Smike manages to make his way to Newman’s lodgings. When Newman tells him how worried Nicholas was and includes Kate and Mrs. Nickleby, Smike focuses on Kate and we get the first sign that he has developed a “crush” on Kate.
Although Newman’s scene of caring for Smike is very sweet here, I wish Dickens had given us such a scene with Nicholas and would have loved to see and hear his response as Smike tells him of Squeers grabbing Smike and pummeling him in the coach and locking him up. Dickens gives us surprisingly very little of Nicholas’s reaction – either to Smike’s disappearance or his story of what he’s suffered at the hands of Squeers. This might be a sign of Dickens’s weakening interest in the character of Smike and his absorption now with other characters.
What Dickens does give us next is a beautifully touching story of Tim’s relationship with a dying boy that he sees from his bedroom window. SPOILER: The dying boy is a metaphor for Smike and another obvious bit of foreshadowing of his coming death. Tim says, “The night will not be long coming when he will sleep, and never wake again on earth.”
In Charles Cheeryble’s office, Nicholas sees the young woman whom he had earlier seen at the Register office and falls obsessively in love with her. Madeline will absorb most of the attention of Nicholas and Dickens from now on as the story turns away from Smike and Newman to different characters.
We do get the cute side story – the red herring – of Newman supposedly locating Nicholas’s love, who turns out to be the wrong lady. Newman has only one or two very quick, minor scenes with Nicholas from this point – one of the weaknesses, I think, in this latter part of the book.
This chapter gives us the second installment of the neighbor gentleman’s courtship of Mrs. Nickleby. Kate is present this time and alarmed by the crazy man. She provides sane warnings for her mother to stay clear of the madman but Mrs. Nickleby is too flattered by his attention. Mrs. Nickleby’s hugely funny attempts to “reason” with the madman contrasts beautifully with Kate’s terrified, sane shrinkings from him. Finally the neighbor’s keeper comes to tell Kate – and us – just in case we haven’t noticed already – that the man is a lunatic, and takes him off. But dear Mrs. Nickleby persists in her delusion.
Mrs. Nickleby: “What! Do you suppose this poor gentleman is out of his mind? He is nothing of the kind. It’s some plot of these people to possess themselves of his property – didn’t he say so himself? He may be a little odd and flighty – perhaps many of us are that. But downright mad! And express himself as he does, respectfully, and in quite poetical language … No, no, Kate, there’s a good deal too much method in his madness – depend upon that, my dear.”
I hate to pick on Natalie McKnight (“Idiots, Madmen and other Prisoners”) and I have to add that other critics seem to be influenced by her, such as Mark Ford in his introduction to the Penguin edition of Nickleby, but she is such a prime example of some crazy modernist critics. She defends characters such as Mrs. Nickleby and the gentleman next door (and Smike) as eccentrics who have been crushed by the normal bourgeois world of Nicholas and Kate and the Cheerybles, but she is so extreme in this view that to her the crazy neighbor and Mrs. Nickleby are the sane ones and Kate at least a persecutor of eccentric characters, despite the fact that the neighbor gentleman, as hugely funny as he is, is quite threatening – which Kate recognizes, and any one of us would recognize if we lived next door to him. He has no conception of boundaries, or acting in a way that would protect other people’s safety.
Dickens now gives us another welcome scene with the lovable John Browdie as Nicholas dines with John and Tilda at the Saracen. We hear more of what happened after Smike made his escape. John describes in delightfully funny detail how he led Squeers on to misdirect him. It seems that Tilda was a part of John’s scheme to fake illness to cover for his release of Smike, although Dickens doesn’t tell us outright. Fanny and her father confront the party. I always feel like cheering at John’s bold confession and declaration to Squeers’ face.
John, in a loud tone: “Me! Yes, it was me – coom – wa’at o’ that! I’ll tell ‘ee more. Hear this, too. If thou’d get another roonaway boy, I’d do it again. If thou’d got twonty roonaway boys, I’d do it twonty times over. And I tell thee more – noo my blood is oop that thou’t an old ra’scal; and that it’s weel for thou, thou be’est as old ‘un, or I’d have proonded thee to flour when thou told an honest mun hoo’ [how] thou’d licked that poor chap in t’ coorch [coach]!”
