Nicholas Nickleby, Week 4 ~ and a Week 3 Wrap-Up

Wherein we glance back at the third week of the #DickensClub reading of Nicholas Nickleby (week 24 of the Dickens Chronological Reading Club); With General Memoranda, a summary of reading and discussion, and a look ahead to week four.

Newman Noggs and Kate Nickleby, by Fred Barnard

It has been a week of meeting new friends and of saying goodbye to old ones; a week of scoundrels on one hand, and unlikely supporters on the other; a week of heroic defiance on the part of Nicholas and Kate, followed by new reasons to rejoice in their benevolent Pickwickian benefactors. And yet, there is a shadow of a cloud hanging over the newfound happiness…

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

  1. General Mems
  2. Week Three Nicholas Nickleby Summary (Chapters 27-39)
  3. Discussion Wrap-Up
  4. A Look-ahead to Week Four of Nicholas Nickleby (21-27 June)

General Mems

If you’re counting, today is Day 168–and Week 25–in our #DickensClub! It will be Week Four 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.

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 Three Nicholas Nickleby Summary (Chapters 27-39)

“Affectionate behavior of Messrs Pyke and Pluck,” by Phiz.

Mrs. Nickleby has been having visions of her daughter as Lady Mulberry Hawk; meanwhile, that gentleman and his companions continue to make life miserable for Kate, going so far as to pursue her at Mrs. Wititterly’s, who takes their attentions as a compliment to herself. At the theatre, Sir Mulberry once again accosts Kate and is fended off by her with spirit and determination as she manages to elude her assaulter. She is left, however, in a state of humiliating dejection.

Kate finds herself in the position–when being unfairly accused by Mrs. Wititterly of a lack of animation and reciprocation regarding these “gentlemen”–of making an appealing reproof to her for not being able to see that these men hold both of them in contempt, and are making her life miserable.

“Nicholas hints at the probability of his leaving the Company,” by Phiz.

Kate then goes to appeal to the only one she knows who has the power to do anything about these scoundrels: her uncle. Though Kate touches some long-dormant chords within the cold heart of Ralph, he makes light of her concerns, giving no assurances of assisting in anything. Thankfully, Newman, who is aware of what has been passing between Kate and her uncle, assures Kate privately of his support, and that he will make it known to “somebody else too.”

Nicholas, after being in a theatrical combat (of sorts) with Mr. Lenville, receives a disturbing missive from Newman, who warns Nicholas that “circumstances might occur, or were occurring, which would render it absolutely necessary that Kate should have her brother’s protection, and if so, Newman said, he would write to him to that effect, either by the next post or the next but one.”

“Theatrical emotion of Mr Vincent Crummles,” by Phiz.

The word does come, and Nicholas quickly and forcefully bids farewell to the Crummles’ theatrical company.

Both Miss La Creevy and Newman have been looking out in their way for the welfare of the Nicklebys; Miss La Creevy advises Newman to break the news of Kate’s misadventures to Nicholas very carefully, or he might well do harm to himself and others. When Nicholas comes to London, therefore, everyone is out and unavailable—Newman, Miss La Creevy, and Mrs. Nickleby. Nicholas, restless and agitated and fearing the worst, finds himself wandering into a coffee-room, where he overhears his own sister’s name being talked about—loudly, publicly, unashamedly—in the most lewd and disrespectful manner. Nicholas manages (barely) to keep a lid on his temper long enough to overhear a sufficient amount of the conversation to understand what the whole dishonorable business has been about, and what Ralph Nickleby has been exposing Kate to in facilitating the meetings between her and Sir Mulberry Hawk and his gang.

“Nicholas attracted by the mention of his Sister’s name in the Coffee-room,” by Phiz.

Having heard enough to put the pieces together, Nicholas approaches the table and introduces himself as the brother of Kate and asks for the name and lodging of the foremost of the scoundrels—Sir Mulberry Hawk—who refuses to give him either. No one else answers him. Nicholas threatens to wait and to follow Hawk until he finds out for himself. Lord Verisopht and the others leave Sir Mulberry alone, and Nicholas, enraged and still unanswered by Hawk as the latter leaves the coffee-room, positions himself on the step of Hawk’s carriage, his hands on the reins. Warding off a blow from Hawk’s whip, Nicholas takes the weapon himself, “and with it laid open one side of his antagonist’s face from the eye to the lip” and Hawk feels himself “flung violently upon the ground” as the horses dart off at a gallop.

