Nicholas Nickleby, Week 2 ~ and a Week 1 Wrap-up

Wherein we glance back at the first week of the #DickensClub reading of Nicholas Nickleby (week 22 of the Dickens Chronological Reading Club); With General Memoranda, a summary of reading and discussion, and a look ahead to week two.

“Nicholas starts for Yorkshire,” by Phiz.

Edited/compiled by Rach

A warm welcome back, Friends! What a delightful first week of Nicholas Nickleby it has been, with so many wonderful comments and extra posts!

Along with an inspiring and fascinating introductory post by Boze, Chris wrote a beautiful and insightful piece on “Relationship Patterns” with regard especially to Oliver Twist, and shared some extra material from Peter Ackroyd; I wrote on the subject of “Memory” in Dickens’ early novels, inspired by Peter Ackroyd’s fascinating analysis (should we all start a Peter Ackroyd Fan Club, or what??); our new member Marnie shared a delightful chapter-by-chapter reaction/reflection post on the first week of reading Nicholas Nickleby.

All that’s to say, there is far too much fantastic content to do justice to in this post, so I hope everyone has a chance to take a closer look at individual posts and comments.

If you want to skip ahead to any section of this post, here are some quick links for you:

  1. General Mems
  2. Week One Nicholas Nickleby Summary (Chapters 1-14)
  3. Discussion Wrap-Up
  4. A Look-ahead to Week Two of Nicholas Nickleby (7-13 June)

General Mems

Just before Boze’s Introduction, we had our first two-week break between reads. How did that go for everyone?

I emailed some members this week–based on the few emails I have–about sending us a mini-bio for a Dickens Club page we’re working on, featuring our community hosts, authors, contributors, etc! Please feel free to DM me on twitter or email me if you’re willing to share:

  1. preferred name/nickname;
  2. a short bio (1-2 lines, up to a short paragraph; anything from work/academic background–to how many cats you have–or the name of your favorite Dickens novel–or your favorite Jingleism or Wellerism–anything goes and all’s welcome–very!);
  3. preferred picture (of yourself–or perhaps a favorite Dickens character drawn by Phiz–or your avatar–your cat, etc);
  4. any personal links you’d like us to include, if applicable (twitter, IG, website, facebook, etc).

If you’re counting, today is Day 154–and Week 23–in our #DickensClub! It will be Week Two of Nicholas Nickleby, our fourth read of the group. Please feel free to comment below this post for this 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 for all likes, shares, and retweets, including from Dr. Christian Lehmann, Dr. Pete Orford, the Dickens Society, and all of our Dickensian heroes. A huge “thank you” to The Circumlocution Office (on twitter also!) for providing such an online resource for us.

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, and Boze’s Introduction to Nicholas Nickleby (with the reading schedule) can be found here. 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.

Week One Nicholas Nickleby Summary (Chapters 1-14)

Our narrator begins with a summary of inheritances, losses, and gains from the time of Nicholas’s grandfather, Godfrey Nickleby. But why sum it up myself when I can refer you to the three-minute “introduction” as spoken by the actors of the RSC stage Nicholas Nickleby before they begin? I shared it at the 1:40 timestamp (but you’ll have to stop it manually; it ends at about 4:40):

Nicholas, now nearly nineteen, travels with his mother and younger sister Kate on a desperate journey to London from their idyllic little farm in Devonshire, where his father had died “of a broken heart” and ruinous investments. The little family seeks help from their father’s brother, Ralph Nickleby, a stern man of business who has prospered in the world.

“Mr Ralph Nickleby’s first visit to his poor relations,” by Phiz.

Ralph Nickleby is anything but pleased by their arrival and uses every possible opportunity to shame them in ways both open and secretive. Though something about Kate strikes some long-buried chord within the sour uncle, Ralph feels an almost instantaneous aversion towards Nicholas. With the appearance of giving help–and with a bad grace–Ralph secures for Nicholas a poorly-paid position as teacher at “Dotheboys Hall” in distant Yorkshire, assisting the two-faced and sadistic Mr. Squeers. Ralph promises that if Nicholas accepts the post, he, Ralph, will make it his charge to assist Nicholas’ mother and sister.

“The Yorkshire Schoolmaster at the Saracen’s Head,” by Phiz.

Little does Nicholas imagine what is in store for him…

But as Nicholas leaves for Yorkshire, Ralph Nickleby’s dissolute and knuckle-cracking clerk, Newman Noggs, unexpectedly hands Nicholas a letter. (Though Nicholas, in his haste, nearly forgets about it until recalling it during a forlorn moment later at Dotheboys Hall.)

Here’s a glimpse at Edward Petherbridge’s reading of the letter—and I will endeavor to make this my last RSC connection. This moment goes from the timestamp to 39:29:

“The Five Sisters of York,” by Phiz.

On the journey to Yorkshire, following the overturning of the carriage on the road, Nicholas and the group are entertained with two tales: “The Five Sisters of York” and “The Baron of Grogswig.”

At Dotheboys Hall, we meet the other half of the dastardly Squeers, and his wife is even more forthright in her knavery:

“Now, the fact was, that both Mr. and Mrs. Squeers viewed the boys in the light of their proper and natural enemies; or, in other words, they held and considered that their business and profession was to get as much from every boy as could by possibility be screwed out of him. On this point they were both agreed…The only difference between them was, that Mrs. Squeers waged war against the enemy openly and fearlessly, and that Squeers covered his rascality, even at home, with a spice of his habitual deceit…”

“The internal economy of Dotheboys Hall,” by Phiz.

There are no traces of welcome—nor even appropriate room and food—for Nicholas in this place.

We meet the boys, too, and with this meeting, Nicholas’ last faint hope is gone:

“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; there were vicious-faced boys, brooding, with leaden eyes, like malefactors in a jail; and there were young creatures on whom the sins of their frail parents had descended, weeping even for the mercenary nurses they had known, and lonesome even in their loneliness. With every kindly sympathy and affection blasted in its birth, with every young and healthy feeling flogged and starved down, with every revengeful passion that can fester in swollen hearts, eating its evil way to their core in silence, what an incipient Hell was breeding here!”

Above all, we meet Smike, a young man of about Nicholas’ own age, but through mistreatment, malnourishment, neglect, and a disability not fully explained, he appears younger. Smike has been with the Squeers for many years, payments for his board having been made regularly at the outset before suddenly falling off. Smike looks forlornly at the mail for any signs of hope that some word will one day come about him.

“The boy glanced, with an anxious and timid expression, at the papers, as if with a sickly hope that one among them might relate to him. The look was a very painful one, and went to Nicholas’s heart at once; for it told a long and very sad history.”

Nicholas and Smike form a friendship, the latter looking up to Nicholas almost as a surrogate older brother or parental figure.

We meet the Squeers’ children, Fanny and Little Wackford. The latter looks like a promising candidate for carrying on his father’s cruel work when he comes of age, and the former immediately falls for Nicholas, and mistakes his politeness for interest. Shortly after Nicholas’ work begins, he ends up at a little gathering–while Mr. and Mrs. Squeers are away–with Fanny, her friend Tilda Price, and Tilda’s fiancé, the bluff, hearty John Browdie. In his attempts to “adapt” himself to the society he’s in, Nicholas makes himself agreeable to all, especially with Miss Price, and she with him. The result is that Fanny fumes with rage against her friend and Nicholas, and John goes off in a huff, taking Miss Price with him. All is shortly after smoothed over for John Browdie and his fiancée; not so with Fanny, however, who makes one last effort at catching Mr. Nickleby, only to be rebuffed in no uncertain terms. She determines to make him her enemy, and to make his life even more miserable than it was before, if possible.

“Nicholas astonishes Mr Squeers and family,” by Phiz.

