by Marnie F.
Chapter 27 – Chapter 28 – Chapter 29 – Chapter 30 – Chapter 31 – Chapter 32 – Chapter 33 – Chapter 34 – Chapter 35 – Chapter 36 – Chapter 37 – Chapter 38 – Chapter 39
This chapter is really a continuation of the last because here Kate suffers the consequences of the previous chapter. Hawk (and Verisopht) continue their pursuit of Kate; but there were also agents in that last chapter who, consciously or unconsciously, facilitated their pursuit in this chapter. Those agents were her uncle and mother, her family. Her uncle sold her out again (by providing her name and address to them), and her mother’s selfish ambitions brought these predators into her home and family circle. Kate is brought into a threatening situation and harassed all evening – while her mother is sitting right next to her, turned away from her, wanting Kate to get close to Hawk and neglecting to see the danger her daughter is in, as she herself is absorbed in the flattering attendance of Mr. Pluck.
In “Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby, and the Dance of Death”, Jeremy Tambling writes, regarding Dickens and his mother: “The point that his mother did not want him to leave the factory informs the anger felt towards Mrs. Nickleby’s endless stupidities towards her children, putting them both in harm’s way.”
The chapter opens with Kate reading to Mrs. Wititterly from “The Lady Flabella” – Dickens gives us a long quote from it and it’s an hilarious example of purple prose that might have even been written for today’s pulp market.
Dickens also gives Kate two strong scenes – one her defense against Mrs. Wititterly’s mischaracterization and criticisms of her, and then the heartbreaking scene where she begs for Ralph’s aid and protection.
Kate: “I have been wronged; my feelings have been outraged, insulted, wounded past all healing, and by your friends… If they were no friends of yours, and you knew what they were – Oh, the more shame on you, uncle, for bringing me among them.“
Dickens is often justifiably criticized for his weak depiction of women in his early books, but here he gives Kate words that are eloquent, forceful, brave and principled – I don’t know what more one would ask of a heroine.
The chapter ends with two snapshots that I want to call special attention to. This is the first of four chapters that contain little nuggets of different kinds of parodies of violence – mimed or comic violence – all leading up to the second intense, fierce act of violence that Nicholas commits (after his assault on Squeers in defense of Smike).
First Ralph: “Although Ralph felt no remorse at that moment for his conduct towards the innocent, true-hearted girl; although his libertine clients had done precisely what he had expected, precisely what he most wished, and precisely what would tend most to his advantage, still he hated them for doing it, from the very bottom of his soul. … shaking his clenched hand as the faces of the two profligates rose up before his mind; ‘you shall pay for this. Oh! you shall pay for this!’”
Then Newman Noggs, after the touching little scene where he comforts Kate: “…stood at a little distance from the door, with his face towards it, and with the sleeves of his coat turned back at the wrists, was occupied in bestowing the most vigorous, scientific, and straightforward blows upon the empty air … the intense eagerness and joy depicted in the face of Newman Noggs, which was suffused with perspiration; the surprising energy with which he directed a constant succession of blows towards a particular panel about five foot eight from the ground, and still worked away in the most untiring and persevering manner, would have sufficiently explained to the attentive observer, that his imagination was thrashing, to within an inch of his life, his body’s most active employer, Mr. Ralph Nickleby.”
These little acts of mimed and comic violence are fed by impotent hate that has no outlet to vent. Ralph can’t physically strike out at Hawk – or even more against Nicholas; and Newman can’t literally strike out against Ralph. Neither can take open violence against their objects of hate so both vow revenge in the future and meanwhile can only impotently mimic the violence they feel – that’s bottled up inside of them.
By the way, this Newman scene might remind us of the earlier one in chapter 15 – Newman to Nicholas: ‘My dear young man, you mustn’t give way to …. 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 it for the chest or ribs of Mr. Wackford Squeers.
First, in this chapter, Nicholas tells Smike the name of his enemy: Ralph Nickleby. Smike repeats: ‘Ralph Nickleby. Ralph. I’ll get that name by heart.’
Then Mr. Folair arrives with a challenge for Nicholas from Mr. Lenville. So, we get an act of comic violence, where Lenville threatens to pull Nicholas’s nose.
“Lenville approached Nicholas with a theatrical stride. Nicholas suffered him to approach to within the requisite distance and then, without the smallest discomposure, knocked him down…. Nicholas picked up Mr. Lenville’s ash stick… and breaking it in half, threw him the pieces and withdrew.”
Nicholas does actually knock Lenville down but the context is so humorous, so ridiculous that we have to laugh – it is a parody of violence. However, the added violent action of Nicholas breaking Lenville’s stick and throwing it at him is more sobering and should warn Mr. Lenville, or any other member of the company, from playing with this kind of foolish violence.
Nicholas: ‘Be careful sir, to what lengths your jealousy carries you another time, and be careful, also, before you venture too far, to ascertain your rival’s temper.’
This is a defensive act of “violence” on Nicholas’s part – as was the one on Squeers. An even stronger act of violence by Nicholas is coming up just three chapters from now – less arguably justified than the one on Squeers, though I consider it defensible. But that is for each reader to decide.
This chapter can be broken into three separate sections, culminating in Nicholas and Smike taking leave of the Crummles company.
It seems that every critical review of “Nicholas Nickleby” spends an inordinate, disproportional time on the couple of chapters centering around the Crummles company. It’s easy to understand why – they’re colorful, they’re the theatre, and they are among the most likeable, even lovable, of all the “Nicholas Nickleby” characters. And there’s no question of the influence of the theater on Dickens and that he loved the theater and theater folk. But he wasn’t blind to the dark side of these people – which Dickens suggests is part and parcel of what they do, their theatrical profession. Even though Nicholas enjoys and benefits from his time there – as does Smike – Dickens cannot visualize them remaining among them; he cannot visualize their environment as “home” – for Nicholas or for Smike. Two of the three sections in this chapter go to the heart of Dickens’s rejection of the company as a truly warm, loving “family”. This is a clear rejection of the thesis of Natalie McKnight [“Idiots, Madmen and other Prisoners in Dickens”] and others that Smike would have been better off remaining in this environment than the bourgeois world of the Nicklebys which she suggests, ridiculously I think, killed him.
The first section is poisonous to Smike, even though most of it, we assume, comes from the malicious Folair himself – still, Nicholas, and Dickens, sees that it is a sign of a larger problem that infects most, if not all, of the company itself. Even the kind Miss Snevellicci, who Dickens depicts in an almost completely positive way, is subtly guilty here:
Miss Snevellicci: “What a dear that Mr. Digby is.’ [Smike’s theatrical name was Digby.] ‘How kind it is of you to sit waiting here for him night after night … and taking so much pains with him….”
