I haven’t seen “The Man Who Invented Christmas” yet but I look forward to doing so. I have seen the 2002 Nickleby adaptation and remember fondly that opening credit sequence, perhaps my favorite part of it. I’ll have to re-watch to catch the prop shoes and money bag, which I don’t remember seeing. A love little details like that – thanks!
      Marnie

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      1. There’s arguably a problem with my blackmail interpretation. We learn later (way later) in the book that the boy’s death benefited a client of Ralph’s, so if the truth came out, it would be really bad for him too. But I can see Squeers deciding it’s not worth the risk.

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    2. “We learn later (way later) in the book that the boy’s death benefited a client of Ralph’s, so if the truth came out, it would be really bad for him too. ”

      Could you point out where this occurs when it comes up? I’m racking my mind to remember where it happened and can’t locate it. I’d love to know! The idea of Ralph using blackmail is still a good one and ties in to something I’ve thought about later.

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      1. I don’t remember the chapter number, but I’m pretty sure it’s the one where Ralph gets Squeers to track down Peg Sliderskew and the will. (I don’t know why Dickens waited so long to explain that plot point. Maybe he just forgot, and then when the book was almost over, some fan wrote him a letter asking how Ralph got Squeers to give Nicholas a job.)

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      2. I found it! It’s toward the end of chapter 56. I’m going to add it to my notes for 56 because it’s a great little detail. Excellent catch. Thanks!

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  3. Marnie and Stationmaster,

    Both of you are enriching my poised-and-ready approach to “Nickleby.”

    Thanks so very much!

    I feel much better equipped with your–and, of course, Boze’s–insights from the book and from adaptations of it.

    By the way, there is an adage that the friend of my friend is my friend.

    I think that this could be applied here: “The friend of ‘Nickleby’ (a literary friend) is a friend, indeed!”

    Blessings,

    Daniel

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      1. Marnie–in another post over on the NICKLEBY introduction thread, I incidentally and unknowingly supported your ideas about Nicholas, talking about him as an extension of Oliver–and who becomes, almost instantly, the “moral (ethical) center” of HIS novel. I really applaud your nice work, here. And feel you’re on the right track with Nicholas. He’s definitely the hero of a PICARESQUE Novel, and as such, becomes an elusive character as the “heroic” figure because of the more or less arbitrary expansion of the NICKLEBY narrative. As in Smollett and Cervantes, these roving protagonists are tough to get a handle on, as events pile up. But no matter what, in sum, these individuals, in the novels that are named after them, DO define themselves by their actions and become interesting portraits and often act, at first and later, as the moral guides in their tales.

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      2. Lennie, I have tried reading Don Quixote a couple of times without getting far – but it’s still my pile of books to read. I hope to conquer that mountain yet! Have you read any Smollett or Fielding? My love of Nickleby has created in me an interest in reading those earlier Picaresque novels that captivated the young CD and influenced such glorious early works as Pickwick and Nickleby.

        I think we’re on the same wavelength with Nicholas. Absolutely I agree that Nicholas is the moral/ethical center and guide in the novel – and I love that about him.
        Marnie

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  4. Yes, I’ve read DQ Smollett and Fielding. 50+ years ago I was heavily into the Picaresque novel, starting with TOM JONES and JOSEPH ANDREWS, and then a friend insisted I read the granddaddy of them all–DQ. From there I moved on to RODERICK RANDOM and HUMPHREY CLINKER. With regard to your experience, QUIXOTE is really a tough read, I think, because it seems so “foreign” to us, and by that I mean that Cervantes is experimenting with a “novel” form that really had never been so convolutingly constructed up to that time. (Or, perhaps, not even “invented” as something we would call a novel, but was seen as “novel” or some kind of “new” literature. Its format and conception seems almost experimental–in the way that later Joyce seems obscurely erudite. Obviously, Cervantes loved word games, loved to play with the reader, and was designing a structure and content that must have enthralled as well as totally confused the readers of his time. For us, in our time–again– he’s a difficult “read.”

    Fielding and Smollett in their mid-18th century novels adopted Cervantes’ structures, characters, and situations and refined and reinterpreted them for their own times and readers. For the fledgling reading public that thirsted for written entertainment, all of these novels, beginning with DQ, turned out to be marvelous comic adventure stories and would have charmed the new literate culture of Europe and Great Britain with their creative finesse and imaginative variety. Subsequently, for a genius like Dickens, all of this material would have presented a virtual treasure chest full of ideas, characters, and narrative schemata that he could borrow from at will and shape them with his own personal vision. Thus the fairly “easy” transition from the brilliant SKETCHES to PICKWICK and NICKLEBY because the form and content had already been laid out for him. And our current readings of NICKLEBY are spurred by this incredible genius author. Your reading journal is a shining example of someone coming to terms, then, not only with Dickens, but indirectly, with the tradition that has defined him. And that applause extends to all the persons participating in this wonderful “reading club.” Understanding and interpreting Dickens’ work for itself, but also in the light of the various literary “movements” that have conspired to inspire him.

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