Nicholas then rescues his sister from the home of the Wititterlys, and they resolve never to leave one another again. Miss La Creevy has already prepared a place for the Nicklebys at her lodgings. Nicholas writes to Ralph, disowning and cursing him for his cruel treatment of them all:

“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, for they know no shame but the ties of blood which bind them in name with you.

“…May every recollection of your life cling to your false heart, and cast their darkness on your death-bed.”

“Mr and Mrs Mantalini in Ralph Nickleby’s Office,” by Phiz.

During Mr. Mantalini’s visit to Ralph Nickleby to secure another loan—and during which Mantalini once again woos his wife out of her resolve to give him the cold shoulder and put him on a fixed allowance—Ralph is made aware of the incident at the coffee-house between Hawk and Nicholas. Ralph is then visited by Squeers who is in town, and a plan begins to form in Ralph’s mind about how to wound Nicholas “through his own affections and fancies–. If I could strike him through this boy—”

Smike is warmly welcomed into the Nickleby family, finding himself especially overwhelmed by the thought of Kate’s kindness toward him. He is valued even by Mrs. Nickleby, as he is the most patient sounding-board for her disjointed tales.

“Mr Linkinwater intimates his approval of Nicholas,” by Phiz.

Nicholas again makes a trip to the General Agency Office in search of work, where he meets a kindly looking gentleman who takes an interest in him and his misfortunes after a long conversation. This gentleman sweeps Nicholas off to his place of business, and there Nicholas is introduced to the gentleman’s twin brother. They are the kindly Cheeryble Brothers, German merchants who are loved by all of their workers (and by many to whom they lend philanthropic aid). The brothers readily take Nicholas on as a clerk to assist their old, faithful Tim Linkinwater, at the sum of 120 pounds per annum, and “rent” a sweet house out to the Nicklebys at the smallest possible sum. They are all thrilled with their new acquisition in Nicholas, and the Nicklebys and Kate are happier than they have been in a long time. Even Mrs. Nickleby finds herself sought out by an odd neighbor who shows his affection for her by tossing cucumbers and other edibles at her from over the garden wall.

Life is good, and we could all use a few more Cheerybles in the world.

But the faintest shadow of a cloud hovers over the happiness. Something is wrong with our dear Smike, and it is Miss La Creevy who notices it:

“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 as the day was long. Now, he is another being–the same willing, harmless, faithful, loving creature—but the same in nothing else.”

“Emotion of Mr Kenwigs in hearing the family news from Nicholas,” by Phiz.

Meanwhile, Mr. Kenwigs is greatly agitated by the news of Mr. Lillyvick’s marriage to Miss Petowker, feeling that his infants are defrauded and all his attentions to that worthy relation have been for nothing!

Ralph visits the injured Sir Mulberry Hawk, and the retribution that both men plan for Nicholas is stopped by an unlikely source: Lord Frederick Verisopht. The young lord, never malicious, but always too easily swayed and weak-minded, has found his resolve, courage, and honor, as he stands up to Hawk:

“…you did wrong. I did wrong too, not to interfere, and I am sorry for it. What happened to you afterwards, was as much the consequence of accident as design, and more your fault than his; and it shall not, with my knowledge, be cruelly visited upon him, it shall not indeed…I do believe, now; upon my honour I do believe, that the sister is as virtuous and modest a young lady as she is a handsome one; and of the brother, I say this, that he acted as her brother should, and in a manly and spirited manner. And I only wish, with all my heart and soul, that any one of us came out of this matter half as well as he does.”

“A sudden recognition, unexpected on both sides,” by Phiz.

Things get dicey when Smike is seen and retaken by Squeers, who then holds him prisoner in an upper room in his lodgings with Snawley.

Thankfully, another is in town: the hearty, faithful, guy-you-want-on-your-side, John Browdie. Having found out about the location of Smike, John feigns illness and sneaks Smike out—the greatest danger to their plan being that John can scarcely keep himself from laughing—so that Smike can return to his home with the Nicklebys.

Discussion Wrap-Up

Another marvelous week for discussion, friends! Between the comments on our previous week’s wrap-up post and Marnie’s Nickleby diary of the week, we had two separate threads of discussion happening, and I hope you have time to read them in full.

A Belated Happy Father’s Day

A belated Happy Father’s Day to all fathers here! We hope everyone was having a far less stressful day than Mr. Kenwigs was after the news that his children’s benefactor had been recently married.