Nicholas: “He well deserves all the kindness I can show him, and a good deal more. He is the most grateful, single-hearted, affectionate creature, that ever breathed.”
Miss Snevellicci: “So odd too, isn’t he?”
Miss Snevellicci seems to bring up Digby in order to use him to find out more about Nicholas [not the last person to do that] – and when Nicholas praises him as “the most grateful, single-hearted, affectionate creature, that ever breathed”, Miss Snevellicci’s only remark to that tender description is: “So odd too, isn’t he? “
Mr. Folair, who had come up a little before, and now joined in the conversation: “He is such a devilish close chap. Nobody can ever get anything out of him.”
Nicholas, turning around with abruptness: “What should they get out of him!”
Mr. Folair: “I’m only talking of the natural curiosity of the people here, to know what he has been about all his life.”
Nicholas: “Poor fellow! It is pretty plain, I should think, that he has not the intellect to have been about anything of much importance to them or anybody else.”
Folair: “Ay, but that involves the whole question, you know…the who he is and what he is, and how you two, who are so different, came to be such close companions. That’s in everybody’s mouth.”
Nicholas, contemptuously: “The ‘everybody’ of the theatre, I suppose.”
Folair: “In it and out of it too. Why, you know, Lenville says … that you’re a regular stick of an actor, and that it’s only the mystery about you that has caused you to go down with the people here … though Lenville says he don’t believe there was anything at all in it, except your having got into a scrape and run away from somewhere, for doing something or other…I mention it as the friend of both parties, and in strict confidence. I don’t agree with him, you know. He says he takes Digby to be more knave than fool; and old Fluggers… he says that when he delivered messages at Covent Garden the season before last, there used to be a pickpocket hovering about the coach-stand who had exactly the face of Digby, though, as he very properly says, Digby may not be the same, but only his brother, or same near relation….Yes, that’s what they say. I thought I’d tell you because you really ought to know.”
So, Folair uses abusive, malicious gossip against “Digby” to get at Nicholas – to find out more about him and strike at him; those who have read Nickleby previously might be reminded here of Ralph who later uses Smike to strike at Nicholas. And this is probably reflective of the rest of the jealous male members of the company who also might bandy about gossip of “Digby” to get at Nicholas in the only way they safely can. Making “Digby” the center of their spiteful, malicious speculation, Dickens shows it’s not just malicious gossip – as it would be for Nicholas – but potentially endangering to someone as vulnerable and helpless to defend himself as Smike is. Nicholas can knock down Lenville or shrug off Folair’s gossip but Smike can’t. This is a soft form of abuse on Smike, which, though not nearly on the level of Squeers’ hardcore abuse, is still hurtful and a potential threat to him.
I can’t leave this dark side of the Crummles company, without calling attention to the lovely little scene that follows where Miss Snevellicci invites both Nicholas and Smike home to meet her mother and then her friend, Miss Ledrook , took “Smike’s arm in hers, left her friend and Nicholas to follow at their pleasure.” What a sweet image for Dickens to have included here, a member of the company showing kindness to Smike right after Folair’s nastiness.
The second section in the chapter is the dinner for Miss Snevellicci’s parents, with Mr. and Mrs. Lillyvick as guests along with Nicholas and Smike.
Mr. Snevellicci, who was quite tipsy by then, got up to make toasts. “The ladies – bless their hearts. I love ‘em. I love ‘em, every one.”
Lillyvick: “Not every one… That would include the married ladies.”
Mr. Snevellicci then repeated his declaration and winked at Henrietta Lillyvick. The collector was astonished. Then Mr. Snevellicci repeated the wink in dumb show and actually blew her a kiss. Mr. Lillyvick got up, walked up to Mr. Snevellicci and fell upon him. “Mr. Lillyvick was no light weight, and consequently when he fell upon Mr. Snevellicci, Mr. Snevillicci fell under the table. Mr. Lillyvick followed him, and the ladies screamed.”
This is another incident of “comic” violence that we laugh at, as with the Lenville incident of the last chapter. We can laugh at the ridiculous figure of Lillyvick, especially when his wife treats him with contempt for his over-the-top interference – but it’s interesting to compare the incident to the one coming up in two chapters where Nicholas will attack someone in defense of his sister’s purity and honor.
Think of Nicholas and Kate as Mr. Lillyvick points to his wife: “Look here, sir, here is purity and elegance combined, whose feelings have been outraged – violated, sir!”
Lillyvick may be emotionally melodramatic here, but he has a point, even if he did overreact. But Miss Petowker is no Kate and although we can sympathize with her remark: “Do you suppose I ain’t the best judge of what’s proper and what’s improper?” – still I can’t help feeling badly for Lillyvick as “Mr. Snevellicci went around kissing all the ladies starting with Mrs. Lillyvick. Mr. Lillyvick looked piteously at his wife, as if to see whether there was any one trait of Miss Petowker left in Mrs, Lillyvick, and finding too surely that there was not, begged pardon of all the company with great humility, and sat down such a crestfallen, dispirited, disenchanted man, that despite all his selfishness and dotage, he was quite an object of compassion.”
He loses his gamble as his illusions and his marriage crumble around him.
The third section is Nicholas and Smike’s leave-taking of Portsmouth and the Crummles company. Even though it’s hard for Nicholas and Smike – and us – to say goodbye to Mr. Crummles, Dickens again makes it easier for that goodbye to take place – by showing us that Crummles himself isn’t as truly warm and loving as he pretends to be. Although our hearts can hope that Crummles’ warm feelings for Nicholas are mostly genuine and not totally an act, still Dickens lays bares its false side here.
“Nicholas heartily shook the hand of Mr. Crummles and hurried off. Mr. Crummles looking wistfully toward where Nicholas had just disappeared: ‘Dear me, if he only acted like that, what a deal of money he’d draw! He should have kept upon this circuit, he’d have been very useful to me.’”
And when Crummles shows up at the coach to say goodbye to Nicholas, Nicholas feels fondly toward him but sees through the staged effect for others, not for him.
As Nicholas and Smike are about to enter the coach, Nicholas is clasped from behind in an embrace. Mr. Crummles exclaims, “It is he – my friend, my friend! ….Farewell, my noble, my lion-hearted boy”. “Mr. Crummles, who could never lose any opportunity for professional display, had turned out for the express purpose of taking a public farewell of Nicholas …. Inflicting upon him a rapid succession of stage embraces …. The elder Master Crummles was going through a similar ceremony with Smike…The lookers-on laughed very heartily, and as it was as well to put a good face upon the matter, Nicholas laughed too.”
