Wherein we glance back at the second week of the #DickensClub reading of Nicholas Nickleby (week 23 of the Dickens Chronological Reading Club); With General Memoranda, a summary of reading and discussion, and a look ahead to week three.
Edited/compiled by Rach
“All the world’s a stage…”
Friends, we come to some of the most theatrical passages in this exuberantly theatrical book! And what lively discussion we’ve had under the posts this week. I have attempted to compile some highlights by theme, but I hope you have a chance to read the comments and posts in full, as it is so worth the deeper dive.
If you want to skip ahead to any section of this post, here are some quick links for you:
- General Mems
- Week Two Nicholas Nickleby Summary (Chapters 15-26)
- Discussion Wrap-Up
- A Look-ahead to Week Three of Nicholas Nickleby (14-20 June)
If you’re counting, today is Day 161–and Week 24–in our #DickensClub! It will be Week Three 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. A huge “thank you” to The Circumlocution Office (on twitter also!) for providing such an online resource for us.
And a very warm welcome to our newest member, Robert! Thank you for joining 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 Rachel here on the site, or on twitter.
Week Two Nicholas Nickleby Summary (Chapters 15-26)
London. We left Newman Noggs at the Kenwigs’ party last week, where he was called for by Mr. Crowl regarding two mysterious visitors that had just arrived at Newman’s flat…
Of course, our two mysterious visitors are Nicholas and Smike, weary with their long journey from Yorkshire. Nicholas insists on hearing all the news, including what Ralph has heard from Dotheboys Hall, and Newman shows him the “choice epistle”—and surely one of the most hilarious missives ever—written by Fanny Squeers, which he had copied out, accusing Nicholas not only of near-murderous violence, but of theft and kidnapping. (Though Smike is about Nicholas’ own age!)
Newman persuades Nicholas not to make any rash visit that night. Nicholas does, however, secure the interest of the Kenwigs family and their guests—who had to do some work to appease Mr. Lillyvick after certain perceived offenses to his dignity had occurred—by appearing with their baby who had just been snatched by Nicholas from some threatening nearby flames when the child’s minder had accidentally fallen asleep and set her own hair on fire with the candle.
The following day, having secured a rented room for himself and Smike, Nicholas visits a General Agency Office to look for work, and acquires a lead on a secretarial position for a gentleman in public office. (This does not go well.) But Nicholas encounters a beautiful and sad young woman, also looking for work, and though no word passes between them, Nicholas is mysteriously struck with and fascinated by her.
Nicholas then takes on the role of private tutor to the Kenwigs children, brought about reluctantly by Newman, who was afraid of offending Nicholas by proposing something beneath him, but Nicholas readily and joyfully accepts.
Meanwhile, Kate arrives for her first day on the job at Madame Mantalini’s, where too-doting assistant Miss Knag appears to take a special fancy to her, sympathizing with—and emphasizing—Kate’s neophyte clumsiness and ignorance, and making her feel even more awkward than before. That is, Miss Knag’s doting lasts only until Kate is actually the preferred one (by the rude but hilarious old lord and his too-young wife who have come to look at dresses), and Miss Knag is summarily sent down, where she turns the opinion of the other workers against Kate.
So, it has been a rough week for Kate, and concludes with Ralph’s invitation to have her play hostess at his home to a group of friends—all men—with whom Ralph has business transactions. We are then introduced to the scoundrel Sir Mulberry Hawk, his dissolute and misguided but not malicious young lord that he’s sponging off of, Lord Frederick Verisopht, among others (Messrs Pyke, Pluck, & Snobb; Colonel Chowser). During the course of the evening, Kate is humiliated by their lewd talk and insinuations about her, making her the subject of a bet, and she leaves abruptly to compose herself, where she is accosted by Sir Mulberry who does not understand the word “no” or anything equivalent from a woman. Ralph, who has stood by allowing all this to ensue, finally intervenes—too little, too late–in part because he has little to gain by Sir Mulberry’s attentions toward his own niece, having held up hope for the young lord, and partly out of some vestige of a better nature within himself.
Nicholas knows nothing of all this when he comes to see his mother and sister, and has to defend himself to his uncle. Ralph gives Nicholas an ultimatum: if Nicholas is to be the protector of Mrs. Nickleby and Kate, Ralph will have nothing to do with any of them. Nicholas, therefore, unable to provide for them himself, resolves to leave again.
Smike, feeling himself a burden and concerned that Nicholas has grown thin and worn with care, resolves to go his separate way. But Nicholas won’t have it:
“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 is 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.”