Then, even as we give a sigh of relief that Squeers is defeated by the mighty Browdie, Dickens gives us a little hint, in Squeers’ threat to Nicholas before he leaves, that Smike is still in danger of ending back in Squeers’ clutches: Turning around and addressing Nicholas, Squeers: “As for you, see if I ain’t down upon you before long. You’ll go a kidnapping of boys, will you? Take care their fathers don’t turn up – mark that – take care their fathers don’t turn up, and send ‘em back to me to do as I like with, in spite of you.”
This chapter continues from the last – at Saracen, with Nicholas, John and Tilda. They hear a commotion and go to the scene where they find that a young gentleman “a year or two older than Nicholas” had assaulted another man. It turns out that the young gentleman happens to be Frank Cheeryble, nephew of the Cheeryble brothers, and the person he’s attacked was the same clerk, Tom, who had made rude remarks – that bothered Nicholas at the time – at the Register office way back in chapter 16 – about the same young woman that Nicholas has fallen in love with. Frank tells Nicholas that the reason for his attack on Tom was that Tom had been making rude remarks about a woman that Frank knew. This incident has parallels to Nicholas’s own attack on Hawk. After all, both Nicholas and Frank were assaulting men who were dishonoring ladies they knew – men who were talking loosely and lewdly about the two women – SPOILER – who will be Nicholas’s and Frank’s loves. Nicholas defended the honor of Frank’s future love [Kate] and Frank here defended the honor of Nicholas’s future love [Madeline].
Kate has a touching little aside remembering her deceased father – another SPOILER – which, at the end, may or may not be a tender foreshadowing of Smike’s death. Remember that one of the reasons that Dickens ascribes to Smike’s decline and eventual death is a broken heart and that Kate’s father (and Smike’s uncle) supposedly died of a broken heart. Dickens takes this chance to give his own feelings on the memories of a departed loved one – perhaps thinking of Mary Hogarth too, as well as the upcoming death of Smike.
Kate, in great agitation: “Dear mama, I know no difference between this home and that in which we were all so happy for so many years, except that the kindest and gentlest heart that ever ached on earth has passed in peace to heaven. … I have often thought of all his kind words – of the last time he looked into my little room, as he passed upstairs to bed, and said ‘God bless you, darling’. There was a paleness in his face, mama – the broken heart – I know it was – I little thought so – then – “
Dickens reflects: “It is an exquisite and beautiful thing in our nature, that when the heart is touched and softened by some tranquil happiness or affectionate feeling, the memory of the dead come over it most powerfully and irresistibly. It would almost seem as though our better thoughts and sympathies were charms, in virtue of which the soul is enabled to hold some vague and mysterious intercourse with the spirits of those whom we dearly loved in life. Alas! How often and how long may those patient angels hover above us, watching for the spell which is so seldom uttered and so soon forgotten!”
This is another Dickens passage that Rachel could easily tuck in to her beautiful essay on remembrance, “To Look after a Day that is Gone”. It is such a lovely, touching thought that our beloved dead are still hovering near us, waiting for us to remember them, for us to reach out to them with our thoughts, our memories.
Charles and Frank Cheeryble come to visit the Nicklebys. I love how attentive Nicholas and Charles Cheeryble are to Smike during the walk they all take. However the end of the evening finds Smike weeping bitterly – apparently having already seen the first glimmers of the attraction between Frank and Kate.
Perhaps because the last time we saw Hawk and Verisopht was Chapter 38 and Dickens wasn’t ready yet to wrap up their storyline for several more chapters – and so readers might meantime wonder what happened to Hawk’s revenge threat against Nicholas – Dickens sends Hawk out of the way, to France for a bit.
Walking out in the rain, Ralph takes shelter – (note for later tie-in) – under a tree. Ralph meets up with a man he ultimately recognizes as the man, Brooker, who was his clerk before Newman. Brooker is poor and wants money from Ralph for information that he feels Ralph would want to know. Ralph can’t imagine anything he’d want.