An aside: This is the first and only chapter where Smike’s stage name, Digby, is mentioned. As was mentioned in a previous post, on his January-February 1838 trip to Greta Bridge, Yorkshire, in a letter of 29 Dec 1838, Dickens related how he first conceived the character of Smike: ‘There is an old church near the school, and the first gravestone I stumbled on that dreary winter afternoon [2 Feb] was placed above the grave of a boy, eighteen long years old, who had died – suddenly, the inscription said; I suppose his heart broke – at that wretched place [Shaw’s school]. I think his ghost put Smike into my head, upon the spot. The inscription runs: “Here lie the remains of GEORGE ASHTON TAYLOR, son of John Taylor of Trowbridge, Wiltshire, who died suddenly at Mr. William Shaw’s Academy of this place, April 13, 1822 aged 19 years. Young reader, thou must die, but after this the judgment.”
In March 1980, when the Royal Shakespeare Company was first rehearsing their stage adaptation of “Nicholas Nickleby” at Newstead in northern England, Leon Rubin in his The Making of Nicholas Nickleby reported that Roger Rees who had been cast as Nicholas and David Threlfall who had been cast as Smike, on their day off, drove to Greta Bridge and wandered the area: “They looked around at the supposed site of Dotheboys Hall, and the more bleak patch of land that a local suggested was the real site of Mr. Shaw’s Academy for Boys. They found the gravestone of a small boy of London parents who had died there: his name was Digby – the pseudonym given to Smike by Nicholas at Portsmouth. They were both deeply moved by that lonely grave.”
At the beginning of this chapter, Dickens shows Ralph again in a reflective mood – having unusual tender feelings for Kate – which leads him immediately to fantasize about and wishing for the deaths of both Nicholas and Mrs. Nickleby to pave the way for him. We get “humanizing” thoughts of Kate that are rather touching as he sees Kate and signs of her presence everywhere in his cold, lonely house. However, Dickens also shows how quickly and easily those softer thoughts evaporate.
“A very slight circumstance was sufficient to banish such reflections from the mind of such a man…. He became suddenly aware of the earnest observation of Newman Noggs…Ralph exchanged his dreamy posture for his accustomed baseness attitude … the train of thought took to flight, all simultaneously and in an instant.”
Newman stops in to see Miss La Creevy, where we get a couple of little fun examples of their mimed violence against Ralph.
“Newman, moving restless and shaking his fist: ‘I should have spoilt his features yesterday afternoon if I could have afforded it…. I shall do it some day in that little back parlor, I know I shall. I should have done it before now, if I hadn’t been afraid of making bad worse. I shall double-lock myself in with him and have it out before I die… He little thinks I know; he little thinks I care. Cunning scoundrel!.. Never mind, I’ll thwart him – I, Newman Noggs…’”
This is followed by Miss La Creevy’s own frustrated desire to lash out at Ralph.
Miss La Creevy: “I really feel as if I could stick this into him with pleasure.” She’s holding a pencil but then exchanges it for a fruit knife “wherewith, in proof of her desperate thoughts, she made a lunge as she spoke, which would have scarcely disturbed the crumb of a half-quarter loaf.”
Then they both feel a panic that Nicholas will undertake “some violence upon his uncle”. They take steps to prevent that violent response which ironically will lead to a serious act of violence on someone other than his uncle. For myself, I agree when Newman says: “If he was to talk of pistoling ‘em all, I should be obliged to say – ‘Certainly. Serve ‘em right.’”
Nicholas and Smike arrive back in London. After finding Newman gone from his lodgings, Nicholas leaves Smike there and goes out to find Miss La Creevy and his mother also absent from their lodgings. Nicholas wanders the streets and – coincidentally! 😊 – walks into a hotel coffee room where there is a noisy party of Sir Mulberry Hawk, Verisopht, Pyke and Pluck. He overhears them talking about Kate Nickleby. He hears Mulberry talking about his sister in a lewd and familiar way.
“Nicholas froze and listened as the voice said: ‘Little Kate Nickleby! The jade! She’s a true Nickleby – a worthy imitator of her old uncle Ralph – she hangs back to be more sought after – so does he.’”
The younger gentleman: “I am afraid that the old woman [Mrs. Wititterly] has grown jealous, and locked her up.”
The first man: “If they quarrel and little Nickleby goes home to her mother, so much the better. I can do anything with the old lady. She’ll believe anything I tell her.” “[Nicholas] heard all this and more. He heard his sister’s sufferings derided and her virtuous conduct jeered at and brutally misconstrued. He heard her name bandied from mouth to mouth, and herself made the subject of coarse and insolent wagers, free speech and licentious jesting.”
Finally Nicholas confronts “the man who had spoken first and led it” – Sir Mulberry Hawk. Nicholas demands his name and address but Hawk refuses to give it.
“The younger member of the party appeared to remonstrate with his friend, urging him to comply with the request Nicholas had made, but Sir Mulberry, who was not quite sober, was obstinate and silenced the representations of his weak young friend, and insisted on being left alone. After a short interval, the young friend and two others rose and retired, leaving their friend alone with Nicholas.”
At length, Hawk leaves the coffee-house and goes out to the private cabriolet waiting outside. “Nicholas sprang and caught hold of the reins: ‘You shall not go till you have told me who you are.’”
“Sir Mulberry applied his whip furiously to the head and shoulders of Nicholas. It was broken in the struggle. Nicholas gained the heavy handle, and with it laid open one side of his antagonist’s face from the eye to the lip. He saw the gash; knew that the mare had darted off at a mad wild gallop; a hundred lights danced in his eyes, and he felt himself flung violently upon the ground. He was giddy and sick, but staggered to his feet… He was conscious of a torrent of people rushing quickly by. Looking up, he could discern the cabriolet whirled along the foot pavement with frightful rapidity – then heard a loud cry, the smashing of some heavy body, and the breaking of glass – and then the crowd closed in, and he could see or hear no more.”
I have read criticisms of the intensity of the violence that Nicholas inflicts on Hawk but I’m not bothered myself by it. I put the blame on Hawk – as does Verisopht later. Nicholas was honorably defending his defenseless sister – as he did Smike, although Smike was being physically assaulted at that earlier point. Still I think Nicholas was reasonable in his actions here. I suppose it could be argued that Nicholas could have and should have backed off when the situation became intense, but even though I don’t feel like cheering at the end of this scene as I do when Nicholas thrashes Squeers, I still feel Nicholas was justified in confronting Hawk and striking back at him when Hawk strikes him first.