Kate resumes her work at Madame Mantalini’s after three days’ indisposition following the traumatic dinner, only to find that all of the Mantalinis’ goods are ready to be taken possession of by Messrs Scaley and Tix, due to Mr. Mantalini’s extravagant living above his means. In a demonstration of melodramatic flair and timing worthy of the stage, Mr. Mantalini appears ready to do away with his life, which softens the heart and dampens the fiery anger of his “demd enchanting, bewitching, engrossing, captivating little Venus,” Madame Mantalini. But all appears to be over for the dressmaking and millinery business.
Needing to find new work, Kate, with the approval of her uncle, applies to be a companion to Mrs. Wititterly, a hypochondriac woman “of a very excitable nature; very delicate, very fragile; a hothouse plant, an exotic,” whose husband seems to encourage this perpetually reclining disposition. Kate is received favorably, and is engaged to begin within the week.
Meanwhile, Nicholas and Smike have set off on foot towards Portsmouth—Nicholas travelling under the name of Johnson—where they hope to engage themselves in some work on a ship. On the road, they meet with the actor-manager Vincent Crummles, who, with a theatrical generosity, takes them both on, with the prospect of Nicholas writing some pieces for his company, and with visions of poor, thin Smike as a convincing apothecary in Romeo and Juliet, and other roles in “the starving business.” We then meet the incomparable Mrs. Crummles; we meet the “Infant Phenomenon,” the Crummles’ daughter who has lived on a diet of gin-and-water to keep her growth down, and has remained ten years of age for some indeterminate time; we meet Messrs Folair and Lenville, self-absorbed actors, and Miss Snevellicci (who cajoles Nicholas into aiding her for a fundraising campaign). Not long after, they are joined by Miss Petowker of the Theatre Royal Drury-lane, recently engaged to Mr. Lillyvick (secretly, so as not to be dissuaded by the anxious Kenwigs family). Nicholas and Smike prepare for their roles as Romeo and the apothecary, respectively.
Meanwhile, back in London, Lord Verisopht has been trying to find out where Kate lives, and is given the required information from Ralph, with the understanding that it will not be shared with anyone—particularly Sir Mulberry. However, Sir Mulberry is on the scent himself, and from none other than Mrs. Nickleby! She has come to Ralph’s place of business, and finds herself charmed and overcome by the inexplicable attentions of all these “gentlemen,” including Pyke, Pluck, Lord Verisopht, and Sir Mulberry. Ralph tries to wash his hands of responsibility for what may ensue:
“‘If I had not put them in the right track to-day,’ thought Ralph, ‘this foolish woman would have done so. Well. If her daughter is as true to herself as she should be from what I have seen, what harm ensues? A little teazing, a little humbling, a few tears. Yes,’ said Ralph, aloud, as he locked his iron safe. ‘She must take her chance. She must take her chance.’”
This week, we celebrated Dickens’ life on the anniversary of his death, and I made a little audio recording of the prologue to Peter Ackroyd’s most marvelous biography of Dickens.
Marnie shared with us so many insights from her Week Two Nickleby Diary, hugely enriching the experience!
What we Loved
The Stationmaster gave us some fantastic Crummles dialogue to enjoy:
Adaptation Stationmaster comments
Lenny H. comments
Use, Speculation, Commodification, Nepotism
Squeers uses and abuses boys to make his living; Ralph uses Kate to charm his rich clients; Mr. Mantalini uses his wife to live above his means; Sir Mulberry and the “gentlemen” commodify Kate to the most disgusting degree; Miss Knag uses Kate’s neophyte clumsiness to make herself look better–until she doesn’t; the Kenwigs family commodifies their well-off relation, Mr. Lillyvick, with the hope of enriching their offspring, and he in turn uses their homage to appease his own pride and vanity.