Ralph: “Whatever you gleaned or heard, or saw, when you served me, the world knows and magnifies already. I am reviled or threatened every day by one man or another but things roll on just the same, and I don’t grow poorer either.”
So he rebuffs Brooker and we don’t find out anything more about this mystery until much later.
Ralph stops in at the Mantalini’s – now the Knag establishment. A marvelously funny, melodramatic scene meets his eyes – which Phiz captures beautifully in his drawing. Mantalini is lying on the floor in the center of the scene and drawing. His “legs were extended at full length upon the floor, his head and shoulders supported by a very tall footman, who didn’t seem to know what to do with them. Mr. Mantalini’s eyes were closed and his face pale. He had a little bottle in his right hand and a little tea-spoon in his left, and his hands, arms, legs and shoulders were all stiff and powerless.”
Has he finally done it, poisoned himself – as he has threatened so many times? Everyone else in the scene seems to have different opinions:
Ralph, pressing forward: “What is the matter here?” There was an astounding string of such shrill contradictions as: ‘He’s poisoned himself’ – ‘He hasn’t’ – ‘Send for the doctor’ – ‘Don’t’ – ‘He’s dying’ – ‘He isn’t, he’s only pretending.’
I love Dickens’ little bits of laugh-out-loud slapstick: “Here a gurgling voice was heard to ejaculate – as part of the wanderings of a sick man – the words ‘Demnition sweetness!’ but nobody heeded them except the footman, who, being startled to hear such awful tones proceeding, as it were, from between his very fingers, dropped his master’s head upon the floor with a pretty loud crash.”
Mantalini starts to try to appeal to his wife as he has done so many times before but this time she cuts him off – this time for good.
Madame Mantalini: “I will never supply that man’s extravagance and viciousness again. I have been a dupe and a fool to him long enough. In future, he shall support himself if he can, and then he may spend what money he pleases, upon whom and how he pleases, but it shall not be mine.”
Ralph observes that she can’t separate herself from her husband: “A married woman has no property.” [Note: Prior to the Married Woman’s Property Act of 1882, upon marriage the legal ownership of a woman’s property passed to her husband.]
Madame Mantalini: “I am quite aware of that and I have none. The business, the stock, this house and everything in it, all belong to Miss Knag.”
It turns out that Miss Knag had been working behind the scenes – digging up dirt on Mantalini and presenting the evidence to his wife. “To which end, the accidental discovery by Miss Knag of some tender correspondence, in which Madame Mantalini was described as ‘old’ and ‘ordinary’, had most providentially contributed.”
Madame Mantalini walks out on her husband and Ralph leaves, making it clear that he’s not going to bail Mantalini out either.
Then Ralph has Newman get a coach for him and Newman watches worriedly as Ralph, Squeers and a third man enter and drive off. Newman: “There’s mischief in it. There must be.”
The chapter ends with Brooker approaching Newman.
“Newman turned away but the man followed him and pressed him with such a tale of misery that Newman looked into his hat for some halfpence. Then the man said something which attracted his attention. Whatever that something was, it led to something else. In the end he and Newman walked away side by side – the strange man talking earnestly, and Newman listening.”
Dickens does not provide clarifying details about this scene. How much of the mystery did Brooker impart to Newman at this point? Surely it can’t be all the details we find out later, because Newman would have run right to Nicholas with the information. He at least must have told Newman that he was Ralph’s clerk before Newman, but would that be enough to interest Newman that much? It’s tantalizing to think what information Brooker shared with Newman this early on, to make Newman curious enough to want to cultivate him.
There’s a merry party at the Nickleby’s – Mrs. Nickleby, Nicholas, Kate, Smike with John and Tilda Browdie. Ralph enters and confronts the party.
SPOILER. Reading this scene, it might be kept in mind that this is the only time where Ralph and his son see each other.
Squeers enters. I wish Dickens had shown a reaction from Smike who would have been terrified to see Squeers appear right there in the room with him. Ralph announces that they’ve brought Smike’s father. Squeers comes right out and tells Nicholas, and Smike – and us readers – that Snawley taking Smike into his parental custody will mean that Snawley will pass him back to Squeers’s own custody and Smike will end up right back at Dotheboys.