Nicholas reunites with Kate and takes her from the Wititterlys, where she has suffered continual harassment from the predators, and transports her and his mother back into the warm, safe arms and lodgings of Miss La Creevy.
Then Nicholas delivers a letter to Newman to forward to Ralph: “You are known to me now…. Your brother’s widow and her orphan child spurn the shelter of your roof, and shun you with disgust and loathing. Your kindred renounce you… You are an old man, and I leave you to the grave. May every recollection of your life cling to your false heart, and cast their darkness on your death-bed.”
Nicholas condemns Ralph to his own toxic memories and those who have read Nickleby might recall the black cloud that follows and haunts Ralph in the end.
Of course, this letter only makes Ralph hate Nicholas all the more and makes him even more determined to seek revenge against him.
Dickens brings back a couple of our favorite characters in this chapter and they remind us how much we’ve missed them.
Mr. Mantalini comes to see Ralph. He has two bills for Ralph to exchange for money.
Just then Mrs. Mantalini arrives. “I will not submit to be ruined by the extravagance and profligacy of any man… He took some papers of value out of my desk this morning, without asking my permission…As I have no doubt that he came straight here, Mr. Nickleby, to convert the papers …into money… I made up my mind… to put him on a fixed allowance; and I say that if he has a 120 pounds a year for his clothes and pocket money, he may consider himself a very fortunate man.”
Madame Mantalini is not able to stand firm against her husband’s piteous, theatrical assaults on her feelings. Mr. Mantalini cries, smiting himself on the head: “I am a demd villain!…I will…drown myself in the Thames, but I will not be angry with her, even then… She will be a lovely widow. I shall be a body.”
Madame Mantalini sobs at the dreadful picture: “Alfred, you cruel, cruel creature.”
Her husband cries: “Can I live to be mistrusted? … Can I live to be suspected by her! Demmit, no I can’t. … I don’t want any sum…. I require no dem’d allowance. I will be a body.”
The final result is, that without quite giving up the allowance question, Madame Mantalini postpones its further consideration, and “Ralph saw, clearly enough, that Mr. Mantalini had gained a fresh lease of his easy life, and that, for some time longer at all events, his degradation and downfall were postponed.”
As Mr. and Madame Mantalini are about to leave, Mantalini pauses to address Ralph about the accident that Hawk was involved with. Ralph had heard of the accident but is stunned to hear from Mantalini that his nephew was responsible for the attack on Hawk – and that it was over Kate.
Ralph, with gleaming eye: “And was killed? … Was he? Is he dead?” Mantalini shakes his head. Ralph, turning away: “Then he has done nothing.”
Then Squeers enters Ralph’s office with his son, young Wackford. As Squeers tells Ralph how he causes his son to be fat and unhealthy so that he can “sell” him to the public for his Dotheboys business, we can be reminded of Mr. and Mrs. Crummles causing their daughter to be abnormally and unhealthily short so they can “sell” her to the public for their theatrical business.
Squeers: “‘What do you think of him, sir, for a specimen of the Dotheboys Hall feeding? Ain’t he fit to bust out of his clothes… Here’s flesh!’ – turning the boy about, and indenting the plumpest parts of his figure with divers pokes and punches….’I’ve brought little Wackford up, on purpose to show to parents and guardians. I shall put him in the advertisement this time. Look at that boy – himself a pupil – why he’s a miracle of high feeding, that boy is.’”
Squeers sends Wackford out to buy a tart – “and mind you buy a rich one. Pastry. [to Ralph] makes his flesh shine a good deal, and parents think that’s a healthy sign.”
We should remember that this is child abuse even though it can be grotesque and very, very funny. [We might add Morleena Kenwigs – and the other Kenwigs children – trained by her parents to get money out of her uncle Lillyvick.]
As if to remind us of how truly horrifyingly brutal Squeers’s abuse of children can be, Dickens gives us a heartbreaking example from Squeers’s own disgusting mouth after Ralph asked him what had brought him to town.
Squeers: “Some bothering law business… connected with an action, for what they call neglect of a boy. I don’t know what they would have. He had as good grazing, that boy had, as there is about us…Grazing. When a boy gets weak and ill and don’t relish his meals, we give him a change of diet – turn him out, for an hour or so every day, into a neighbour’s turnip field, or sometimes, if it’s a delicate case, a turnip field and a piece of carrots alternately, and let him eat as many as he likes. There an’t better land in the county than this perwerse lad grazed on, and yet he goes and catches cold and indigestion and what not, and then his friends bring a lawsuit against me! … I don’t suppose there’s a man going, as possesses the fondness for youth that I do. There’s youth to the amount of eight hundred pound a year, at Dotheboys Hall at this present time. I’d take sixteen hundred pound worth, if I could get ‘em, and be as fond of every individual twenty pound among ‘em as nothing should equal it!”
Ralph asks Squeers if he’ll be staying at his “old quarters”. Squeers replies: “Yes, we are at the Saracen and as it don’t want very long to the end of the year, we shall continue to stop there, till I have collected the money and some new boys too.”
Dickens might have not thought ahead at this point since he changes Squeers’ lodgings from Saracen’s to Snawley’s house in a couple of chapters, although he does give a good excuse for Squeers leaving the Saracen.
Then we chillingly hear as Ralph draws Squeers in to his plan to use Smike to get to Nicholas. Squeers gives more background information for Smike:
Squeers: “Well, he might have been nigh twenty. He wouldn’t seem so old, though, to them as didn’t know him, for he was a little wanting here [touching his forehead] – nobody at home, you know, if you knocked ever so often.”
Ralph: “And you did knock pretty often, I dare say.”
Squeers, with a grin: “Pretty well…It’s fourteen years ago, by the entry in my book, since a strange man brought him to my place and left him there, paying five pound five for his first quarter in advance. He might have been five or six year old at that time, not more…. The money was paid for some six or eight year, and then it stopped. He had given an address in London, had this chap; but when it came to the point, of course nobody knowed anything about him. So I kept the lad out of… and when he begins to be useful in a certain sort of way, this young scoundrel of a Nickleby comes and carries him off. But the most vexatious and aggeravating part of the whole affair is… that some questions have been asked about him at last – not of me, but in a round-about kind of way of people in our village. So, that just when I might have had all arrears paid up, perhaps – who knows? – a present besides for putting him out to a farmer or sending him to sea, so that he might never turn up to disgrace his parents…damme, if that villain of a Nickleby don’t collar him in open day, and commit as good as highway robbery upon my pocket.’