Circumstances become so dismal for Nicholas, and the cruelty towards himself and the boys so unrelenting, that Nicholas remarks that he will at last be forced to leave. Smike, thinking that it is an immediate certainty, and reassured that he would find Nicholas upon venturing out into the great world, runs away. Smike is, however, very shortly recaptured by Mr. and Mrs. Squeers. Mr. Squeers, who begins to cruelly flog Smike in spite of all Smike’s pleas for mercy, is suddenly stopped by Nicholas. Nicholas warns Squeers several times, but Squeers is determined to go on mercilessly and gives Nicholas a lash across the cheek. Nicholas responds by beating the schoolmaster until he can whip him no more.

Nicholas leaves Dotheboys Hall, and is shortly after joined by Smike, who has followed him, begging Nicholas to accompany him “to the world’s end.” Nicholas agrees. And, with a parting gift of a money loan and a kind word from John Browdie whom Nicholas met on the road, the two travelers venture forth, on foot, to London.

“Newman Noggs leaves the ladies in the empty house,” by Phiz.

Meanwhile, Kate and her mother must leave the lodgings of our kindly miniature painter, Miss La Creevy. Ralph has found Kate the humbling situation—humbling especially because she is unaccustomed to it—of working for a milliner and dressmaker, Mrs. Mantalini, whose dissolute dandy of a husband is one of the greatest comical creations of all time. (I would love to show a clip from John McEnery’s interpretation, but I will save that bit of deliciousness for the group watch.)

Kate and her mother are grudgingly given temporary lodgings at an old, all-but-shut-up house in Thames Street owned by Ralph. (Newman Noggs, poor as he is, has managed to gather together what few bits of furniture and coal they have.)

In Chapter 14, we encounter Newman at his own lodgings, and attend a party with the Kenwigs family who live on the first floor of the building in this “tumble-down street,” on one of the “tall meagre houses” in the Golden-Square corner of London. The family and their friends (including Miss Petowker of the Theatre Royal, Drury-lane) form a delightfully quirky constellation revolving around Mr. Lillyvick, collector of the water-rates, a better-off bachelor member of the extended family. He is used to being the center of attention, and the Kenwigs family fear above all giving offense to one who intends to bestow fortune upon their young children one day.

Newman, who is attending the little gathering, is summoned back to his own flat, however, by Mr Crowl (a selfish neighbor who has been staying in Newman’s room using up his coal): two strangers “all covered with rain and mud” have arrived, and are asking for Newman!

But we’ll have to find out more in the next chapter…

Discussion Wrap-Up

What we Loved

Well, what didn’t we love? Such extraordinarily delightful and quirky characters already. We loved The United Metropolitan Improved Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking and Punctual Delivery Company; we loved Miss La Creevy, Mr. Mantalini and his demd hilarious endearments, Fanny Squeers and her inimitably “choice epistle” to Ralph Nickleby, random Mrs. Nickleby, dear Smike and adorably knuckle-cracking Newman Noggs…and, of course, Nicholas and Kate.

Adaptation Stationmaster comments

The Stationmaster has a special fondness for Nicholas–and Miss La Creevy especially!–feeling it too harshly critiqued in general.

We also loved the humor and the pathos so far.

And a warm “welcome back” to Cassandra!! She has been starting Nicholas with us, and greatly enjoyed the opening paragraph.

And here’s a collection of some delightfully Dickensian whimsy on twitter this week:

And for an additional bit of whimsy, one of the #DickensClub’s favorite Dickensian academics, Dr. Pete Orford, made a tote bag that I think he could sell:

Money; Speculation

Boze introduced us to this theme, which is prevalent from the outset of Nickleby, and whose influence is greatly felt over the course of three generations. I wrote a little on this in reply:

Rach M. comment

Marnie had some fantastic observations about the running theme of “speculation”:

“’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…

“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.”

~Marnie F.

She links the same concept to the game that Nicholas plays with Fanny, Tilda, and John:

Marnie F. comment

Finally, Marnie has wonderful remarks about this theme in relation to the Mantalinis, worth quoting in full here:

“…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.”

~Marnie F.

Cruelty, Aggression; Dickens’ Social Conscience

Boze writes in his Introduction:

Boze H. from the “Introduction”

The reality was bleak; how does one react to cruelty, neglect, and abuse?

Chris looks at Myron Magnet’s argument that Nicholas Nickleby is a novel obsessed with aggression (physical and mental). Here are Chris’ marvelous comments in full:

Chris M. comments

Lenny elaborates on this in relation to the character development. He sees our hero, Nicholas as “willing to punish those who push him too far, physically as well as psychologically”; he “seems to be an outgrowth of the much younger Oliver in TWIST.” Oliver, too young to do more than the “non-physical” and “non-violent” kind of rebellion (“the thrashing of Noah the one exception”), is fulfilled in Nicholas, who has the adult capacity to strike back. As Lenny writes, “Nicholas becomes the assertive, sometimes aggressive ‘enforcer’ of his novel.”

Lenny H. comments

Marnie had commented on this same theme in her Nickleby diary:

Marnie F. comment

Based on the comments this week, I think most might safely say that we love Nicholas for his righteous display of anger and well-placed aggression.

The “Outcast”; the Hopeless

Both Marnie and I referred to this idea–not surprisingly, as we’re both huge fans of the RSC stage Nickleby, and the word “outcast” is emphasized strongly in that production. I wrote:

Rach M. comments


Marnie really looked into the theme of good and bad parents in her Nickleby diary, and she also relates it to Dickens’ own life, and the importance of the Nicholas-Smike relationship:

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.”

~Marnie F.

What’s in a name…?

Marnie had a wonderful analysis on the meaning of names:

Marnie F. comment

She also emphasized that both Nicholas and Newman are “NN”–suggesting a special connection between the two.

“Life as Theatre”

We haven’t touched on this theme much yet for Nickleby, but it’s worth highlighting it from Boze’s introduction, as we’ll be coming around to it more and more as we venture on, and there is no Dickens novel so strongly marked with this theme:

Boze H. from “Introduction”


In my reflection piece on memory in Dickens’ early novels, I try to sum up here the ideas that kept recurring to me as being especially Dickensian memory traits and motifs, guided by Peter Ackroyd’s analysis:

Rach M. summary from post on “Memory”

I also reflect on the idea that whereas memory played a key role to identification and theme in Oliver Twist, particularly due to the death of Mary Hogarth, Dickens seems to emphasize the way we view memory in Nicholas Nickleby, in everything from Ralph’s sneer about grief, to the contrast between the two storytellers of our interpolated tales, the prematurely-grey “melancholy” man, and the “merry-faced” gentleman:

“I don’t detect in the contrast between the two storytellers any judgement about the melancholy man, whose vision is more accustomed to the shadows. I sense only sympathy. At least this man feels–a significant thing for Dickens. In these two voices, might Dickens be processing the two inclinations warring within himself, about his grief over Mary, his grief over a lost childhood?”

~Rach M.

Marnie adds in her Nickleby diary:

“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.]”

~Marnie F.

And more from her on “The Five Sisters of York”:

Marnie F. comment

Daniel responded to my essay on memory, emphasizing the crucial difference between “over-rumination” versus “savoring”:

Daniel M. comments

And here is a collage of the continued conversation on memory from myself, Chris, and Daniel:

Rach, Chris, and Daniel: responses on memory

Women; Dickens and Austen

Had Dickens read Jane Austen? Lenny brings up the idea, hearing an echo of her in early Nickleby–even in the opening with, as Lenny writes, its echoes of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. And he is simply delighted that Dickens seems to be getting “in touch with his anima”…

Lenny H. comments

Chris does a bit of research for us:

Chris M. comments

Still, Lenny isn’t entirely convinced: “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.”