Squeers: “His father’s my friend. He’s to come back to me directly, he is.”
Dickens gives us a scene that he must have meant to be just grotesquely comic, and Phiz nicely captures its amusing farcical quality, but still it’s problematical.
“Mr. Snawley … made straight up to Smike and tucking that poor fellow’s head under his arm in a most uncouth and awkward embrace.”
If this was the action of a quick moment, it might be something that happened too quickly for Nicholas and other characters to react to. But Snawley holds Smike imprisoned in that choke hold for a good long time – almost a full page as Snawley and Squeers discuss “parental instinct”. This is an amusing interchange but it’s undermined by the thought of Snawley still holding Smike captured under his arm – while the whole rest of the Nickleby party, especially Nicholas, stands by, doing nothing to help Smike and defend him against the mistreatment he’s undergoing. We’re told that the bystanders had been “stupefied with amazement” but it just makes Nicholas look weak and impotent. Smike has to free himself from Snawley’s grasp and flee to Nicholas.
And then, as Squeers “was advancing upon Smike”, it is John, not Nicholas, who takes action to protect Smike, jerking his elbow into Squeers’ chest. At this point we get another funny bit of visual slapstick as “Squeers reeled and staggered back upon Ralph Nickleby, and being unable to recover his balance, knocked that gentleman off his chair and stumbled heavily upon him.” – a very funny image, especially for buttoned-up Ralph.
Somehow Squeers managed to get close enough to Smike so that: “Squeers had actually begun to haul him out, when Nicholas (who, until then, had been evidently undecided how to act) took him by the collar, and shaking him so that such teeth as he had chattered in his head, politely escorted him to the room door, and thrusting him into the passage, shut it upon him.”
Nicholas says to the other two: “Now have the kindness to follow your friend.”
Snawley: “I want my son.”
Nicholas: “Your son chooses for himself. He chooses to remain here, and he shall.”
Finally Nicholas has his first really strong response against the invaders in this whole scene as he refuses to give up Smike, in a nicely forceful statement:
Snawley: “You won’t give him up?”
Nicholas: “I would not give him up against his will, to be the victim of such brutality as that to which you would consign him if he were a dog or a rat.”
After Squeers and Snawley are out of the room, Ralph makes a rather puzzling statement since Nicholas hasn’t made any kind of expression that he hoped Smike would be from some well-born family.
Ralph: “Your romance, sir, is destroyed, I take it. No unknown; no persecuted descendant of a man of high degree; the weak, imbecile son of a poor petty tradesman. We shall see how your sympathy melts before plain matter of fact.”
I can only think that Dickens was having Ralph project what he himself would have thought and hoped for if he was in Nicholas’s place.
A little earlier Ralph made a statement to Mrs. Nickleby: “You will observe, ma’am, that this boy being a minor and not of strong mind, we might have come here tonight, armed with the powers of the law.” And now before leaving he further elaborates on that threat to Smike as he addresses Nicholas as to how he will strike at Nicholas through Smike:
Ralph: “And trust me, sir, that I never supposed you would give him up tonight. Pride, obstinacy, reputation for fine feeling, were all against it. These must be brought down, sir, lowered, crushed, as they shall be soon. The protracted and wearing anxiety and expense of the law in its most oppressive form, its torture from hour to hour, its weary days and sleepless nights, with these I’ll prove you, and break your haughty spirit, strong as you deem it now. And when you make this house a hell, and visit these trials upon yonder wretched object (as you will, I know you), and those who think you now a young-fledged hero, we’ll go into old accounts between us two, and see who stands the debtor, and comes out best at last.”
A couple of little asides – more SPOILERS!:
- Dickens doesn’t show us any real negative effect on Nicholas from this threat but it will take a terrible toll on Smike himself, hanging over the little time that Smike has left.
- We could say that three men have or claim paternal rights to Smike and all three are in this scene: (1) Snawley who is pretending to be Smike’s father; (2) Ralph, his real father; (3) Squeers who feels he has the right to Smike – that Smike was stolen from him by Nicholas – and that Smike belongs to him. There is much talk of “fatherhood” in this scene.