Ralph: ‘We will talk of this again. I must have time to think of it. To wound him through his own affections or fancies – if I can strike him through this boy – ‘
Finally, at the end of the chapter, Ralph’s musings reveal how his hatred for Nicholas rises alongside his regard for Kate: “In exact proportion as Ralph Nickleby became conscious of a struggling and lingering regard for Kate, had his detestation of Nicholas augmented … to be defied and spurned, to be held up to her in the worst and most repulsive colours, to know that she was taught to hate and despise him… and to know that the mover of it all, was that same boyish poor relation who had twitted him in their very first interview, and openly bearded and braved him since, wrought his quiet and stealthy malignity to such a pitch, that there was scarcely anything he would not have hazarded to gratify it.”
And then Dickens reveals Ralph’s deepest remembrances which may be the actual source of his whole character, his twisted self.
Ralph: “When my brother was such as he, the first comparisons were drawn between us – always in my disfavour. He was open, liberal, gallant, gay; I a crafty hunks [a slang expression for miser] of cold and stagnant blood, with no passion but love of saving, and no spirit beyond a thirst for gain. I recollected it well when I first saw this whipster; but I remember it better now … Recollections like these flock upon me – when I resign myself to them – in crowds, and from countless quarters. As a portion of the world affect to despise the power of money, I must try and show them what it is.”
These recollections – these memories torment him, and feed his hatred – which has lately centered around Nicholas. But I think we can see that that hatred has been festering inside Ralph for a long time and that using “the power of money” was his means to “show them” how money can be used as a weapon against them (everyone).
The chapter starts with Nicholas taking Smike to his new home. I don’t know if this is spoiling here since Dickens all but announces it in capital letters, but I’ll include a SPOILER warning anyway. This is the deadly point where Dickens makes it unmistakably clear that he is going to kill off Smike. This is where I would have started my writing campaign to beg him not to kill Smike.
Smike: “Home!… I had such hopes once, day and night, for many years. I longed for home till I was weary but now – I would not part from you to go to any home on earth, except one. I shall never be an old man; and if your hand placed me in the grave, and I could think, before I died, that you would come and look upon it sometimes with one of your kind smiles, and in the summer weather, when everything was alive – not dead like me – I could go to that home, almost without a tear.”
Then Smike says something that I don’t really understand.
Nicholas: “Why do you talk thus, poor boy, if your life is a happy one with me?”
Smike: “Because I should change; not those about me. And if they forgot me, I should never know it. In the churchyard we are all alike, but here there are none like me. I am a poor creature, but I know that well.”
I can follow the second part – in the cemetery everyone is alike but he feels no one alive is like him, but what about the first two sentences? What is he saying? I’ve looked for an explanation for this remark but I haven’t come across a good one and would appreciate any theories.
Then there’s the lovely, touching meeting of Smike with Kate, Miss La Creevy and Mrs. Nickleby. I love the tender sensitivity that Dickens has Kate and Miss La Creevy show to Smike. Dickens really seemed to develop a love for Miss La Creevy. The contrast between Miss La Creevy’s wonderful, warm, meandering chattiness that puts Smike at ease and Mrs. Nickleby’s meandering cluelessness makes me think that Dickens wished that Miss La Creevy was his mother, rather than Mrs. Nickleby – that Miss La Creevy had grown into Dickens’s ideal mother figure.
Still Mrs. Nickleby is so funny as she tries her best to be welcoming to Smike by trying to place him with the Grimbles of Grimby Hall. I think she really is trying to be kind and helpful.
SPOILER: It’s nice to remember – as Smike is accepted by the Nickleby family – that like Nicholas, the Nicklebys are his real family. Kate is his cousin and Mrs. Nickleby is his aunt. So the Nickleby home here really is his home as he is a Nickleby.
During the second half of the chapter, Nicholas goes back to the Registry office again and strikes up a conversation with Charles Cheeryble that leads to a friendship and finally to his being hired by the Cheeryble Brothers who not only give him a job but a house too.
Critics of the novel almost universally dislike the Cheerybles but I like them very much. It’s surprising how many of the critics criticize Dickens for making them so unrealistic – fairy godfathers that could never exist in life – without knowing that Dickens based them on real brothers, William and Daniel Grant of Manchester, who really were great philanthropic businessmen. Dickens had visited Birmingham and Manchester on a journey of October 29 to November 7, 1838. My soft feelings for the Cheerybles probably come from the resemblance I see in them with Mr. Pickwick. I love Pickwick so it’s hard for me to resist such Pickwickian characters as the Cheerybles.
I get a poignant, bittersweet feeling at this point of the book. This chapter marks a turning point in the novel. So many of the characters I love have faded (Crummles, Mantalinis) or will be fading (Smike, Newman, even Kate) as their places are taken by characters I don’t care as much about. I’m fond of the Cheeryble brothers and Tim Linkinwater but they don’t have the hold on my heart that Smike and Newman do.
Mrs. Kenwigs is off-stage, so to speak, for this chapter as she awaits the birth of her sixth child. Some of the guests from the previous Kenwigs’ party have gathered and Mr. Kenwigs brags about his children and their “expectations”.
Mr. Kenwigs: “They’re not altogether dependent upon good fortune, neither; they have expectations…It’s not for me to boast of any family with which I have the honour to be connected; at the same time … my children might come into a matter of a hundred pound a-piece, perhaps. Perhaps more, but certainly that.”
Then “Mr. Johnson” arrives and breaks the news that Mrs. Kenwigs’s uncle, Mr. Lillyvick, had married Henrietta Petowker.
As Mr. Kenwigs sees his and his wife’s gamble on Mr. Lillyvick crumble as utterly as Mr. Lillyvick’s own gamble on Miss Petowker, Dickens strips Mr. Kenwigs of his proud, doting paternity as Kenwigs explodes in very funny theatrical histrionics, throwing his children under the bus when they lose their uncle’s money.
The nurse comes in and scolds him for being so loud: “Have you no regard for your baby?”
Mr. Kenwigs, in the torrent of his wrath: “No…. Let him die! He has no expectations, no property to come into. We want no babies here….Take ‘em away, take ‘em away to the Fondling!” [Note: the Foundling Hospital, established in 1739, for the care of abandoned children.]
Nicholas masters his new occupation and his position at the Cheerybles company is finalized. Then Nicholas goes to a dinner at the Cheerybles’. I love the little scene that Dickens draws with Mrs. Nickleby and Smike waiting up for Nicholas to return at night.
“It was past midnight by the time Nicholas reached home, where he found his mother and Smike sitting up to receive him. It was long after their usual hour of retiring, and they had expected him at least two hours ago. But the time had not hung heavily on their hands, for Mrs. Nickleby had entertained Smike with a genealogical account of her family by the mother’s side, comprising biographical sketches of the principal members, and Smike had sat wondering what it was all about, and whether it was learnt from a book, or said out of Mrs. Nickleby’s own head, so that they got on together very pleasantly.”