Dickens’ “Writing Lab”: Sounds, Character…

Boze writes in his Intro: “If nothing else [Nicholas Nickleby is] 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.” Here more than in either Pickwick or Oliver, might we have that Chaplinesque comedy/pathos perfectly blended? That tendency to be crying with either laughter or heartbreak from one page to the next?

Boze continues:

Boze H. from “Introduction”

I loved some of the “sounds” in the description; making the sound equate to the character:

Rach M. comment

And here’s a delightful addition to the conversation on character & dialogue, from our own Stationmaster:

Adaptation Stationmaster comment


Finally, friends, we come to what might well be the most important reminder of the week (and Lenny, Marnie and I are ready to invest!):

Boze H. comment

A Look-ahead to Week Two of Nicholas Nickleby (7-13 June)

This week, we’ll be reading Chapters 15-26, which constitute the monthly numbers V-VIII, published July to October 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.


  1. All the talk of memory in Week 1 makes me wish we could skip ahead to The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain in which Dickens argues that painful memories can make us better people and to the famous villainesses of A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations who are made worse people by wallowing in painful memories.

    BTW, I really like the quote about Mr. and Mrs. Squeers you included. I feel like a lot of actors make the mistake of portraying Squeers as simply unpleasant and miss the weird amiability that makes him such an entertaining villain and makes his wife such a great foil to him.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Not my full comment yet, but just had to add in: Dickens was on a roll with the comedy in Chapter 18! From the conversation between Miss Knag & Mrs Nickleby after they’re introduced, to Mortimer Knag and his literary bent 😂 to the very old lord at the Mantalini’s shop, leering grotesquely at Kate, determined when a married man to lead “a new life”… 😬😂


  3. Wow, Rach, an enormously wonderful recap of this weeks readings and responses! What a masterly job you’ve done with the collating and combining all the materials we, the Dickens Club members, have been working on for the last 7 days. I’ve read through your assay of the various analyses and comments once, but, I daresay, I need to go through it all again in order to integrate the ideas and formulations as I move forward with my reading of the next batch of chapters. Much of the material we’ve advanced, thus far, will, I think, carry over, at least in part, to the subsequent chapters and will deepen and enrich our readings thereafter! Again, many kudos to you for your fine work, here, and a big hurrah for all the Club members for their insights and vivid and exciting commentary. So many voices, so many helpful and inspiring ideas!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Aww, thank you SO MUCH, Lenny!!! It is absolute delight to go through and try to compile everyone’s wonderful ideas…I’m so grateful and astounded by the richness of the thoughts here, and it really adds to the Dickensian experience 🖤 and is prompting me to do more of a deep dive too! Right now I’m getting a bit sidetracked by a book called “The Night Side of Dickens”…whew, dark stuff and absolutely fascinating.

      Love our amazing little group here!

      By the way, I am really curious about how the Austen influence (even if by a kind of cultural osmosis, if he **really** hadn’t read her) will keep manifesting itself…

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  4. Rach, how do you do it! I’m amazed by how much material you manage to fuse into a single, reflective essay. You must have spent a huge amount of time putting it all together. Thank you so much for encapsulating all our thoughts so beautifully.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Aww, thank you, Marnie!!! I’m so thrilled you’ve joined in for Nickleby and what enriching additions you’ve made to the discussion!!! Can’t believe I hadn’t noticed some o these things before…! My absolute pleasure to try and pull a few of thebmany wonderful thoughts together 🖤


  5. Please take a look at this George Cruikshank illustration which Norrie Epstein includes in her book “The Friendly Dickens”

    The speech bubbles say, from top left to right, “I understand that it is impossible to get a living at this work.” “So I have heard never the less we must try.” “I cannot imagine how they can possibly be made for the price!!” And the name of the establishment is “Cheap House”.

    Epstein comments: “Cruikshank illustrates the diabolical conditions of the millinery establishments, which were little more than sweatshops for women. The working conditions of such places – poor ventilation, long hours, scant pay – forced women into the streets. Milliners were often fronts for brothels, and the two establishments were almost the same thing in the public mind. A millinery meant a very different thing to Dickens’s public than it does to us today – and the Dickens’s use of it shows how he telegraphed sexual or unemotional subjects to a family audience.” (105)

    As early as Chapter 5 we were warned of the dangers awaiting Kate. Miss La Creevy says to Nicholas: “Your sister is a very pretty lady, Mr Nickleby, and that is an additional reason why she should have somebody to protect her.” (Ch 5) AND Nicholas thinks to himself: “His uncle had deceived him, and might he not consign her [Kate] to some miserable place where her youth and beauty would prove a far greater curse than ugliness and decrepitude?” (Ch 8)

    I shudder for Kate for the humiliation she experiences at Mantalini’s and at her Uncle Ralph’s dinner party. She cannot defend herself quite as forcefully as her brother Nicholas can, goodness knows Sir Mulberry Hawk deserves a good thrashing, not to mention Uncle Ralph! -and I’m thrilled that Dickens allows her to speak up. Kate is not the shrinking violet she appears to be at first glance – she stands her ground and manages to get her point across to Hawk, though one wonders if she would have managed to get out of the room unmolested had her Uncle not made a timely appearance. Further, she reproaches her Uncle both for putting her in such a compromising position and for not coming to her defense sooner. If there is a chink in Ralph’s armor of evil it is Kate’s innocence and forthrightness.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. My Heavens, Chris, what a wonderfully dreadful illustration. In many ways it seems so modern, with the “factory” motif of the little bags of money marching off to the bank as they are being cranked out by the very devil of a manager/owner. Women as commodities–as shown by THIS rendering, but as you confirm, millinery is also a kind of “code” for house of prostitution and that deepens that comment by Miss La Creevy. Ugh, such mercenaries these men are, making people (women) into the objects of capitol investments of the very crudest kind. Women and (of course) children as commodities! It’s not just DO THE BOYS HALL, but DO THE WOMEN’S MILLINERY….

      Yes, Ralph is the very essence of evil and, from a Jungian perspective, as I said to Marnie yesterday in my post on the first week’s thread, he and Squeers and Hawk and Verisopht are all ossified personalities, working their way through life creating tragedy after tragedy with their single-minded one-sided “practices.”

      Later, of course, he’s going to set Kate “up”–at the theater–when he divulges her address to Hawk and Lord V. , but she, again, takes her revenge of a kind, when she gets downright Feisty with Hawk. As you suggest, if only Nicholas had been there!

      Yet, as I remarked about Ralph in that earlier post:

      …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 with Kate. Hence, the “second thoughts” that he has about turning loose Hawk and Verisopht on Kate….

      There IS a conscience buried very very deeply in Ralph’s “Shadow.”

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Lenny, your observations really resonate with me – as you can see in my own diary comments on the Crummles’ children as commodities. What especially struck me hard was your comparison of Dotheboys and the millinery. I can definitely see a relationship or a mirror image between the boys in the school and the women in the millinery establishment. I thought of the commoditization of the Crummles’ children but not of the women at the millinery which is so true – although their exploitations aren’t on the same level in regard to how they suffered in their situation – that is, the Crummles’ children are in a more benign, even apparently loving, situation than the poor women workers!

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    2. Chris, your finds – Cruikshank’s drawing and quote from Epstein’s book – are a wonderful addition to our thinking about the whole Mantalini-millinary section of the book. Although I hate to think of the Mantalinis being involved in that seedy – and cruel – side that a millinary could hide, it’s a good thing to keep in mind as we read their chapters. I love your tie-in to the quotes of Miss La Creevy and Nicholas. They strike me as very pertinent for Dickens’ pointing out this hidden, dark side of the world that Ralph leads Kate into.

