by Marnie F.
Since we’re reading this week one of the most fun parts of the book – the Portsmouth section – I just wanted to affirm my love for the Crummles family and the whole troupe, because I’ll be focusing more on a darker aspect of this section, which is usually not seen or discussed. I enjoy and revel in any and all descriptions of these funny and delightful characters. Can you imagine being in the audience – or backstage – for one of their performances? I can very well see it being more entertaining than some of the self-important theater of today. If I try to shine a light on a darker side of these lovable characters, it’s only because I think Dickens had more in mind than the sparkling surface that entertains us so much.
Here are the links to each chapter:
Newman resists telling Nicholas the news that has just come from Yorkshire, wanting to wait until tomorrow, but Nicholas insists: “… you will not break my rest; for if the scene were acted over again, I could take no other part than I have taken; and whatever consequences may accrue to myself from it, I shall never regret doing as I have – never, if I starve or beg in consequence.”
Newman responds: “…. My dear young man, you mustn’t give way to …. If you take everybody’s part that’s ill-treated – Damn it, I am proud to hear of it; and would have done it myself!” “Newman accompanied this very unusual outbreak with a violent blow upon the table, as if, in the heat of the moment, he had mistaken if for the chest or ribs of Mr. Wackford Squeers.”
Those who have read NN before might be reminded of a scene to come where Newman is angered into making similar violent “blows” against Ralph.
Then, Newman reads Fanny’s comic gem of a letter to Ralph where she exaggerates Nicholas’ violence on Squeers and the whole Squeers family – to hilarious effect.
Critics sometimes speak negatively of the episodic nature of NN – that there are random scenes and characters strung together. But sometimes we can glimpse little connections that Dickens seems to have intentionally planted. In this one scene: we see Newman at first cautioning Nicholas against taking up arms in defense of every person who may need it (that is, engaging in defensive violence), but then he admits to admiring such defensive violence and impulsively strikes out at an inanimate object in a harmless, comic display of “violence”, and then we have Fanny’s letter with its grotesque comic exaggerated violence. It all ties together, and Dickens does more of it later.
We then return to the Kenwigs family, who must cope with multiple eruptions of theatrical, self-righteous anger from Mr. Lillyvick; they have to abase themselves before him to soothe his outraged feelings.
Dickens describes “The great man – the rich relations – the unmarried uncle – who had it in his power to make Morleena an heiress, and the very baby a legate – was offended!” And Mrs. Kenwigs instructs her daughter: “Morleena Kenwigs, go down upon your knees to your dear uncle, and beg him to love you all his life.”
Very funny, but what message is Morleena getting? We may just enjoy it on a comic level but I think its impact on Morleena also mattered to Dickens.
Nicholas visits an Employment Office where he meets Tom, the clerk, who will appear again later, and where he sees a young lady who draws his attention. She also will appear later and seems to be an indication of narrative planning ahead by Dickens, since he planted this character so early in the novel.
Gregsbury’s meeting with the pugnacious Mr. Pugstyles and his deputation is delightfully funny. Gregsbury’s hypocritical pontificating is yet another example of pre-Crummles theatricality. Those who have seen the RSC NN will note that Nicholas responds more politely here than the scorn shown to Gregsbury by the RSC ‘s Nicholas.
If Mr. & Mrs. Kenwigs and the Kenwigs children have to “kiss up” to their uncle, Mr. Alfred Mantalini treats us to his own wonderfully funny endearments as he kisses up, both literally and metaphorically, to his wife to bleed money from her. And then more kissing up to Madame Mantalini from the fawning Miss Knag.
When Miss Knag tries to entice Kate into saying something flattering about Madame Mantalini and her husband, Dickens gives her a bold, principled comeback: “I dare say I am very foolish but as my opinion is of very little importance to him or anyone else, I do not regret having formed it, and shall be slow to change it, I think.” It’s a welcome breath of fresh reality amidst the endless verbal nonsense (but funny!). I think there are more of these strong declarations from Kate sprinkled throughout the novel than critics notice or care to admit to.
When Kate looks hapless, unable to do anything right or show competence in the millinery trade, Miss Knag is happy to take Kate under her wing and lavish affection on her. She’s happy to defend Kate to Madame Mantalini since an incompetent Kate makes Miss Knag look good.
The most notable part of this chapter for me is Mortimer Knag. I can never quite get over the idea that Madame Mantalini might have married Mortimer.
Mrs. Knag about her brother: “He was once most devotedly attached to – hem – to Madame Mantalini…. And received great encouragement too, and confidently hoped to marry her…. The disappointment was a dreadful blow…. He took to scorning everything, and became a genius.”
Madame Mantalini went from gloomy Mortimer to lively Mantalini. Would Madame Mantalini have been better off with Mortimer? I don’t think I’d wish Mortimer on anyone.