Unlike Natalie McNight’s assertion that Smike didn’t fit into the Nickleby’s bourgeois home, Dickens shows how Smike is a perfect fit for Mrs. Nickleby. Mrs. Nickleby can chatter on and on for whatever subject under the moon that her mind latches onto, and she finds a perfect listener in Smike. He doesn’t follow a word but he doesn’t lose interest, get annoyed or irritated with her because it doesn’t matter to him – Mrs. Nickleby talking to him is her familial acceptance of him and that sign of affection would be the only thing that would matter to him and we can imagine him quite comfortable just listening to her chatter on. And on Mrs. Nickleby’s side, it doesn’t matter to her that Smike doesn’t understand her since she just needs an audience to hear her talking. They’re completely complementary – funny but also very sweet, too.
Then Mrs. Nickleby lets Nicholas know about the gentleman next door who is throwing vegetables over their wall. There are multiple scenes in Pickwick where I have laughed out loud every single time I’ve read them, and this scene is another one. Every time I read this introduction of the crazy neighbor throwing cucumbers and marrows over the wall, I laugh so hard that the tears come. No one but Dickens does that to me. I love that about him. Nicholas’s appalled response is very funny too:
Nicholas: “Confound his impudence! What does he mean by that?”
Mrs. Nickleby: “I don’t think he means it impertinently at all.”
Nicholas: “What! Cucumbers and vegetable marrows flying at the heads of the family as they walk in their own garden, and not meant impertinently!”
Mrs. Nickleby: ” … his attentions are a flattering sort of thing. And although I should never dream of marrying again with a dear girl like Kate still unsettled in life…”
Nicholas: “Surely, mother, such an idea never entered your brain for an instant?”
Mrs. Nickleby: “Of course, I never gave it a second thought. All I say is, what step is the best to take so as to reject these advances civilly and delicately, and without hurting his feelings too much, and driving him to despair or anything of that kind?”
Nicholas, “fretted almost beyond endurance, but looking nearly as resigned and patient as Mrs. Nickleby herself:” “But the man – what has he done, mother, what has he said? You know, there is no language of vegetable, which converts a cucumber into a formal declaration of attachment.”
Nicholas shows such disapproval of these advances that it surprises me that he puts off taking action himself to stop it and lets his mother deal with him first instead. And Mrs. Nickleby is not so dismissive of the advances: “although there was no evil and little real selfishness in Mrs. Nickleby’s heart, she had a weak head and a vain one – and there was something so flattering in being sought in marriage at this time of day, that she could not dismiss the passion of the unknown gentleman, quite so lightly as Nicholas deemed becoming. Mrs. Nickleby thought: ‘As to its being preposterous, and doting, and ridiculous – I don’t see that at all.’”
As the book turns now, in the second half, to various serious courtships and couplings, Dickens puts forward for us this hilarious comic courtship to parallel those serious romantic couplings. And of course, Mrs. Nickleby herself is diving into speculation, taking a gamble on her mad neighbor as she opens herself up to engagement with him.
At the beginning of this chapter, Dickens starts to prepare us for Smike’s decline. Miss La Creevy notices his mood has changed from happy to depressed.
Ralph visits Hawk who is still laid up from his wounds from the assault and accident. Ralph encourages and urges him to go after Nicholas and Hawk revels in his fantasies of what he’ll do to Nicholas when he’s healed:
Sir Mulberry: “When I am off this cursed bed, I’ll have such revenge as never man had yet. He has marked me for a week or two, but I’ll put a mark on him that he shall carry to his grave. I’ll slit his nose and ears, flog him, maim him for life. I’ll do more than that. I’ll drag that pattern of chastity, that pink of prudery through –”
Hawk’s hatred has spread to Kate herself and even Ralph feels uncomfortable when Hawk starts to fantasize about how he’ll hurt her. Verisopht shows surprising backbone as he finds some underlying, dormant feelings of honor and nobility, and Dickens gives him a wonderfully strong confrontation with Hawk:
Verisopht: “Mind that, Hawk – I never will be a party to a cowardly attack upon this young fellow….if you had told him who you were – if you had given him your card and found out, afterwards, that his station or character prevented your fighting him, it would have been bad enough. As it is, you did wrong. I did wrong too, not to interfere, and I am sorry for that. What happened to you afterwards was as much accident as design, and more your fault than his, and it shall not, with my knowledge, be cruelly visited upon him. … I do believe, now, that the sister is as virtuous and modest as she is handsome – and the brother acted as a brother should. And I only wish that any one of us came out of this matter half as well as he does.”
Then there’s the heartbreaking kidnapping of Smike. Just as he’s safe in a home with a family, Dickens plunges him into a horrific nightmare scene. As Squeers grabs him, the terrified Smike freezes and is helpless to defend himself against the monster who has traumatized him for so many years. As he clings to the lamp-post, he became “utterly powerless and unable to utter a sound.”
Young Wackford gets a coach. “The coach came up; Master Wackford entered; Squeers pushed in his prize, and following close at his heels, pulled up the glasses…” Squeers looks straight at Smike, then slaps his face several times.
Smike: “I must go home.”
Squeers: “To be sure you must – the village of Dotheboys, in Yorkshire, in something under a week’s time.” Then he pokes Smike in the chest with his umbrella and deals a shower of blows upon his head and shoulders.
Dickens ends this part of the scene with a particularly brilliant and chilling example of his signature grotesque humor, the comic mixed in with the horrific:
“I never thrashed a boy in a hackney-coach before,” says Mr. Squeers. “There’s inconveniency in it, but the novelty gives it a sort of relish, too.”
Squeers takes Smike to Snawley’s house and locks him up in an upstairs room.
“Mr. Squeers conducted him to a little back room upstairs, where he was to pass the night. Taking the precaution of taking his shoes, coat and waistcoat and locking the door, Smike was left alone. He crept to bed the same listless, hopeless, blighted creature that Nicholas had first found him at the Yorkshire school.”
I love the entrance of John Browdie now. I always feel like cheering at his arrival in London. His physical strength, his down-to-earth honesty and warmth, and his easy laughter always make me feel that he can not only rescue Smike but singlehandedly protect every character I love in this book.
I love how he, when he’s with Smike, starts off by expressing annoyance with him – asking poor Smike questions that every reader has been mentally asking: “Why didn’t ‘ee punch his head, or lay theeself doon and kick and squeal out for the pollis?”
And then how he catches himself, becoming so tenderhearted: “But thee b’est a poor broken-doon chap, and God forgi’ me for bragging ower [over] yan [one] o’ his weakest creaturs.”