Even in some of our most beloved characters–the Crummles, for instance–Marnie makes the point that, while we might delight in their uniquely theatrical way of viewing the world, there is a darker side to it:
Marnie F. comments
The Stationmaster responds on the Crummles family:
Lillyvick is feeling that he is used by his relations, or commodified, as Marnie points out:
Mrs. Nickleby, too, is speculating and using Kate to some degree, and endangering her, albeit with a kind of forgivable, quasi-willful ignorance. This, unfortunately, is used by Ralph to justify his own far more devious motives:
The Stationmaster wonders whether a lot of it isn’t nepotism:
Women in Dickens: On Kate, “Gentlemen,” and the Dark Side of Millinery
Marnie speaks for us all, I think, in her horror of Kate’s situation, “surrounded by predators” in her uncle’s home:
Lenny comments on the scenario, praising her “assertiveness and strong sense of self” in the face of egregious sexism:
Lenny H. comments
This horrific dinner scene is but one of many humiliations that Kate must face, and some are a bit lost in translation, given our distance of time. Chris gives us fascinating context for what else “millinery” work meant to respectable Victorians, and it certainly adds depth to our understanding of Kate’s increasing dejection:
Chris M. comments
Lenny H. comments
Of course, we drank a toast to Boz in memory of his death day (more below), but we didn’t tackle the subject of memory at length this week. However, Marnie brought us back to it with a couple of notable moments in the text:
Marnie F. comments
Dickens’ “Writing Lab”: Narrative Techniques, Plotting, Character Arcs, and the “Episodic Novel”
Marnie comments on the real-life inspiration for the Crummles family:
Marnie takes note of an instance where, early on, Dickens has set up characters that he intends to bring back into the story, particularly the mysterious and sad young woman. This seems to demonstrate more of the “plotting” (versus “pantsing”) style which will be particularly notable in Dickens from Dombey and Son and on:
On another note, I made a comment on what was, for me, the most touching moment in our read this week, and the role change that is happening in it. I mention it here, mostly because of the comments it leads to after, on the picaresque tradition that Dickens is carrying on with Nicholas Nickleby:
Lenny writes that such a travelling partner as Smike is “almost a given,” considering the tradition Dickens is carrying on:
Lenny H. comment
In Lenny’s critique of the critics (see below), he also mentions his own bewilderment at the criticism of Nickleby as an “episodic” novel:
“It could be that in order to compensate for what they [Nickleby‘s critics] 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.”
The Curdle Conundrum: Nicholas Nickleby’s Critics
“…and as to Mr Curdle, he had written a pamphlet of sixty-four pages, post octavo, 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; it is needless to say, therefore, that he was a great critic, and a very profound and most original thinker.”
The tradition of literary criticism is particularly subject to what I started thinking of as the “Curdle conundrum,” getting so far down what Lenny called a “weird rabbit hole” that one loses one’s way. But first, commenting on the hilarious Mr. and Mrs. Curdle–“another theatrical couple”–here’s Marnie’s take:
It might be said that Nickleby is both a send-up of, and a love letter to, all things literary: art, novels, theater…and literary criticism. (On the latter, perhaps more of a send-up than a love letter.)
Nonetheless, it was fascinating and fun (and occasionally perplexing) to get some different critical takes on Nickleby, on its episodic nature or “about its being excessively melodramatic.” Thank you, Chris!
Chris M. comments
Lenny, however, takes Miller to task, particularly disliking Miller’s take on the characters existing “as a kind of generalized form or abstract idea of himself,” as though, say, those in Dotheboys Hall comprised only stock figures in a melodrama:
And Lenny adds:
“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.”
And several of us continued in our critique of the critics:
While thoroughly enjoying reading the critical takes, and Lenny’s jousting with Miller, I also confessed to some exasperation at times with the critics–or simply heartache at it all:
“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.”
“All the World’s a Stage”: Theatricality in Nicholas Nickleby
We come around again to the idea that Boze introduced us to at the beginning, that of “Life as Theater.”
I chimed in on the many levels of theatricality in this week’s portion, which was the most theatrical portion yet:
Rach M. comments
Boze responds, and this beautiful passage he gives us from Peter Ackroyd could also shed light on Dickens’ “writing lab,” in “the delight Dickens is taking in the invention of characters”:
A Toast — to Boz!
On the anniversary of Dickens’ death, we joined in on a toast to our “Beloved Boz”. Daniel adds:
Gina joined in the lifting of the glass:
“Rachel, I was going about my day, not knowing it was the anniversary of Dickens’ death until I saw your post…The whole essay and reading made me feel like shedding a tear for Dickens, and for our loss of him even after so long a time. Thanks for the remembrance – see, it relates to your wonderful essay on memory! It’s up to all us to keep the memory of Dickens alive – as we’re doing here – especially through these dark times when the classics are being sidelined, if not eliminated, in places like universities where authors like Dickens should most be remembered and taught.”
Boze reminds us of what a truly wonderful legacy he gave us:
And Boze added, on twitter:
A Look-ahead to Week Three of Nicholas Nickleby (14-20 June)
This week, we’ll be reading Chapters 27-39 which constitute the monthly numbers IX-XII, published Nov 1838 to Feb 1839.
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.