“‘My children, my defrauded, swindled infants!…We want no babies here,’ said Mr. Kenwigs recklessly. ‘Take ’em away, take ’em away to the Fondling!'”

“In-Between Readings” and Exciting Acquisitions

Icona has been sharing with us some recent acquisitions: a beautiful old copy of Nicholas Nickleby, and two marvelous biographies of Dickens, as well as Michael Slater’s The Genius of Dickens.

Chris also shares with us a very helpful resource on navigating our way through the CLiC, for those of us doing supplementary, “in-between readings.”

Miscellaneous Whimsy

In other news, we rejoice in cucumber-tossing as a means of courtship, and Henry shares with us some marvelous photos of Restoration House in Rochester, “Dickens’ inspiration for Satis House in Great Expectations.”

What We Loved: Dickens’ Inimitable Comedy; Comic Violence; Speculation

Marnie had noted in her diary that we have a number of scenes of comic, “mimed,” or otherwise impotent violence this week: Mr. Lillyvick toward Mr. Snevellicci, Mr. Lenville towards Nicholas, Noggs punching the air at his anger toward Ralph. Sometimes it might be an indication of feelings long repressed, and we wonder whether they’ll break out at last. Marnie writes:

Marnie F. comment

“Comedy is a hard thing to do well in a story, and tends to age badly,” Boze writes. Why does Nicholas Nickleby hold up? Boze gives his thoughts, and favorite passages from the week:

Boze H. comments

Marnie also addresses the criticism about the real violence in the book:

Marnie F. comment

Note: though we didn’t discuss this as much on Week Three, Marnie made some fabulous comments about speculation, and how in Mr. Lillyvick’s disillusionment about Miss Petowker, and Mr. Kenwigs’ about Mr. Lillyvick, both have, to some degree, lost the gamble.

“What Ails Smike?”: On Smike, Beth March, and Troubles of the Heart

Marnie wrote in her Nickleby diary for the week that it was Miss La Creevy that really notices that there is something mysterious ailing our dear Smike. Chris wrote about this as well:

Chris M. comment

Marnie praises Miss La Creevy’s maternal insight, and suggests that she has taken the role of mother to him. Marnie also shares a puzzling statement of Smike’s:

Marnie F. comment

I add some thoughts to try and answer the question regarding Smike’s mysterious insight, comparing the difference that Smike feels between himself and others, to that of Beth in Little Women:

Rach M. comments

Marnie and Lenny continue the conversation, and Lenny encourages us to ask ourselves how we might also begin to really take notice of the Smikes around us, those who feel differently, or even cast out, from the “normal” course of life:

Marnie F. comment
Lenny H. comment

Marnie gives us a touching story from Leon Rubin’s book about the making of the RSC Nicholas Nickleby, which reminds us that there have been many “real-life” Smikes, victims of abuse and neglect:

Marnie F. comment

Theatricality, Parenting, and Abuse

The Stationmaster comments on Marnie’s Nickleby diary:

Adaptation Stationmaster comments

Lenny writes:

Lenny H. comment
Marnie F. comment

From Chris:

Chris M. comments

Gina and Marnie add some thoughts about the theatricality of bad parenting, and the real life connection to Dickens:

Gina D. comment
Marnie F. comments

Women in Dickens: A Toast to Kate

In defiance of Sir Mulberry Hawk and his gang, I think it is not inappropriate to raise a respectful glass to Kate Nickleby in earnest, for her strength. Marnie writes:

Marnie F. comment

Mysteries and Gaps in Dickens

Dickens creates such worlds and characters that we might well find ourselves wondering about the backstory of some of our secondary characters. The Stationmaster brings this up, and Marnie and Chris respond:

Adaptation Stationmaster comment
Marnie F. comment
Chris M. comment

Close Reading

Daniel really summarizes for us some of the resulting thoughts and highlights from our group’s “close reading” of Nickleby:

Daniel M. comments

To end off our wrap-up, Lenny’s response to Marnie’s Nickleby diary beautifully summarizes the kind of “close reading” that we’re all engaging in here:

Lenny H. comment

A Look-ahead to Week Four of Nicholas Nickleby (21-27 June)

This week, we’ll be reading Chapters 40-51, which constitute the monthly numbers XXIII-XVI, published March to June 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.


  1. Rachel and Inimitables All!

    What a marvelous (as always) recapitulations of themes, insights, developments, and even omissions/gaps!

