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.
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:
- General Mems
- Week One Nicholas Nickleby Summary (Chapters 1-14)
- Discussion Wrap-Up
- A Look-ahead to Week Two of Nicholas Nickleby (7-13 June)
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:
- preferred name/nickname;
- 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!);
- preferred picture (of yourself–or perhaps a favorite Dickens character drawn by Phiz–or your avatar–your cat, etc);
- 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.
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.
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:
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…”
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.
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.
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…
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:
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:
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.”
She links the same concept to the game that Nicholas plays with Fanny, Tilda, and John:
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.”
Cruelty, Aggression; Dickens’ Social Conscience
Boze writes in his 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:
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.”
What’s in a name…?
Marnie had a wonderful analysis on the meaning of names:
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:
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:
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?”
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.]”
And more from her on “The Five Sisters of York”:
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:
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?
I loved some of the “sounds” in the description; making the sound equate to the character:
And here’s a delightful addition to the conversation on character & dialogue, from our own Stationmaster:
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!):
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.