- Unfortunately – unlike in the RSC stage play which sometimes has a better memory than Dickens – Ralph’s name is never mentioned in this scene or anywhere else in the book in Smike’s presence, so there’s never a scene in the book where Smike remembers Ralph’s name as Nicholas’s enemy. This makes his vow back in chapter 29 to remember Ralph’s name pointless since it’s never followed up, and a waste since Smike’s remembrance of Ralph’s name could have made a touching or powerful moment, however Dickens had used it. The RSC plugs this little hole so that in this scene, Ralph’s name is mentioned and Smike does remember it and has a brief reaction to the name. But again, one longs for Dickens’ to have created a scene for it.
The next day Nicholas continues with Charles Cheeryble the discussion of parenthood that came up throughout the previous chapter, mostly in humorous satiric references there, but in this chapter with Nicholas and Charles, it is treated more seriously.
Nicholas declares his belief in the natural right of parent and child and hopes Cheeryble will understand the circumstances where he felt he had to come between and disrupt the natural bond and right (between the presumed father and son).
Cheeryble not only backs up Nicholas, he declares that Nature would be false if it put in Smike’s heart a yearning for someone who abused him (or will hand him over to someone who will abuse him again). Basically he’s arguing nurture over nature. We might say that Smike “belongs” to Nicholas in a paternal, parental sense because Nicholas has provided Smike with love, family and home – the nurturing he needed.
Then Charles reveals that Ralph has already been there to see Charles, but between Charles, Ned and Tim they beat back Ralph’s attacks on Nicholas. So Nicholas is relieved and grateful for the support from the Cheerybles. And Charles has a wonderful speech against Ralph and in support of Nicholas and all of Nicholas’s loved ones. In fact, when I read this passage, I always get the impression of Charles (and Ned and Tim) taking Nicholas and his family under his own paternal, protective wing, that Nicholas and his family are in safe hands, that nothing and no one will hurt them with the Cheerybles on their side.
Charles: “Nobody belonging to you shall be wronged. They shall not hurt a hair of your head, or the boy’s head, or your mother’s head, or your sister’s head. I have said it, brother Ned has said it, Tim Linkinwater has said it, and we’ll all do it. I have seen the father – if he is the father – and I suppose he must be. He is a barbarian and a hypocrite, Mr. Nickleby. I told him, ‘You are a barbarian, sir’. And I’m glad of it.”
Then Charles launches the Madeline story. He gives Nicholas the background of the young lady he saw in the office previously (and with whom he now is in love). I would draw attention especially to the fact that Charles had been romantically involved with the mother of the girl (Madeline) and Ned with the sister of the mother. The sister died before Ned could marry her and Madeline’s mother chose someone else over Charles. Note that Madeline’s mother gambled between Charles Cheeryble and Walter Bray: “She married her choice, and I wish I could add that her after-life was as happy, as God knows I ever prayed it might be!”
“It will be enough to say that this was not the case; that she was not happy; that they fell into complicated distresses and difficulties; that she came, twelve months before her death, to appeal to my old friendship. Sadly changed, sadly altered, broken-spirited from suffering and ill-usage, and almost broken-hearted. He readily availed himself of the money which, to give her but one hour’s peace of mind, I would have poured out as freely as water… She was attended in these reverses, by one faithful creature, who had been, in old times, a poor kitchen wench in the family, who was then their solitary servant, but who might have been for the truth and fidelity of her heart – who might have been – the wife of Tim Linkinwater himself.”
Needless to say, Walter Bray is one of this novel’s “bad parents” who uses and sells his daughter for his own support and benefit.
Charles lays out the plan that the Cheeryble brothers have come up with to help Madeline and asks Nicholas to execute it for them, to be their agent.
Nicholas reflects whether, in loyalty, to tell Charles of his feelings for Madeline but decides to withhold mentioning it. Dickens comments wryly, criticizing Nicholas:
“Nicholas mentally answered these questions with a resounding ‘No’, and persuading himself that he was a most conscientious and glorious martyr, nobly resolved to do what he would have found he could not resist. Such is the sleight of hand by which we juggle with ourselves, and change our very weaknesses into most magnanimous virtues!”