    I must affirm the third addition to the “ation” litany: (1) speculation; (2) exploitation; (3) violation. Thank you, Lenny!

    So many things to comment on. I will choose three.

    1. Impotence and repression: Dickens, of course, knew the experience of poverty and its repressive effect. He captures so deftly the specific experience of impotence in men–like Noggs angrily boxing at phantoms.

    He also grasped the plight of women, who were so often under the thumb of men. Their repression, it seems, often gave rise to ailments and behaviors that were often self-hating and certainly thwarted human flourishing.

    2. Maturation of the man and artist: Many observations help us to understand how Dickens’ understanding of the world and his craft mature. Thank you for these important insights.

    3. Smikes’ apparently inexplicable suffering in improved circumstances: It does seem to me, as you several of you, that Smikes is profoundly damaged–likely even brain-damaged from his chronically brutal beatings and dehumanizing treatment. A trauma victim writ large.

    Suddenly enveloped by love, attention, and relative security, it makes great psychological sense that Smikes would have a hard time navigating his new circumstances and would feel himself still an outcast–somehow deformed and unlovable.

    Using a once-popular phrase, Smikes experienced severe and acute “culture shock.”

    My continuing immense gratitude to all of you for your careful and sensitive reading and contributions.


    Liked by 5 people

    1. Daniel, all of your comments are so wise, but I was struck especially with what Lenny called Smike’s “multilevel suffering”, that is, your drawing of Smike “before” and “after”. Before was a world of physical and mental abuse, and after was a world of love and security. I hadn’t considered that such a dramatic, sudden change must, of course, have been a trauma itself – your perfect words for it “culture shock”. And I think that sudden culture shock or PTSD as Lenny describes, made him all the more susceptible – and unable to fight off – the additional stressors (Squeers’ kidnapping, Ralph’s working through legal means to take him from the Nicklebys, and yet another to come) that he was going to have to face and cope with in that “after” world of the Nicklebys.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Daniel: Great summary statement of Rach’s extraordinary recapitulation of the week’s “work.” I’m especially drawn to your remarks about Smike’s multilevel “suffering”; Your summation that he is “brain-damaged” really makes sense, for the specific reasons you apply. Beaten and starved, separated from his parent or a parent substitute, bereft of any love–he is, as you say. “dehumanized.” As he enters into a new world, new “culture,” I agree that he is suffering from culture shock. How strange and painful it must be for him, definitely a bittersweet “birth” into a new world–a “stranger in a strange land.”

    But after reading your insights, I’m wondering if Dickens has also presented us with a case of PTSD. Here’s something that I found on the NIH (National Institute of Health) site regarding the symptoms of PTSD. Many if not all of these warning signs fit the profile of Smike that we have experienced so far:

    “Re-experiencing symptoms
    Flashbacks—reliving the traumatic event, including physical symptoms such as a racing heart or sweating
    Reoccurring memories or dreams related to the event
    Distressing thoughts
    Physical signs of stress
    Thoughts and feelings can trigger these symptoms, as can words, objects, or situations that are reminders of the event.

    Avoidance symptoms
    Staying away from places, events, or objects that are reminders of the experience
    Avoiding thoughts or feelings related to the traumatic event
    Avoidance symptoms may cause people to change their routines. For example, after a serious car accident, a person may avoid driving or riding in a car.

    Arousal and reactivity symptoms
    Being easily startled
    Feeling tense, on guard, or “on edge”
    Having difficulty concentrating
    Having difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
    Feeling irritable and having angry or aggressive outbursts
    Engaging in risky, reckless, or destructive behavior
    Arousal symptoms are often present—they can lead to feelings of stress and anger and may interfere with parts of daily life, such as sleeping, eating, or concentrating.

    Cognition and mood symptoms
    Trouble remembering key features of the traumatic event
    Negative thoughts about oneself or the world
    Distorted thoughts about the event that cause feelings of blame
    Ongoing negative emotions, such as fear, anger, guilt, or shame
    Loss of interest in previous activities
    Feelings of social isolation
    Difficulty feeling positive emotions, such as happiness or satisfaction
    Cognition and mood symptoms can begin or worsen after the traumatic event and can lead a person to feel detached from friends or family members.”

    What interests, me, here, is our group’s recent realization that something about Smike is “off.” He’s become depressed and seems to be suffering pain in this new environment that he’s found himself living and dealing with. Dicken’s shrewd insight into what that Smike is undergoing is mighty astonishing. His sensitivity (diagnosis of?) to the current “Post Traumatic” pain and depression that mark Smike’s current feelings is almost clinical.