And how from that point he patiently walks Smike through his terror to shepherd him out the door to freedom.
Of course, most readers will catch Dickens’ goof in this scene since Smike wasn’t with Nicholas when Nicholas met John on the road after he had thrashed Squeers, so Smike couldn’t have recognized John, but that kind of mistake is an understandable – and probably inevitable – result of writing portions of a novel over multiple years. It would be difficult to keep every detail in mind.
(SPOILER ALERTS about NICHOLAS & also…LITTLE WOMEN)
Marnie, I just wanted to say a quick word about how much I loved your diary this week–as always! 🙂 You’ve brought up so many important points–and thank you for the reminder about the trip that Rog and David took to see the gravesite, and being moved by the “Digby” there.
“My soft feelings for the Cheerybles probably come from the resemblance I see in them with Mr. Pickwick.” Absolute YES to this!!!! I too have often held them in my mind as being soul-brothers of that marvelous, philanthropic and great-hearted soul. 🙂
As to your question about Smike’s mysterious words regarding his sense of a kind of comfort in death. I might be seeing this wrong, but the way I read his words is that: in death/in the churchyard, things don’t change. And he is happiest now, while all of his loved ones (Kate, Nicholas) are around him. Whereas, if he were to live on, he would see them change (go off, get married, etc) and that would be hard for him, since, in life, he feels so unlike everyone. I was reminded of Beth in Little Women. She didn’t want to die, but she seemed to take some comfort in the feeling that sense of capturing a time of life that would certainly have changed, and not long in the future: “I only mean to say that I have a feeling that it never was intended I should live long. I’m not like the rest of you. I never made any plans about what I’d do when I grew up. I never thought of being married, as you all did. I couldn’t seem to imagine myself anything…” etc. I think Smike feels different from everyone in life; he takes some comfort in feeling that everyone is all alike in death (?), and that there is a changelessness to it which captures the scene now, at his happiest, before Nicholas and everyone continue to live their own life and move on.
Granted, I know we all know and love Nicholas too well to think that his attentions and affections would be in any way changed as his life situation changed; Smike would be an integral part of all of what would come. But I think Smike’s sense of losing something, and his difference to it all that would follow, makes him find some comfort in its being stopped, for him, here.
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Rachel, that was an absolutely beautiful reading of that Smike passage! A perfect interpretation – exactly what I was hoping someone could suggest – and so very touching. I loved the comparison with Beth from Little Women – of course I’ve read it, multiple times, but not in a long time, so I didn’t remember that passage from it – how beautifully it fit Smike. And it reminded me of Alice in the earlier Five Sisters story – Alice stayed in that grove where they were all happy while her four older sisters were all lured away into lives elsewhere. I’ve always felt that story’s ending was moving and now that I see how it relates to Smike, it is even more so. Thank you!
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Good work, you guys. Together, you re teasing out a somewhat baffling passage of the novel, nailing down a very important point about the personal psychology of Smike. He’s a broken child, in so many ways, and Dickens is not going to sugar-coat the damage that Squeers and others have done to him. I especially love, Rach, your comparison with Beth–as it expands our awareness of the feelings that Smike has about himself. As I write this, I’m wondering how we can use this knowledge and extend it to our awareness of people we, ourselves, know in our lives. And that may be the crux of Dickens’ portrait of Smike. In this character-building, he is giving the reader the “tools” which he/she can use to become more sensitive to the many characters like Smike who we might easily just ignore…. It’s a societal problem that just won’t go away. Kudos to Dickens for making this creation so prescient to his readers and to society at large.
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“It seems that every critical review of “Nicholas Nickleby” spends an inordinate, disproportional time on the couple of chapters centering around the Crummles company. It’s easy to understand why – they’re colorful, they’re the theatre, and they are among the most likeable, even lovable, of all the “Nicholas Nickleby” characters. And there’s no question of the influence of the theater on Dickens and that he loved the theater and theater folk. But he wasn’t blind to the dark side of these people – which Dickens suggests is part and parcel of what they do, their theatrical profession. Even though Nicholas enjoys and benefits from his time there – as does Smike – Dickens cannot visualize them remaining among them; he cannot visualize their environment as “home” – for Nicholas or for Smike. Two of the three sections in this chapter go to the heart of Dickens’s rejection of the company as a truly warm, loving “family”. This is a clear rejection of the thesis of Natalie McKnight [“Idiots, Madmen and other Prisoners in Dickens”] and others that Smike would have been better off remaining in this environment than the bourgeois world of the Nicklebys which she suggests, ridiculously I think, killed him.”
I regret to say this is probably less clearsightedness on Dickens’s part and more prejudice. The theatre was considered a somewhat less than respectable career for gentlemen in his day (not that it was held to be the worst thing or anything) hence Nicholas and Smike using fake names. There was also a stereotype about actresses being promiscuous, which Mrs. Lillyvick nee Petowker reflects, though Miss Snevellici doesn’t seem so bad.
As well written as the diary for this week was, I’m a bit disappointed it didn’t have an “ation.” The first was about speculation. The second was about exploitation. This one was mostly about violence and family, neither of which ends in “ation.” Ah, well. 😉
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Stationmaster: you bring up an important point, here, that I think is true, generally, that traveling shows like those put on by the Crummles might have been looked upon by the general public with negative prejudice. Yet, Dickens does such a good job of narrating their activities and creating characters, that I think he is totally fascinated by the various creations he’s assembled . In this respect, he’s put together something like “The Crummles’ World”–and given birth to a whole host of characters that act out their various personalities and how they relate to each other and to Smike and Nicholas. I think the imaginary world that Dickens has manufactured, along with the “Process” that creates it, really takes precedence over the current prejudicial feeling that he or anyone else might have vis-a-vis this kind of entertainment. Thus, the act of IMAGINING and CREATING this special milieu just prevails as he comes up with details concerning how this theater “operates”–from day-to-day, how the various characters interact with one another, how they define themselves, how they relate to Smike and Nicholas, etc.–ALL of which in the aggregate, add up to the novel’s estimates of their values, morals, deficiencies, efficiencies–and also, how this “unit” relates to the rest of the novel thematically and so forth–the larger context. This little unique theater creation is a world unto itself, in the midst of a novel that is also a world UNTO ITSELF. They are separate but indelibly connected.
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There may indeed have been a class “snobbishness” in Dickens. I’ve thought of that possibility. He had a love for the theater and for acting – and came close to becoming an actor himself, but he was being drawn, at the time of the writing of NN, into the literary and publishing world and may have felt a wish to distance himself from the more “lower class” theatrical world in the same way that Nicholas rejected the theater world for a more secure, lucrative, respectable business world. Maybe.