I find this scene rather horrific as Kate is surrounded by predators – and then the relentlessness of Hawk in his pursuit of Kate and her inability to get away from him. And her uncle’s cold siding with the predators for his own self-interest, keeping his distance, watching, refusing to defend her from the torments she suffers from them. His final actions in getting Hawk away from Kate and out of the room, and his final words – trying to justify himself that he didn’t know what he was exposing her to – are too little, too late and just not convincing.
His justification can’t erase Hawk’s chilling words to Ralph: You wanted the lord, didn’t you? …. You would sell your flesh and blood for money… Do you mean to tell me that if he had found his way up here instead of me, you wouldn’t have been a little more blind, and a little more deaf, and a little less flourishing then you have been?”
So, when Ralph defensively tells Kate: “I didn’t know it would be so,” it’s hard not to think that Ralph wouldn’t have been as protective of Kate there at the end – if it had been Verisopht in the room with Kate, instead of Hawk.
At the very end, as Kate gets into the coach, we get to see the first crack in Ralph’s seemingly impervious armor as a touching little memory has the slightest little softening effect on Ralph – brief as it is, it’s still nice to see. Remembering the role that memory/remembrance has in this novel, it is this little, long-forgotten memory that is the only thing that manages to penetrate that impervious armor.
There is a big confrontation between Ralph and Nicholas. Kate’s refusal to believe Fanny’s grotesque accusations against Nicholas makes us admire her even more, especially compared to her mother’s disappointing failure to stand up for him.
Mrs. Nickleby “… made no other reply … that she never could have believed it – thereby most ingeniously leaving her hearers to suppose that she did believe it.”
A couple of interesting quotes here:
- Dickens gives a slight indication of Mrs. Nickleby being mentally affected by her recent loss of husband, home and funds: Mrs. Nickleby “who had at no time been remarkable for the possession of a very clear understanding, and who had been reduced by the late changes in her affairs to a most complicated state of perplexity”.
- SPOILER. Nicholas’s response to Ralph’s question: Do you choose to restore the boy? Nicholas: “No, I do not … not to the man with whom I found him. I would that I knew on whom he has the claim of birth: I might wring something from his sense of shame, if he were dead to every tie of nature.” We’re reminded that this person Nicholas is speaking of who “has the claim of birth” on Smike is in fact Ralph himself, that Nicholas is speaking to and who is, in fact, ”dead to every tie of nature”.
- Mrs. Nickleby makes a remark that could have come from some of the critics who are disturbed by Nicholas’s acts of violence: “Nicholas is so violent, and your uncle has so much honest composure, that I can only hear what he says, and not what Nicholas does.”
- At the end, there’s the touching re-commitment that Nicholas gives to Smike after Smike tried to leave him: “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, for all the world could give. The thought of you has upheld me through all I have endured today… Give me your hand. My heart is linked to yours.… What, if I am steeped in poverty? You lighten it, and we will be poor together.”
Kate is let go from the Mantalini’s and hired by the Wititterlys. Kate goes from working for an energetically theatrical husband and wife team to an enervated, theatrical wife waited on by a husband who feeds and enables his wife’s spoiled self-centeredness. Even before we meet the Crummles’ and their company, I’m wondering if CD, in his knowledge of the theatre, knew any actors and actresses who had Mantalini’s kind of histrionic self-dramaticism or Mrs. Wititterly’s kind of pampered self-dramaticism. Was he just taking to hysterically funny extremes qualities he saw in some theatre folk? If so, he seemed to have a wealth of material to draw on.
Nicholas questions Smike on his past. This scene reminds us of the importance of memory/remembrance in this book. Nicholas asks Smike directly: “Have you a good memory?” Smike remembers that he did once but it’s “all gone now”.
However, Nicholas keeps probing and prodding so that slowly Smike is able to resurrect some dormant fragmentary memories. Even more than Mrs. Nickleby (and even Ralph as we’ll see later), the trauma of his memories still abide with him.
“And every word of this conversation remained indelibly fastened in [Nicholas’s] memory.”
Outside of Portsmouth, Nicholas and Smike meet Mr. Vincent Crummles, manager of a theatrical company which includes his wife and children. From the first, Crummles seems even more interested in Smike than Nicholas. And from the beginning, Dickens shows us that Crummles – as lovable as he can be – views Smike as a commodity – as does Mrs. Crummles later.
“Mr. Crummles looked from time to time with great interest at Smike, with whom he had appeared considerably struck from the first. ‘Excuse my saying so’, said the manager, leaning over to Nicholas, and sinking his voice, ‘but – what a capital countenance your friend has got!’
“Poor fellow!” said Nicholas, with a half smile, “I wish it were a little more plump and less haggard.”