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  6. I wonder if nepotism could be seen as a theme of the book. You’ve got the Squeerses who love their children and abuse their students. You’ve got Crummles who promotes his daughter at the expense of the rest of his actors. Even the Kenwigses want their children to be better educated than the others in the neighborhood.

    While none of that is good, all those characters, even the Squeerses (!), arguably come across better than Ralph who doesn’t care about his family at all.

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    1. A good point, Stationmaster. And their wish to promote their children, both Crummles and Kenwigs, ties in to how they therefore commoditize them. It doesn’t mean the parents don’t have a love for them, just that they are also using their children. Again, this was probably important for Dickens himself, as he felt used as a child to support his family, even though I’m sure he felt loved too.

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  7. Ah, Crummles! He’s not really necessary to the plot but every adaptation I’ve seen, no matter how short, tries to include him and his troupe. Here are my favorite lines from Mr. and Mrs. Crummles.

    ‘We expect her today,’ replied Mr. Crummles. ‘She is an old friend of Mrs Crummles’s. Mrs. Crummles saw what she could do—always knew it from the first. She taught her, indeed, nearly all she knows. Mrs. Crummles was the original Blood Drinker.’

    ‘Was she, indeed?’

    ‘Yes. She was obliged to give it up though.’

    ‘Did it disagree with her?’ asked Nicholas.

    ‘Not so much with her, as with her audiences,’ replied Mr. Crummles.

    ‘Do you give lessons, ma’am?’ inquired Nicholas.

    ‘I do,’ said Mrs. Crummles.

    ‘There is no teaching here, I suppose?’

    ‘There has been,’ said Mrs. Crummles. ‘I have received pupils here. I imparted tuition to the daughter of a dealer in ships’ provision; but it afterwards appeared that she was insane when she first came to me. It was very extraordinary that she should come, under such circumstances.’

    Mr. Curdle is also a great caricature of pretentious critics with crackpot theories.


    1. Adaptation: Indeed, this is a Zany dialogue and I’m wondering how Nicholas can keep a straight face throughout all of it. That Mrs. Crummles was “the original Blood drinker” is out there somewhere in Wacko Land, and as I read it I was really caught up short. Short of being a vampire, I have no Idea of what a blood drinker is, much less why she should be the ORIGINAL! I’m assuming that Mr.Crummles is saying all of this with a straight face, taking it for granted that of course Nichoas knows what the devil he’s talking about. His reply to this craziness is so wonderful and deadpan: “Was she, Indeed? That line just cracks me up. It’s wonderful that you highlighted this bit of humor for us to come up against and appreciate it for its inventiveness. It appears slight, but it really “lights up” the conversation and helps delineate the differences between Crummle and Nicholas.

      With regard to your earlier statement about Crummles and plot development, I disagree–to an extent. I guess if you pare various episodes down to the core narrative about what will happen to Nicholas and Kate, then maybe 1/2 of the novel would be unnecessary, but since Dickens is working within the Picaresque mode of narrative, these kinds of stories are their necessary features. In the picaresque, journeys are the main way of putting together a plot, a plot structure which allows the author to show his protagonist wandering just about everywhere he or she needs to go and for whatever reason. In this instance, Nicholas is escaping London and travelling to Portsmouth to find employment, presumably on the docks. There is an interesting parallel, here, with TWIST, where Oliver is escaping the Sowerberrys and is “captured” by the Dodger. You might say that Nicholas has been “captured” by Crummles.

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      1. (I’m going to get into spoilers here. I assume everyone in this group has read the novel at least once before but just in case anyone’s experiencing it for the first time, I urge them not to read the rest of this comment.)

        What I meant about how Crummles and company could conceivably be cut from an adaptation is that it could rearrange the plot so that Kate is being persecuted by Sir Mulberry Hawk while Nicholas is at Dotheboys Hall and could have Nicholas’s confrontation with Hawk be when he first returns to London with Smike.


    2. “Mrs. Crummles was the original Blood Drinker.”

      The RSC’s Nickleby actually gives us a few fun lines of the “Blood Drinker’s Burial” in the earlier Kenwigs’ scene where Miss Petowker recites it, but Dickens does provide a very funny passage for it in that scene:

      Miss Petowker was entreated to begin the Blood-Drinker’s Burial; to which end, that young lady let down her back hair, and taking up her position at the other end of the room, with the bachelor friend posted in a corner, to rush out at the cue ‘in death expire,’ and catches her in his arms when she died raving mad, went through the performance with extraordinary spirit, and to the great terror of the little Kenwigses, who were all but frightened into fits.

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  8. What theatricality! “We have fallen upon strange times…”!!!

    Mrs Wititterly and husband. “Mrs. Wititterly is of a very excitable nature; very delicate, very fragile; a hothouse plant, an exotic…You are, my love, you know you are; one breath—Pho! you’re gone!” 😉 Here are another two fine “actors” on the Nickleby stage, each playing a role. The delicate flower who cannot tolerate anyone causing any ripples in the little rivulet of daily life; the anxious husband who apparently takes over-zealous care of his wife…or does he? Is he pushing her toward a premature grave? Though I find him hilarious, the dark imagination in me almost pictures the mother & son combo in the Hitchcock film Notorious, as our heroine is slowly poisoned…!

    We have Mr. Curdle, who had written a piece of 64 pgs on “the character of the Nurse’s deceased husband [in Romeo & Juliet], with an inquiry whether he really had been a ‘merry man’ in his life-time…it is needless to say, therefore, that he was a great critic, and a very profound and most original thinker.”

    Then of course…the Crummles family!–with their quirky company, after passages of travel among the hills both picturesque and grotesque between London and Portsmouth. Love how Mr Crummles is introduced: “Mr. Vincent Crummles received Nicholas with an inclination of the head, something between the courtesy of a Roman emperor and the nod of a pot companion.” (Drinking companion.) And his assessment of poor Smike, from the eye of an actor-manager! Then his view of Nicholas, trying to convince him to try the stage: “There’s genteel comedy in your walk and manner, juvenile tragedy in your eye, and touch-and-go farce in your laugh…” As one who is interested in writing, what a way to kill two birds with one stone!–Describing the person being observed in a way that is all fresh and novel, AND perfectly illustrating one who sees the world—and others—through this unique lens.

    Everything from the wash tubs to the ponies who took over the low comedy, to the Infant Phenomenon, whether in her role as the Maiden or the Fairy Porcupine, to Miss Snevellicci “who could do anything, from a medley dance to Lady Macbeth,” to the actor who plays the “irascible old men—those funny fellows who have nephews in the army, and perpetually run about with thick sticks to compel them to marry heiresses” to a “slim young gentleman with weak eyes, who played the low-spirited lovers and sang tenor songs” and a “Gothic archway, about two feet shorter than Mr. Crummles, through which that gentleman was to make his first entrance”…all this, and trying to incorporate a dance, two pumps, and a washing tub! What a motley, disarming crew, and a whimsical love letter to all the tropes of stage melodrama.

    And this is one of my favorite passages in ANY novel, as Nicholas describes an upcoming role to the actor Mr Lenville: “…you are troubled with remorse until the last act, and then you make up your mind to destroy yourself. But, just as you are raising the pistol to your head, a clock strikes—ten…You pause…you recollect that you have heard a clock strike ten in your infancy. The pistol falls from your hand—you are overcome—you burst into tears, and become a virtuous and exemplary character for ever afterwards.”

    Truly, “all the world’s a stage!”