Nicholas makes his first visit to Madeline. Nicholas manages the transaction though Walter Bray is irritable with him. As Nicholas is leaving, Madeline follows and apologizes for her father. Nicholas declares that his feelings for her are more than casual.
Nicholas: “You have but to hint a wish and I would hazard my life to gratify it…. I am not skilled in disguising my feelings, and if I were, I could not hide my heart from you…. Forgive me, if I seem to say too much, or to presume upon the confidence which has been entrusted to me. But I could not leave you as if my interest and sympathy expired with the commission of the day. I am your faithful servant, humbly devoted to you from this hour.”
Newman has a nice little scene here where he’s hiding in his office as he overhears a conversation between Ralph and new character Arthur Gride.
Gride reminds us of Ralph; at 70-75 years, he could be an older version of Ralph, though more obsequious, and though he loves and deals in money, as Ralph does, he’s not filled with hate the way Ralph is. Gride is a more common garden-variety miser. Notice that Arthur Gride’s last name would usually be pronounced with a long “i”, but there’s a possible variation as “Greed”.
Gride tells Ralph that he plans to marry the daughter of Walter Bray, who owes money to both Gride and Ralph. He wants Ralph to help him convince Bray to go along with the marriage. Ralph forces him to reveal that the daughter will inherit a piece of property which will come into Gride’s hands if he marries Madeline. Ralph insists on a cut which Gride reluctantly agrees to.
Ralph and Gride go to see Walter Bray and Bray agrees to think it over. When Ralph and Gride leave Bray, Ralph reassures Gride that Bray is already convinced to accept the marriage.
Ralph: “He is trying to deceive himself already. He is making believe that he thinks of her good, and not his own. He is acting a virtuous part, and is so considerate and affectionate, that his daughter scarcely knew him. I saw a tear of surprise in her eye. There’ll be a few more tears of surprise there before long, though of a different kind.”
So again, Walter Bray is a “bad parent”, who will be “selling” his daughter to Arthur Gride (and Ralph) for his own financial support and enrichment, as well as his restoration to a higher class as a gentleman [something yearned for by other characters – Newman, Mrs. Nickleby and even, arguably, Nicholas].
With this chapter, Dickens has started to check off his list of characters that need to be eliminated. The stage needs to be cleared for the end of the story and the Crummleses are the first of our beloved characters to have their last appearance. There’s a mechanical, impersonal aspect of this operation where character after character we love are checked off, which makes it feel like an uncaring cast away of these characters, and which, I think, undermines a lot of the wonderful things that Dickens writes in the last portion of the story.
Stationmaster suggested in a posting a while back: “Actually I think it’s possible Dickens started out wanting Crummles to be a negative character, then decided to make him more sympathetic when he became so popular.”
When I read here the warm greeting Crummles gives to Nicholas when he meets Nicholas again – so different from his previous false farewell to him – I think that Stationmaster had a good point. Maybe Dickens heard from readers who loved Crummles and decided to be easier on him in this final farewell with Nicholas.
There’s something else also to consider. Dickens dedicated Nicholas Nickleby to W.C. Macready “as a slight token of admiration and regard by his friend, The Author”. William Charles Macready was one of the leading tragedians of the time and I think I’ve read that Crummles may have been based on him. That would be a good subject for more research. If so, I don’t think that undermines the criticism Dickens aimed at the Crummles character earlier in the book – after all, Dickens loved the theatre and theatre folk too, but he wasn’t blind to their character defects. However, he might have felt he’d been too hard on Mr. Crummles and wanted to show him in an entirely favorable light as we’re seeing the last of this lovable character.
Nicholas, on his way home, sees a poster advertising the Crummles’ company. As Vincent Crummles greets Nicholas, notice Dickens’ verbiage: “Mr. Crummles was unfeignedly glad to see him and embraced him cordially” – our hearts re-warm to Mr. Crummles after the false feelings he showed Nicholas at their parting. Then Nicholas – and the readers – are given the sad news that the Crummleses will be leaving for America and there’s no chance Nicholas will ever be seeing them again. I can’t imagine a reader who has gotten to this point in the novel not feeling sad here.