“The first was about speculation. The second was about exploitation. This one was mostly about violence and family, neither of which ends in “ation.” Hmm, how about “violation” (re-Kate) 😊
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Marnie: another marvelous and entertaining diary. Marvelous in that it presents your reading of each chapter so fully, and catches the depth with which Dickens created each chapter. But your response is also just plain fun to read as we can see the process in real time of your working out the meanings and structures of the novel, segment by segment. It’s especially entertaining when you come up against something that puzzles you and you manage to, ultimately, extract meaning from it. You are an inspiration for those of us who delight in witnessing “close readings” of literature.
I think, in many ways, you are–with your diary–filling in the gaps which I presume the longer, book-length studies leave. And that makes what you are doing more satisfying. Generalizations that are backed up by specific exegesis of the novel’s events. That’s what makes this diary so superb. And it also gives us readers so much to think about and helps us fill in our gaps that we may have, based on OUR reading experience. In this way, Rach’s response to your response is a classic dialogue between two cogent readers of the Dickens’ text. Based on what you and others have written about the critics’ various negative evaluations and statements about NICKLEBY, you, and the rest of us, are writing counters to these assumptions. One then wonders how closely these various scholars are attending to the Dickens’ text, especially in what they presume to be Dickens’ “lesser’ novels….
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“Filling in the gaps” is a perfect way to put it, Lenny. I haven’t read Dickens’ later – what others consider – more “serious” novels, but I’d guess that literary critics, favoring those later novels, and taking them more seriously, probably cover every aspect and detail and character with a completeness that a “lesser” novel like Nickleby doesn’t get. I’ve read about as many books on NN that I’ve been able to find – all too few – and I’ve been so dissatisfied by their treatment of it that it has spurred me on to make these notes and thoughts over the past year. Thanks, Lenny!
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I love the commentary re Smike here – I think it shows that he isn’t as backward or as “dim” as he appears. But isn’t that always the way with Dickens – to put the most profound concepts in the mouths of babes, so to speak? I think it worthy of note that Smike’s character grows under the influence of Home. He becomes happier, for a time, he feels included & part of a family, but then, as Miss La Creeve articulates, another change occurs:
“I am sure that since he has been here, he has grown, from some strong cause, more conscious of his weak intellect. He feels it more. It gives him greater pain to know that he wanders sometimes, and cannot understand very simple things. I have watched him when you have not been by, my dear, sit brooding by himself with such a look of pain as I could scarcely bear to see, and then get up and leave the room: so sorrowfully, and in such dejection, that I cannot tell you how it has hurt me. Not three weeks ago, he was a light-hearted busy creature, overjoyed to be in a bustle, and as happy asa the day was long. Now, he is another being – the same willing, harmless, faithful, loving creature, but the same in nothing else.” (Ch 38)
What ails Smike? His inner self which had been suffocated at Squeers’s because it was concerned with self-preservation has now a chance to contemplate another plane of existence, if you will. It seems he is having difficulty processing this new plane. Only time, and a few more chapters, will tell if he is successful in doing so.
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These are lovely Smike reflections, Chris. Thank you so much for them. I was going to say more but then I realized I’d be running into future happenings so I’ll stop here for now.
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I think we cannot overlook that there are, and Dickens intended there be, parallels between the “real” story and the Crummles episodes.
Some examples: The “duel” of the Crummles’ boys when Nicholas first meets them is a David & Goliath motif which mirrors both Nicholas’s and Kate’s struggles against Ralph, et al.; the Lenville-Nicholas “duel” (Ch 29) is re-enacted, both in the melodramatic language and in action, in Nicholas’s encounter with Hawk in the hotel (Ch 32); the way Mr & Mrs Crummles walk through town (Ch 23) reflects the way Ralph & Kate walk to the Mantalini’s (Ch 10); Miss Snevellicci’s designs on Nicholas “had no effect whatever in increasing the attentions of Nicholas, who, with the precedent of Miss Squeers still fresh in his memory steadily resisted every fascination, and place so strict a guard upon his behaviour that when he had taken his leave the ladies were unanimous in pronouncing him quite a monster of insensibility” (Ch 30). Kate’s persecution by Hawk is juxtaposed with the episode (Ch 30) of Mrs Lillyvick’s (nee Petowker) receiving similar attention by Mr Snevellicci (whose comments and actions are basically harmless and made among friends whereas Hawk’s are neither). Mrs Lillyvick’s statement and the echo of “all the ladies” is Dickens’s way of pointing out, from the opposition direction, what Kate has been trying to get across – “Do you suppose I ain’t the best judge of what’s proper and what’s improper?” “Do you suppose we shouldn’t be the first to speak, if there was anything that ought to be taken notice of?”. Mr Folair give us a synopsis of one aspect of the plot of “Nickleby” in his stating the question “that’s in everybody’s mouth” – “Why, the who he [Smike] is and what he is, and how you two, who are so different, came to be such close companions” (Ch 30). We may know the answer to the second part of the question, but the first part is a mystery. (See, “Playing Around with Melodrama: The Crummles Episodes in ‘Nicholas Nickleby’”, by Tore Rem, “Dickens Studies Annual”, 1996, Vol. 25, pp. 267-285.)
There are just a few examples. There are more, but they would be spoilers. I think they will become apparent as we continue reading.
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I already wrote this in another comment but in case anyone missed it, I wonder if maybe Crummles and his troupe represent self-parody on Dickens’s part as they tell the same kind of melodramatic stories.
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No doubt – Dickens was not above parodying himself as the many references to blacking bottles and digs at writers and novelists attests!
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I can see Dickens having fun with Nicholas playing “the hero” in all those plays – not just Romeo – that Crummles gave him scripts for. The roles of “Rover” and “Diddler” that Crummles wants Nicholas to act were heroes of plays that probably were common in companies such as the Crummles one. Dickens probably had fun projecting his own hero Nicholas into those old plays that he himself likely saw and was familiar with.
By the way, you mentioned the RSC in another post which reminds me that I think I’ve read that the Royal Shakespeare Company saw their “Romeo and Juliet” in NN as a parody of their own Shakespearean productions such as R&J. So they were doing a parody of both the kind of R&J that a ragtag Crummles company would do, but also a self-parody of their own upscale R&J.
That’s an impressive list of parallels, Chris. I’d love to read that article you cite by Tore Rem. I’ve seen the “Dickens Studies Annual” included in bibliographies – is it available online? Would I be able to access that article somewhere?
Marney, and anyone else who’d like – email me at email@example.com and I’ll send it to you!