    On another note, I loved the palpable atmospheric descriptions, from the journey between London & Portsmouth, to the London fog…you can taste it & feel it in your bones:

    “It was a cold, dry, foggy morning in early spring. A few meagre shadows flitted to and fro in the misty streets, and occasionally there loomed through the dull vapour, the heavy outline of some hackney coach wending homewards, which, drawing slowly nearer, rolled jangling by, scattering the thin crust of frost from its whitened roof, and soon was lost again in the cloud. At intervals were heard the tread of slipshod feet, and the chilly cry of the poor sweep as he crept, shivering, to his early toil; the heavy footfall of the official watcher of the night, pacing slowly up and down and cursing the tardy hours that still intervened between him and sleep; the rambling of ponderous carts and waggons; the roll of the lighter vehicles which carried buyers and sellers to the different markets; the sound of ineffectual knocking at the doors of heavy sleepers—all these noises fell upon the ear from time to time, but all seemed muffled by the fog, and to be rendered almost as indistinct to the ear as was every object to the sight. The sluggish darkness thickened as the day came on; and those who had the courage to rise and peep at the gloomy street from their curtained windows, crept back to bed again, and coiled themselves up to sleep.”

    And to go back a little bit:

    The end of chapter twenty moved me so much. Until now, Nicholas has been the one trying to care for his new friend, Smike; to take on the role of older brother, or even parent. Here, however, Smike shows that he has noticed more than he lets on—more perception, in fact, than anyone else has voiced to this point—and notices that Nicholas has grown thinner, paler, “your eye more sunk”; he is perceptive and caring, and has decided to go his separate way so as not to be a burden to Nicholas. I am a sucker for friendship/buddy/bromance stories, and here, at this moment, the tide has turned. They are equals, and we realize that no longer is one more reliant on the other. We have here another Pickwick and Sam, Don Quixote and Sancho, perhaps, but more along the lines of brothers than master-servant. There is, perhaps, greater “material” contribution that Nicholas can make to their comfort, having more prospects for work; but Smike’s contribution is at least equally vital (spiritually, emotionally), and Nicholas realizes this: “The word which separates us…shall never be said by me, for you are my only comfort and stay. I would not lose you now, Smike, for all the world could give. The thought of you has upheld me through all I have endured to-day, and shall, through fifty times such trouble. Give me your hand. My heart his linked to yours. We will journey from this place together, before the week is out. What, if I am steeped in poverty? You lighten it, and we will be poor together.”

    On that note, I shall say goodnight. “We’ll call the Mortal Struggle to-morrow at ten; everybody for the procession…we shall only want one rehearsal.” Goodnight to the Company!

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    1. Mr. Wititterly: “the anxious husband who apparently takes over-zealous care of his wife…or does he?”

      Oh, Rachel, that gives us a whole other way of looking at Mr. Wititterly, doesn’t it? Talk of “killing with love.”

      And one of my favorite fun excerpts from the Crummles section – there are so many – is the description of Nicholas’ first appearance on the stage:

      “when Nicholas came on for his crack scene with Mrs. Crummles, what a clapping of hands there was! When Mrs. Crummles (who was his unworthy mother) sneered, and called him ‘presumptuous boy,’ and he defied her, what a tumult of applause came on! When he quarrelled with the other gentleman about the young lady, and producing a case of pistols, said, that if he was a gentleman, he would fight him in that drawing-room, until the furniture was sprinkled with the blood of one, if not of two – how boxes, pit, and gallery joined in one most vigorous cheer! When he called his mother names, because she wouldn’t give up the young lady’s property, and she relenting, caused him to relent likewise, and fall down on one knee and ask her blessing, how the ladies in the audience sobbed!…and when, at last, in the pump-and-tub scene, Mrs. Grudden lighted the blue fire, and all the unemployed members of the company came in, and tumbled down in various directions – not because that had anything to do with the plot, but in order to finish off with a tableau – the audience (who had by this time increased considerably) gave vent to such a shout of enthusiasm, as had not been heard in those walls for many and many a day.”

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    2. Rach, I think you’ve hit on what makes this week’s reading so marvelous and strange, such a joy to read: the delight Dickens is taking in the invention of characters. There’s a passage from Ackroyd’s Dickens that has stayed with me through the years in which Dickens is describing the act of creation at a dinner party. Ackroyd writes: “There is much else that is mysterious and instinctive in Dickens’s creation, and he always recognised the fact. He was once with friends, discussing these matters, when he took up a wine glass. ‘Suppose,’ he said, ‘I choose to call this a character, fancy it a man, endue it with certain qualities; and soon the fine filmy webs of thought, almost impalpable, coming from every direction, we know not whence, spin and weave about it, until it assumes form and beauty, and becomes instinct with life.’ He called this process of individuation an ‘unfathomable mystery’ … there is a mystery in the origin of his characters, whom he seems to summon up when they are already half-formed in the ante-chambers of his imagination.” We know that the mind has a natural impulse to see faces in things – if a man were locked in a cabin for eight months he would start personifying the very walls so that he had some companion with which to spend his waking hours. In Dickens this animistic impulse existed to an extreme degree – you can even see it in his descriptions, like the old house in A Christmas Carol that got stuck in a dismal courtyard when it was a young house playing hide-and-seek with the other houses. He could scarcely walk down the street without conjuring characters from the stones. And we’re confronted with the sheer prodigality of his imagination in this week’s portion of Nickleby, which introduces half a dozen or so of his greatest comic creations, one after another, like the goblins leaping over the headstones in Pickwick.

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  9. Wow, Rachel, so much to ponder, here. That Nicholas has a travelling partner in NICKLEBY is almost a given. The models for NICKLEBY’s structure and character are truly Fielding’s TOM JONES and JOSEPH ANDREWS, where the chief protagonists “adopt”–for various reasons–a travelling companion. In general, the hero of these adventures is a “positive” personality, a believer in his skills, his abilities, and tends to move about with illusions of grandeur–thus the quixotic component. The protagonist’s “sidekick” or “buddy” as you call him, is more of the realist and often attempts to help the Protagonist out of situations that his “superior” has gotten them in to. Northrop Frye differentiates between the two, designating the protagonist as the ALAZON character, and his or her buddy the EIRON character. Hence, the dreamer, the personality who has “moralist” illusions about how life could be better and the realist, who is more anchored to reality than his buddy.

    But every Picaresque novel reinvents this paradigm and plays with its characterizations as the needs of the specific novels dictate. In QUIXOTE, the Don’s “quest” is to engage himself with the beautiful pricness Dulcinea (who in reality is a peasant girl) after he’s accomplished great deeds to win her over. In NICKLEBY, THE “Dulcinea” character is Nicholas’ sister, who he is trying to protect by finding work in order that she (and her mother) can “live” with some degree of prosperity and hope. His quest is much more realistic than the Don’s and shows how dickens is reformulating the original picaresque structure. And Smike, likewise, is a much more “muted” and limited personality than Sancho. But the brotherly love and mutual support of one for the other is certainly there with Nicholas and Smite as it was with the novel’s forebears.

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    1. “Hence, the dreamer, the personality who has “moralist” illusions about how life could be better and the realist, who is more anchored to reality than his buddy.”

      Lenny, I thought especially of Pickwick and Sam when I read this passage of yours – and liked how you connected back to the buddy heroes of earlier time, of course especially Quixote and Sancho.

      “But the brotherly love and mutual support of one for the other is certainly there with Nicholas and Smike as it was with the novel’s forebears.”

      I especially loved this last line of yours – it goes perfectly with Rachel’s quote above where Nicholas re-affirms his fraternal commitment to Smike.