Unfortunately – and amusingly, too – Mr. Crummles is already planning on how he’s going to exploit his future fourth child. “The talent of the other three is principally in combat and serious pantomime. I should like this one to have a turn for juvenile tragedy; I understand they want something of that sort in America very much.”
Crummles tells Nicholas that Miss Snevellicci is happily married and that he and his family would be departing London the next day, so that tonight is Nicholas’s last opportunity to see them, at a farewell dinner.
In this wonderful – and mostly benevolent – farewell to the Crummleses, Dickens includes a little section that is so jarring – although subtly so – that I’m surprised that I’ve only seen one critic mention it, and that in a way that misses the whole point of it. Perhaps critics miss it because the Crummles are so universally liked and admired by them that they overlook when Dickens is critical of the family or company.
This time it’s Mrs. Crummles who is shown, briefly – but quite damningly – in a negative light. When Mrs. Crummles asks Nicholas how “Digby” is, Nicholas starts to give a standard, noncommittal answer and then, trusting that Mrs. Crummles is the warm-hearted person he thinks he knows, breaks down and starts confiding the truth to her that is weighing on him:
Mrs. Crummles to Nicholas: “And how is your friend, the faithful Digby?”
Nicholas, forgetting at the instant that this had been Smike’s theatrical name: “Digby! Oh yes. He’s quite – what am I saying – he is very far from well.”
“How!” exclaimed Mrs. Crummles, with a tragic recoil.
Nicholas, shaking his head and making an attempt to smile: “I fear that your better half would be more struck with him now than ever.”
“What mean you?” rejoined Mrs. Crummles, in her most popular manner: “Whence comes this altered tone?”
Nicholas: “I mean that a dastardly enemy of mine has struck at me through him, and that while he thinks to torture me, he inflicts on him such agonies of terror and suspense as – You will excuse me, I am sure,” said Nicholas, checking himself. “I should never speak of this, and never do, except to those who know the facts, but for a moment I forgot myself.”
“With this hasty apology Nicholas stooped down to salute the Phenomenon, and changed the subject, inwardly cursing his precipitation, and very much wondering what Mrs. Crummles must think of so sudden an explosion. The lady seemed to think very little about it, for the supper being by this time on the table, she gave her hand to Nicholas, and repaired with a stately step to the left hand of Mr. Snittle Timberry.”
Notice again Dickens’ descriptions of Mrs. Crummles’ false theatrical responses to him: “with a tragic recoil”, “in her most popular manner” – signs already that Mrs. Crummles isn’t really interested in what Nicholas is telling her. Then when Nicholas looks away, wondering if he has upset her with his emotional response, he finds – probably to his surprise and disappointment – as it surely should be to us as readers – that she is already thinking about other things (dinner) and so, Smike’s heartbreaking condition doesn’t register with her, she doesn’t care at all how Smike is. Like Mr. Crummles’ false feelings at Nicholas’s parting, Dickens is showing again that she – and by extension all theater folk – are not to be trusted to respond with true warm, loving feelings. In contrast, we can imagine Miss La Creevy in the same position – and how moved and upset she (and any other true friend) would have been at Nicholas’s news of Smike’s sad situation. Dickens is commenting again that the emotions of theatrical folk are only skin-deep. Dickens (and Nicholas) have affection for Crummles and theatrical folk but can see through their affectation.
Dickens takes the opportunity of the dinner to lambaste his own enemies – dramatists who ripped off his writing to put them on the stage before the story was even finished. Supposedly the “literary gentleman” was specifically William Thomas Moncrief whose dramatization of “Nicholas Nickleby” was playing already on the stage, while Dickens’ novel was still in the process of being published.
With this final parting between Nicholas and Mr. Crummles, Dickens rises to the occasion – as he always seems to do when he’s killing off a beloved character – and gives us a truly satisfying ending for the Crummles characters. Mr. Crummles has a genuinely warm, wonderful farewell to Nicholas.