“Plump!” exclaimed the manager, quite horrified, “you’d spoil it forever… Why, as he is now, without a pad upon his body, and hardly a touch of paint upon his face, he’d make such an actor for the starved business as was never seen in this country. Only let him be tolerably well up in the Apothecary in Romeo and Juliet with the slightest possible dab of red on the tip of his nose, and he’d be certain of three rounds the moment he put his head out of the practicable door in the front grooves O.P.”
“You view him with a professional eye”, said Nicholas, laughing.
Crummles will also see Nicholas as a commodity but that isn’t as serious or significant to Nicholas, or to Dickens, nor should it be to us – as is his view of Smike. That’s because, unlike Nicholas, Smike is only of value to the Crummles if he is damaged. Mr. and Mrs. Crummles value Nicholas for his intelligence, his attractiveness, for all of Nicholas’s positive traits, but they value Smike only in a dangerously unhealthy state. Even though Nicholas laughs here at Crummles’ extolling Smike for his appearance, he won’t be so amused later on. And so we should take notice right here, at the beginning, that Dickens draws a clear difference between how Crummles sees Smike, delighted with how sickly he appears, and how Nicholas sees Smike, worrying over his welfare, his health.
I don’t want to be overly critical of Mr. and Mrs. Crummles – they are clearly meant to be basically lovable – and I find them to be also. But Dickens – and Nicholas – can see the negative side of not just the Crummleses – but the whole company and this theatrical profession – and it’s a side we should notice as we read along – because I think that Dickens want us to notice it, and not be too uncritically swept along in this charismatic world.
Nicholas and Smike arrived in Portsmouth with Mr. Crummles and meet Mrs. Crummles and the whole company. Mrs. Crummles, like her husband, is warm and welcoming – and yet her eye is on Smike as to his value to the company for being so extremely thin, a lingering effect of years of malnourishment.
“And this,” said the lady, crossing to Smike, as tragic actresses cross when they obey a stage direction, “and this is the other. You too, are welcome, sir.”
“He’ll do, I think, my dear?” said the manager, taking a pinch of snuff.
”He is admirable,” replied the lady. “An acquisition, indeed.”
Then their daughter comes dancing into the scene and Mr. Crummles introduces Nicholas to Miss Ninetta Crummles, the infant phenomenon.
It’s usually reported in critical reviews of the book that Crummles and his daughter were based on the actor-manager Thomas David Davenport and his daughter Jean. Mark Ford in his introduction to the Penguin NN reports that “‘Infant phenomenon’ were a regular feature of many theatrical shows during the early decade of the 19th century. His daughter Jean’s debut was at the Richmond Theatre in 1836; Davenport and his daughter appeared on the Portsmouth stage in March 1837. He went to America between 1838 and 1843, and he promoted his daughter as a child actress.”
Nicholas asks her age. Mr. Crummles, “looking steadily in his questioner’s face” as some men do when they have doubts about being believed”: “She is ten years of age, sir.” Nicholas: “It’s extraordinary.” “It was; for the infant phenomenon, though of short stature, had a comparatively aged countenance, and had moreover been precisely the same age … certainly for five good years. But she had been kept up late every night, and put upon an unlimited allowance of gin-and-water from infancy, to prevent her growing tall.”
As much as we love the Crummles, we shouldn’t lose sight that they are in the “bad parents” department. Dickens in this novel presents a wide spectrum of bad parents; if Mother and Father Squeers are the worst on that spectrum, perhaps the Crummleses are on the milder side of that spectrum. Still, we have to notice that Mr. and Mrs. Crummles are “selling” their children in support of their family. Even though the children may be enjoying what they’re doing – unlike Kate’s distressing position with Ralph selling her to his business associates or even Dickens’ own miserable position of being farmed out to support his own family – Dickens is being critical of all this exploitation of children. We laugh at Dickens’ description of the infant phenomenon being kept at ten years for years by being fed gin and water, but we should be aware that it is still a form of abuse and that the infant phenomenon is a comic version of Smike – that is, within the Crummles’ theater world, they are both viewed not from love and care, but as useful to draw an audience – and they are both of them useful not despite being damaged, but because they are damaged.
As an aside, Dickens names all of the actresses in the company, but he only names Folair and Lenville (adding Fluggers later) for the actors; whereas those who are familiar with the RSC NN might remember that the RSC added names for all the male members of the company too.
Nicholas watches a performance of the Crummles’ theatre company, which gives Dickens a chance to describe, in wonderful detail, how the actors and actresses are transformed for their roles and the complicated, and very funny, plot.
Then Nicholas is pressured into canvassing for Miss Snevellicci’s bespeak with Miss Snevellicci herself and the infant phenomenon – whose presence is delightfully amusing. Mr. and Mrs. Curdle are another theatrical couple in their own humorous way. Mr. Curdle’s pamphlet on Shakespeare could have been published today – it sounds so much like the kind of critical reviews that are still being written today.