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  10. Just as Marnie suggests in her Week 2 Diary that critics speak negatively of the episodic nature of “Nickleby”, critics also tend to speak negatively about its being excessively melodramatic. In my in between readings I’ve come across many who see these “flaws” as indicative of an immature Dickens who is not yet skilled in controlling his fervor, such as this from J. Hillis Miller:

    “[W]e come to recognize that . . . the central action of ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ is the elaborate performance of a cheap melodrama, complete with sneering villains, insulted virginity, and a courageous young hero who appears in the nick of time. . . . In spite of himself Dickens reveals the fictive nature of his own novel, and the vacuity of his characters. We come to see the entire novel as an improvised drama which cannot escape the factitiousness of all assumed roles.” (90)

    While Miller’s critique has some merit, the slant of his argument is that the theatricality and melodrama lessen the quality of the novel and that Dickens, still new to novel writing, should be excused for his naivety. But this view never sat well with me especially in light of Dickens’s familiarity with and love of the theatre. And in tandem the episodic nature of “Nickleby”, the theatrical, melodramatic style seems to me to work very well to tell the story – it is comedic fiction, after all, not meant to be realistic but to be, well, theatrical.

    And then I came across George J. Worth’s slim critique entitled appropriately, “Dickensian Melodrama: A Reading of the Novels”. Contrary to most other critics’ points of view, Worth sees a method to Dickens’s madness:

    “The most usual charge [critics make] is that Dickens lets his melodramatic tendencies run riot in ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ . . . That it is the most melodramatic of Dickens’ novels there is no denying. But, I have argued, Dickens knows exactly what he is doing in employing melodramatic devices . . . He is aware that they can be misapplied, as he shows by his use of mock melodrama, not only in the Crummles episodes but also elsewhere. When it suits his purpose, he is able to resist turning on the melodramatic tap, to turn it off as soon as it has served his purpose, or to blend its flow with other currents. Especially . . . he employs melodramatic scenes to illustrate the elemental conflicts on which the novel turns and propel the action forward, and not merely for the sake of narrative padding or dramatic posturing. Such use of melodramatic scenes, firmly set in a plot like that of ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ . . . demand[s] of the reader a willingness to approach the novel, with a mind clear of critical cant, on its own unique terms.” (64)

    In other words, precisely because it “is drenched in a literally theatrical atmosphere” the logical conclusion is that Dickens consciously chose the melodramatic technique to tell his story (52). Here at last was someone who saw the novel for what it IS rather than for what they thought it should be; who embraced what Dickens was ACTUALLY doing rather than complaining about the way he did it.

    Embracing the novel for what it IS extends to embracing the characters for what they ARE. This aspect of the novel Miller grasps: “The characters ARE what they appear, and are accepted by one another, for the most part, without surprise or curiosity” (87). This is not to say that there is no meaning to them. Rather, “we slowly come to realize, through our recognition of the repetition of obsessional phrases, modes of speech, or gesture, that the character really exist as a kind of generalized form or abstract idea of himself” (88). Steven Marcus expands on this idea saying, “everyone in the novel is consciously engaged in appropriating certain manners of behavior, everyone is engaged in a perpetual activity of self-creation through imitation, emulation or acting” (100-101), and further, “the characters . . . become themselves by impersonating the imaginary creatures they wish to be” (105).

    In other words, it’s as though Dickens was writing a script rather than a novel and the characters are roles, or perhaps more precisely, the characters are actors who are constantly interpreting their roles – Character-Actors if you will. For example, Ralph through his every action toward Nicholas and Kate becomes the quintessential evil Uncle; Nicholas always acts the hero he will eventually become; Kate (and later Madeline) is the damsel in distress; Squeers’s “appears” to be virtuous and family oriented but he is the villain in disguise; Fanny, in “continually rehearsing her part as the heroine of a sentimental romance” becomes a comic one (105); Miss Knag is the ugly stepsister; Newman Noggs is the good spy; and Smike the . . . well, we’ll see.

    All of these Character-Actor types are reflected in the Crummles Company which is, says Miller, “of great importance as a critique of the way of life of all the characters” and “act[s] as a parody of the main plot, and of the life of the chief characters of the main story” (89-90). We see, among others, the “sneering villains, insulted virginity, and a courageous young hero” enacted by the Company both on and off stage. The members of the Company are chameleon – “They live lives which are sheer surface, sheer cliche, the perpetual substitution of one assumed role for another. They have only a multiple and volatile identity” (89-90). Not unlike – um – all of us, perhaps?

    Worth explains that the “[m]ost characteristic [feature of melodrama] was a frank appeal for the emotional involvement of the audience by presenting the spectacle of Virtue threatened by Vice and then redeemed, triumphant” (1). This seems to me to be not only a synopsis of “Nicholas Nickleby”, but the explanation of why melodrama was the perfect style for Dickens to employs the to tell his tale.

    Works Cited:
    J. Hillis Miller, “Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels”
    George J. Worth, “Dickensian Melodrama: A Reading of the Novels”
    Steven Marcus, “Dickens from Pickwick to Dombey”

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    1. Chris: Here’s the quote from Miller that makes sense to me–but only partially:

      “Embracing the novel for what it IS extends to embracing the characters for what they ARE. This aspect of the novel Miller grasps: “The characters ARE what they appear, and are accepted by one another, for the most part, without surprise or curiosity” (87). This is not to say that there is no meaning to them. Rather, “we slowly come to realize, through our recognition of the repetition of obsessional phrases, modes of speech, or gesture, that the character really exist as a kind of generalized form or abstract idea of himself””

      The first two sentences I agree with and can accept. Sentence number one is yours and I think is right on the money. And it precedes Miller’s which I think is ok, also. But man, I can’t buy the rest of his argument. I just feel like he’s making a mountain out of a molehill. And I’m also wondering just what is getting into his head to write what he does. I don’t see what happens at Dotheboys school as melodrama. It feels pretty darn realistic to me. Later in the paragraph he asserts that “the character really exists as a kind of generalized form or abstract idea of himself.” I think this is BS. When Nicholas goes to Squeers’ school and observes the boys conditions and the way Mr. and Mrs. Squeers “teach” and act toward their “students,” I don’t feel like on ANY level any of these characters are “abstract” ideas of themselves. I don’t even know what Miller is cooking up, here. We see what we see, and it’s hair-raisingly horrible. I don’t see Nicholas’ punishment of Squeers as melodramatic. He’s acting out his feelings toward a man who is, in effect, a killer of young boys. Hence the title of “DO” the Boys Hall. “DO” as in kill. I’m going to “DO” him in! Or, if you want to look even deeper, you can work with the more sexual meaning of “DO.” In the annals of English Boy’s schools, the idea of rape is everywhere present. Dickens is pointing out realistically what he knows is going on in these schools, emblematized by the “Hall” that he is focusing on. I believe Miller and Marcus really need to read the text and make meaning out of it rather than to develop theories that, as far as I can see, are virtually incomprehensible. Don’t get sucked in by these fanciful critics. We simply have to get at the text and tease meanings out of it rather than build castles in the air about it. Suddenly, we are trying desperately to understand what the CRITIC is saying–abstractly much of the time–rather than try to understand the meanings of the reading in front of us.

      Here’s another illustration: I don’t know how else we can understand what is happening to Kate except that by reading the text and watching the way the men around her are treating her. At Ralph’s dinner party, at the theater, we can see and feel the kind of horrible sexist and AGGRESSIVE behavior that defines the characters of all the males in her presence. They are predatory, they are insulting, and treat her as an object that is barely up to their lofty standards. She is being victimized by each and every man in her presence–in one way or another, verbal and non-verbal. I can’t believe them to be characters that “really exist as a kind of generalized form or abstract idea of himself.” Nope, these are nasty men that are enjoying turning the screws on Kate, loving and laughing every minute while they do so. Not “generalized forms,” according to Miller, but as you say, Chris, “characters for what they are.”