    And, Dan, your presentation regarding Smike also reminded me of another idea that I think is relevant. Isn’t Dickens presenting us with another incidence of “synecdoche”–or part for whole? Not only is Smike important as a singular character in this novel, but he’s also a representation of ALL the children in Dotheboys Hall, how they are now, and how they would relate to the world at large if they had managed to escape or become, somehow, free of the Hall and it’s tortuous situations….

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Lenny, I counted 22 or 23 PTSD symptoms in all. I can “see” the possibility of Smike suffering from almost every single one of them with the exception of one or two of the reactivity symptoms (anger, aggressive outbursts and engaging in destructive behavior). Those who have read Nickleby previously know that there is one particular stressor on Smike that Dickens will start to focus on, in this week’s chapters, but Dan and your comments help us to keep in mind that there was so much more that Smike was dealing with than that one burden.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This section has two of the most hilarious scenes in the book, Nicholas and Newman’s adventure with Cecilia Bobster and the gentleman next door’s visit. (I wonder if Nicholas being surprised that his love interest could be named Bobster was Dickens hanging a lampshade on how characters in his books have names that match their roles/personalities.) It also has what might be one of the darkest scenes, the duel between Hawk and Verisopht. Lord Frederick is interesting in that he’s the only villain from this story to get redeemed.

    Earlier this year, I watched the 1982 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Nicholas Nickleby, which I don’t love as much everyone else here does (I know, I know) but I admire it enough to have included it in a blog post about my top Nicholas Nickleby adaptations, and something interesting occurred to me. In that version’s last scene between the Mantalinis, we’re supposed to feel sorry for Madame while in Dickens, we laugh and cheer for her. This isn’t surprising given director Trevor Nunn’s penchant for bringing out the tragedy of comedic characters, but it’s kind of ironic since you’d expect the separation to be played more for drama in Victorian culture where divorce was more of a scandal.

    Also ironically, Dickens and his wife would eventually get a nasty separation at least in part because of infidelity on his part, so he probably wouldn’t have portrayed Madame Mantalini so sympathetically if he’d written Nicholas Nickleby later in life.

    I don’t know Dickens did it, but whenever I read about John Browdie’s laugh and how infectious it was, I feel like laughing too!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Yeah, Stationmaster, I’m like you; I can’t get enough of John Browdie. Who would have thought it after our first view of him at the tea party. But he’s such a breath of fresh air in the midst of the novel’s multi-layered dark scheming. As a kind of counterweight, his own scheming to get Smike out of the clutches of Squeers is first-rate and wonderful comedy. He almost blows it, though, with that laughter that, as you say, is really infectious.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Stationmaster, that last Mantalini scene in the book is hilarious, while the RSC’s great comic Mantalini scene is the second last one where Mantalini runs around the balcony threatening to stab himself. Though her final triumph over Mantalini in the book is hugely funny, both Madames – in book and play – I think, realize at the end that they’ve lost a lot in their gamble in marrying Mantalini. She has lost her business and a husband she had loved, and so Madame Mantalini is weeping on her way out the door in the book and certainly she is in a downcast mood in the play. But, of course, Mantalini himself was the big loser – in both the book and play – and Miss Knag in the same catbird seat in both!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I thought you might all appreciate seeing these truly deranged illustrations from various editions of Nicholas Nickleby, concerning the amorous gentleman who lobs cucumbers at Mrs Nickleby.

    First, “Kate and Mrs Nickleby and the Madman,” by Harry Furniss, 1910:

    Then, “The Gentleman in Small Clothes” from 1867, which makes him look almost like one of the wax-works in Mrs Jarley’s shop:

    And lastly this, from 1875, in which Mr Cucumber stands astride the wall in his worsted stockings like a latter-day Rumpelstiltskin:

    I think the Nickleby ladies’ encounter with the tuber-throwing gentleman might be the comic high point of the novel so far. “I have estates, ma’am, jewels, light-houses, fish-ponds, a whalery of my own in the North Sea, and several oyster-beds of great profit in the Pacific Ocean. If you will have the kindness to step down to the Royal Exchange and to take the cocked hat off the stoutest beadle’s head, you will find my card in the lining of the crown, wrapped up in a piece of blue paper!”

    Liked by 2 people

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