Mr. Curdle “had written a pamphlet of 64 pages …. on the character of the Nurse’s deceased husband in Romeo and Juliet, with an inquiry whether he really had been a ‘merry man’ in his lifetime, or whether it was merely his widow’s affectionate partiality that induced her so to report him. He had likewise proved, that by altering the received mode of punctuation, any one of Shakespeare’s plays could be made quite different, and the sense completely changed.” I’d say that the distortions of Shakespeare today are even worse than what Dickens describes here. And when Mrs. Curdle says “the drama is gone, perfectly gone”, again it resonates even today.
When Miss Snevellicci tells them they’ll be presenting a new play, Mr. Curdle: I hope you have preserved the unities. I’ve read that the Curdles appear particularly ignorant here because Shakespeare did not obey the unities and that Dickens expected his readers to notice that – I wonder how many modern readers do, and I can admit that I don’t know my Aristotle either. But I think we get the very funny point!
Miss Petowker and Mr. Lillyvick turn up in Portsmouth. Mr. Lillyvick has convinced himself to speculate on marriage. There seems to be a couple of impulses pushing him to actually take this gamble, where he was so reluctant previously.
First, he seems to be feeling a certain amount of loneliness as he’s become an old man: “A bachelor is a miserable wretch … I have lived in the world for nigh sixty year, and I ought to know what it is.”
But he seems to also have a long-standing bitterness that is lurking underneath his infatuation of Miss Petowker – and that sour resentment is for his family, the Kenwigs.
Lillyvick: “If a bachelor happens to have saved a little matter of money…his sisters and brothers; and nephews and nieces, look to that money and not to him… they still wish him dead all the while, and get low-spirited every time they see him looking in good health, because they want to come into his little property.”
This opens up an additional underlying motive for his marriage to Miss Petowker – to frustrate the ambitions of his family whom he feels, with some justification, only looks at him as a source of financial support. By the way, in this selfish resentment, he ties in to Ralph Nickleby.
Along with these benefits of marriage, Lillyvick has added his own view of Miss Petowker as a source of money for him: “Now suppose a man can get a fortune in his wife instead of with him … Henrietta Petowker … has a fortune in herself and I am going to … marry her; and the day after tomorrow … I shall draw her salary, of course, and I hope after all that it’s nearly as cheap to keep two as it is to keep one.”
Lillyvick feels he has made the correct, safe gamble and that he’s gained profit from it, both in love and finance. The wedding goes off in high theatrical style, especially the ‘performances” of Mrs. Crummles and Mr. Crummles as Miss Petowker’s father.
Then there is the wonderfully touching scene where Nicholas works day and night to teach Smike the Apothecary role.
Smike: I think if you were to keep saying it to me in little bits over and over again, I should be able to recollect it from hearing you.
So Smike is able to learn his lines – to remember his lines – from hearing Nicholas speak them to him.
And, of course, the line “Who calls so loud?” reverberates heartbreakingly for those who have seen the RSC play.
Nicholas works with Smike all evening, all the next morning and all the next day until they had to leave for the theater. And as a consequence, “Smike was pronounced unanimously, alike by audience and actors, the very prince and prodigy of Apothecary.”
Mrs. Nickleby meets Lord Verisopht and Sir Mulberry at Ralph’s office. She is taken in by their titles and their flattery and starts imagining the position and wealth into which Kate (and herself) will be raised when Kate marries one of them.
Dickens has Ralph compare Mrs. Nickleby with himself to chilling effect:
“Selling a girl – throwing her in the way of temptation, and insult, and coarse speech…. Match-making mothers do the same thing every day. If I had not put them in the right track today, this foolish woman would have done so.”
And we know he’s right. And even though Mrs. Nickleby isn’t in a position to endanger Kate as much as Ralph does, her susceptibility to their flattery still allows Pluck, Pyke, Verisopht and Hawk to come into her circle (her home) and she into theirs (at the play), exposing Kate to further contact with the predators.
Earlier in the chapter, after Mrs. Nickleby left Ralph’s office, Dickens shows another softer response to Kate by Ralph: “To say that Ralph loved or cared for … any one of God’s creatures, would be the wildest fiction. Still, there had stolen upon him from time to time a thought of his niece which was tinged with compassion and pity; breaking through the dull cloud of dislike or indifference which darkened men and women in his eyes, there was, in her case, the faintest gleam of light – a most feeble and sickly ray at the best of times – but there it was, and it showed the poor girl in a better and purer aspect than any in which he had looked on human nature yet.”
But as with every time before this moment and in later moments like these, Ralph overrides this softer feeling through his own self-interest.
Ralph dismissively minimizes the danger to which he brings Kate: “A little teasing, a little humbling, a few tears. Yes, she must take her chance.” Kate is expected to gamble with her life – with these predators that Ralph – and her mother – have brought her into contact with.