      We can read this text, focus on it, understand it without the glorified, silly pronouncements of Miller and Marcus. I think, in the case of their exegesis of NICKLEBY, they seem to have dropped the ball, here, have gone down some kind of weird rabbit hole.

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      1. Lenny, you’ve read the great precursors to Nickleby – such as Tom Jones and Roderick Random – do critics treat those classic novels with the same disdain that some of these modernist critics do Nickleby?

        Interesting about the sexualized context for “Do” – I think that could very well be a subtext that Dickens meant to imply, as with the millinery possibility of doubling for a brothel.

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      2. Great comments here Lenny! Perhaps a few of our scholars would be of the Mr Curdle variety, going down the 64-pgs-on-Juliet’s-Nurse’s-husband variety?

        The way I see the acting metaphor re: Dotheboys is strictly in that Squeers is playing a part towards the outside world: he acts the caring teacher (badly), while being a horrendous abuser behind the scenes. The very name of the school is a sham for the outside world. He even acts a part to himself, sometimes convincing himself that he’s a decent fellow. But I agree that there is nothing artificial nor melodramatic about the horrors behind the scenes. As we know from Dickens, he had to tone down some things about the horrors of these “schools” out of conviction that they wouldn’t be believed.

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      3. Lenny – not at all to defend Miller because there was much in his critique that I didn’t buy, and, in fact, I didn’t at all understand in final summation, but I think what he was getting at by his “generalized forms” was that unlike completely fleshed out or “rounded” characters of realistic novels (like those of Eliot say), Dickens characters here are not terribly deep, they are symbols or representations of types. But, I agree with you that Squeers couldn’t be more evil, more “roundedly” evil, and Ralph’s motivations are (or at least will become) quite clear. I also think we get quite a lot more inner psychology of the characters that critics typically give Dickens credit for – you just have to, as you say, look for it and tease it out.
        Thanks for the “don’t believe everything you read” reminder – it’s always good to have!

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    2. Chris, you’ve pointed out some of the typical negative reactions to melodrama in Nickleby. I like the countering views that you bring up:

      “a willingness to approach the novel, with a mind clear of critical cant, on its own unique terms.”

      “someone who saw the novel for what it IS rather than for what they thought it should be; who embraced what Dickens was ACTUALLY doing rather than complaining about the way he did it.”

      I think that’s the only way to approach Nickleby. On its own terms. I sometimes think that these critics have a visceral dislike of melodrama and pathos. Just the words like “sneer” or “dastardly”, for instance, can set off a feeling of contempt for the whole work. They can’t seem to see past it and end up building an intellectual construct on what is basically an irrational repugnance. I don’t know why someone would want to read – let alone write a whole book about – something they have absolutely no affinity for.

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      1. Kudos! So nicely and fairly put, Marnie! This quote really resonates with me and perhaps all of us:

        “someone who saw the novel for what it IS rather than for what they thought it should be; who embraced what Dickens was ACTUALLY doing rather than complaining about the way he did it.”


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    3. Wow, Chris, such a fantastic analysis & compilation…and now I have several works to look up and try and get hold of.

      Heck, the book is an unabashed love letter to stage melodrama, and I wish it could just be enjoyed for what it is! Dickens pokes loving fun at all the tropes, while using and transforming them himself–but into devices so effective that it’s like he’s creating something new altogether.

      Absolute YES to your Marcus quotes here: “Steven Marcus expands on this idea saying, ‘everyone in the novel is consciously engaged in appropriating certain manners of behavior, everyone is engaged in a perpetual activity of self-creation through imitation, emulation or acting’ (100-101), and further, ‘the characters . . . become themselves by impersonating the imaginary creatures they wish to be’ (105).”

      I’ll be referring to this all a good deal…thank you Chris!!!

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      1. Wow, I’m sorry if I opened up a can of worms that might have offended some of you. That certainly wasn’t my intention, but obviously my “blood was up” when I read the Miller quotes. Over night, I was ruminating over my response to the Miller “highlights” that Chris quoted, and suddenly remembered that she used a quote from Miller when we were reading the SKETCHES that really worked and seemed to tie up beautifully the thematic content of one (and perhaps more) of the stories. I’ve not read Miller’s criticism for well over 50 years, and I remember in the 60’s that he was pointed out as a bright light in Dickens scholarship. Along with Marcus. I’m not sure that in the mid-sixties Dickens’ criticism was as sharp as it is now. The rise of feminist critics have a lot to do with the closer readings that are becoming part of the mainstream of Dickens scholarship, so that we are now understanding the novels more clearly. New times, new perspectives. From my own experience, Jane Austen criticism was almost totally male-oriented until the appearance of THE MADWOMAN IN THE ATTIC by Gilbert and Gubar, and that feminist classic opened the floodgates, so to speak, for an entirely new kind of scholarship on Austen that was so refreshingly wonderful with a whole new set of analyses of her 6 novels.

        It could be that in order to compensate for what they see as the “episodic” nature of these early novels, some of these writers need to work up new ideas that make the (episodic) novels more valuable. Sometimes, I suppose this works, other times it probably doesn’t. But in reading these assessments, we’ll still find a kernel of insight that we can find useful and apply that. And maybe go beyond the original idea that the author is inventing. That might be what is happening here with us.

        “Episodic” novels. Well, given the ever-existing experimentation of the novel form–to this day and beyond–I’m not even sure what “episodic” means and whether that is important anymore. The criticism of “episodic” I suppose, is rather old school and suggests that there is only one true form that a novel may take. But, as I mentioned to Marnie in response to her wonderful 1st Diary notes, the word “novel” is just that. “Novel” means NEW, and different so that novel form and content is always, to some extent, evolving. Dickens is experimenting with this “new” literature that, really, is still in its infancy. In fact, he is one of the great innovators of this literary “form.” NICKLEBY, I think, is a prime example of innovative experimentation–heavily naturalistic but also extremely dramatic. Whether this “format” and content will evolve from NICKLEBY and beyond, we’ll be finding out. Many of you Dickensians will know that much better than I.

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      2. Lenny, oh my! “offended” is the last thing that would ever occur to me. I LOVED your joust with Miller, and, for myself, I think this is where it gets really fun, being able to call out the critics who, just because they are familiar with more Dickensian footnotes than most of us, aren’t necessarily more astute observers–there is of course always the danger of the Curdle Conundrum, as I am now thinking of it. (The 64pgs on Juliet’s-Nurse’s-husband.) I love knowing the criticism that is out there, and also finding where it absolutely resonates–and doesn’t. Though I’d likely kiss his dirty shoe in reality (to borrow from Shakespeare), I was upset with Michael Slater’s intro to Nickleby in my older version of the book. I think that, in the midst of the deep diving into Dickens, there is the danger of losing the “close reading” for almost a microscopic one–looking at things through a certain lens, and losing something of the whole picture. Even, of losing the sheer joy of getting swept up in the story and characters themselves.

        I really find delight in the combat now–though find myself exasperated beyond pleasure at times–but I remember there was a time (when I was first getting into A Tale of Two Cities) when I was reading a lot of “extra material” about it, and in my youthful ardor, actually crying at the library up in Salem, reading a critical article about it, and how (I won’t give spoilers, in case anyone doesn’t know it) the sacrifice was basically irrelevant because a certain character had an almost suicidal tendency *anyway*, and other critiques of the novel’s theme/motifs. I was crying b/c someone had SO LOST the sheer love of the story itself that they could come to such a place of disengagement, and of navel-gazing.

        On another note, I can’t believe I haven’t yet read The Madwoman in the Attic!!!! You might have read some passages from it years ago for us, but I really need to get it!

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  11. I Just wanted to add a little plug in here for those of you who are familiar with the RSC Nickleby. Tonight is the Tony Awards and the RSC’s Smike – David Threlfall – is up for Best Actor in a Play for the prestigious British black comedy, Hangmen, about the last two official hangmen in Britain when such executions were eliminated in the 1960s. I don’t think he has a chance of winning but it will be nice to hear his name spoken among the contenders. I know his Smike isn’t to everyone’s taste but it was – and still is – tremendously moving for most who have seen it, especially those who saw it live; it was recognized and acclaimed in 1980-1981 and he was nominated for a Tony at the time for Smike for Supporting Actor and actually won for the British equivalent for Supporting Actor, with Roger Rees, of course, winning both Tony and British award for Best Actor as Nicholas. So if you happen to tune on the Tony Award program tonight, you could listen for his name.

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  12. Ralph’s party in Chapter 19 is one of the great set pieces of NICHOLAS NICKLEBY. Uncle R has invited Kate to dinner at his house, much to the joy of Mrs. Nickleby and to the chagrin of Kate. I’m not totally certain why he invites Kate–other than to show her off to his “friends” and acquaintances. I assume he has mixed motives, here, because he doesn’t especially like these men; in fact he may well despise them. Yet they come and the results from both his and Kate’s perspective are disastrous. Right from the beginning, we can see the men objectifying Kate, treating her as little more than a beautiful sexual object–to be leered at, laughed at, toyed with, and flirted with. For some reason, Ralph deliberately situates Kate between Verisopht and Hawk, thereby setting forth what will immediately become a contest to see which of the two men will win over, seduce, or, in some manner, gratify themselves in the eyes of Kate. It appears that Ralph, in some way, wants to humiliate and, or, gain leverage over these two men.

    Naturally, in the course of the dinner, this situation doesn’t go well; the two men vie for the honor of gaining the attention of Kate who is disgusted by this entire jousting and favor-seeking behavior of the two men. She’s demeaned, degraded, and utterly frustrated by their banter and semi-violent verbal behavior. She gets up, runs out of the room and hides in another room where she thinks she has successfully evaded the terrible and nasty attentions of these two men. But she soon learns that her efforts are in vain. Sir Mulberry Hawk has found her–as she has become engrossed in a book– and catches her unawares:

    “Nothing occurring, however, to realise her apprehensions, she endeavoured to fix her attention more closely on her book, in which by degrees she became so much interested, that she had read on through several chapters without heed of time or place, when she was terrified by suddenly hearing her name pronounced by a man’s voice close at her ear.

    The book fell from her hand. Lounging on an ottoman close beside her, was Sir Mulberry Hawk, evidently the worse—if a man be a ruffian at heart, he is never the better—for wine.

    ‘What a delightful studiousness!’ said this accomplished gentleman. ‘Was it real, now, or only to display the eyelashes?’

    Kate, looking anxiously towards the door, made no reply.

    ‘I have looked at ’em for five minutes,’ said Sir Mulberry. ‘Upon my soul, they’re perfect. Why did I speak, and destroy such a pretty little picture?’

    ‘Do me the favour to be silent now, sir,’ replied Kate.

    ‘No, don’t,’ said Sir Mulberry, folding his crushed hat to lay his elbow on, and bringing himself still closer to the young lady; ‘upon my life, you oughtn’t to. Such a devoted slave of yours, Miss Nickleby—it’s an infernal thing to treat him so harshly, upon my soul it is.’

    ‘I wish you to understand, sir,’ said Kate, trembling in spite of herself, but speaking with great indignation, ‘that your behaviour offends and disgusts me. If you have a spark of gentlemanly feeling remaining, you will leave me.’

    ‘Now why,’ said Sir Mulberry, ‘why will you keep up this appearance of excessive rigour, my sweet creature? Now, be more natural—my dear Miss Nickleby, be more natural—do.’

    Kate hastily rose; but as she rose, Sir Mulberry caught her dress, and forcibly detained her.

    ‘Let me go, sir,’ she cried, her heart swelling with anger. ‘Do you hear? Instantly—this moment.’

    ‘Sit down, sit down,’ said Sir Mulberry; ‘I want to talk to you.’

    ‘Unhand me, sir, this instant,’ cried Kate.

    ‘Not for the world,’ rejoined Sir Mulberry. Thus speaking, he leaned over, as if to replace her in her chair; but the young lady, making a violent effort to disengage herself, he lost his balance, and measured his length upon the ground. As Kate sprung forward to leave the room, Mr. Ralph Nickleby appeared in the doorway, and confronted her.

    ‘What is this?’ said Ralph.

    ‘It is this, sir,’ replied Kate, violently agitated: ‘that beneath the roof where I, a helpless girl, your dead brother’s child, should most have found protection, I have been exposed to insult which should make you shrink to look upon me. Let me pass you.’

    Ralph did shrink, as the indignant girl fixed her kindling eye upon him; but he did not comply with her injunction, nevertheless: for he led her to a distant seat, and returning, and approaching Sir Mulberry Hawk, who had by this time risen, motioned towards the door.

    ‘Your way lies there, sir,’ said Ralph, in a suppressed voice, that some devil might have owned with pride.

    ‘What do you mean by that?’ demanded his friend, fiercely.

    The swoln veins stood out like sinews on Ralph’s wrinkled forehead, and the nerves about his mouth worked as though some unendurable emotion wrung them; but he smiled disdainfully, and again pointed to the door.”

    For me, it’s an absolutely numbing scene to read and then to visualize. The writing is so precise, so visual, and catches the dialogue between the two about as exactly as it could. We feel the humiliation and anger that Kate exhibits, and the harsh and repulsive masculinity that Mulberry forces upon her. His aggressiveness is wonderfully repulsed by Kate, but because of his strength and persistence, he still physically dominates her. Her strength of character is to be applauded, though, as she finally, and inadvertently flips him off the couch and onto the floor.

    Uncle Ralph enters, points Sir Mulberry out of the room and attempts to soothe Kate who, rather than cave to his reasonings, continues to berate him for causing her the embarrassment and humiliation that she has suffered.

    What is most interesting for me, here is Kate’s assertiveness and strong sense of self in the face if these wholly sexist and patronizing men–including her uncle. She is resolute in her parrying of their insistent blows upon her, especially against the advances of Hawk. And I think her behavior catches all of these men off guard. On the other had, this chapter demonstrates Dickens’ awareness of the plight of women in the early 1/3 of the 19th-century. In the eyes of men, not just aristocrats, but mostly ALL men, women, not jus beauties like Kate, but ALL women are fair game to be treated by men in just about any way they choose. That Dickens presents this sexist fact is really quite an accomplishment for a male author in his time!

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    1. An impressive set piece, indeed! As disgusting the scenes are where all these wolves harass Kate at the beginning of the dinner scene, I find the later one-on-one scene – which you, Lenny, describe so powerfully – between Kate and Hawk really disturbing in the extreme assault that Hawk inflicts on her and how trapped she is by him. I’m always impressed with how strongly Dickens presents her here and how well she keeps her composure enough to speak up to defend herself and fight him off as best she can.

      I think Ralph had a specific nefarious plan when he arranged for Kate to come to the dinner and that Dickens refers to it in the tense interchange between Ralph and Hawk after Ralph has walked in on Hawk’s attack on Kate. Ralph and Hawk speak aside, apart from Kate:

      Ralph: “If I brought her here, as a matter of business…because I thought she might make some impression on the silly youth you have taken hard…if I thought to draw him on more gently by this device…”

      Whatever the details of Ralph’s plan for Kate , I think we can assume that he was using her to get at Verisopht (ie. for her to marry him?), as Verisopht was the only one of the male predators with money. It seems that Ralph wanted to use Kate to maneuver Verisopht out of Hawk’s spider-web and into his own.


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