“When [Nicholas] had said goodbye all round and came to Mr. Crummles, he could not but mark the difference between their present separation and their parting at Portsmouth. Not a jot of his theatrical manner remained, he put out his hand with an air which, if he could have summoned it at will, would have made him the best actor of his day in homely parts, and when Nicholas shook it with the warmth he honestly felt, appeared thoroughly melted.”
So Nicholas – and we readers – are able to say goodbye to the Crummleses with warm – and – sad feelings.
“Nicholas submitted to another hug … and waving his hat as cheerfully as he could, took farewell of the Vincent Crummleses.”
A side note: We might say that the Crummleses are making their own big speculative bet by leaving their homeland and traveling to America – and sadly, we’ll never know how their gamble played out.
From our sad farewell to the Crummleses, we go straight in this chapter to the revelation that Smike has consumption, a definitive death sentence. Dickens doesn’t specifically name consumption (tuberculosis) as his disease but the description is unavoidably apparent and Dickens makes it clear that there’s no hope for him: “a disease which medicine never cured.” Doctors have said that Dickens’ description here is remarkably accurate for tuberculosis/consumption.
Though it’s not specifically named, consumption [tuberculosis] was common at this time and in fact, Dickens’s sister Fanny would die of it several years later. For some reason, many critics never even mention it as a cause of his death. They ascribe Smike’s death exclusively to his doomed love for Kate, but Dickens himself isn’t so specific and here he points to another cause for Smike’s decline as ”certain harassing proceedings by Mr. Snawley for the recovery of his son.” These seemed to have affected Smike’s health which, “long upon the wane, began to be much affected by apprehension and uncertainty.” Critics who focus on the debilitative effect of Smike’s feelings for Kate on his health are ignoring or underestimating the ever-present fear and worry he must have lived with, day after day, in terror of any moment someone coming to take him away again and returning him to Squeers.
Certainly “pining over Kate” , as well as the worry over the prospect of being taken away from the Nicklebys, were contributory factors to his decline. However, it’s common to point solely to these emotional factors – broken heart, depression, sadness, heartache, melancholy – as the reason for his death rather than acknowledging that he had a real, physical disease, with all the years of pre-Nicholas physical abuse, as the primary, underlying cause, which was then compounded by multiple emotional stresses/strains including heartache.
Nicholas takes Smike to a doctor and Smike gets a temporary reprieve. Then Dickens slips into a long touching rumination on memory (which reminds us of Rachel’s essay on the importance of memory for Dickens) – Nicholas’ remembrance of that specific time when they were all together with Smike – which he keeps in his memory and heart always after.
“…every little incident, and even slight words and looks of those old days little heeded then, but well remembered when busy cares and trials were quite forgotten; came fresh and thick before him many and many a time, and rustling above the dusty growth of years, came back green boughs of yesterday.”
Charles and Ned Cheeryble, Tim and Frank came by often to visit the Nicklebys. Newman is never mentioned in these visits. Does he never come to the Nicklebys’ home or does Dickens just forget to include him? Again, it seems to be one of the signs that Newman has faded in Dickens’ mind and Dickens is more interested in establishing the new characters as members of the Nickleby family circle.
Miss La Creevy does come to visit and becomes closer to Tim while Frank becomes close to Kate. Smike sees their growing attachment and is too pained to remain in their presence, so he retreats to his room. Mrs. Nickleby tactlessly, though funnily, speculates on his timely disappearances. Nicholas, rather unbelievably, has not picked up on the clues which seem to have been obvious. At the end of the chapter, Nicholas tries to get Smike to tell him what the matter is but Smike can’t speak of it.
Smike replies: “I will tell you the reason one day, but not now. I hate myself for this, you are all so good and kind. But I cannot help it. My heart is very full, you do not know how full it is.”
In the middle of the sad Smike scenes, Dickens gives us great comic relief with the last appearance of the gentleman next door. Again it’s laugh-out-loud funny. Even as Mrs. Nickleby explicitly rejected and rejects her neighbor’s romantic attentions to her (telling Kate repeatedly that she hasn’t encouraged him), she has implicitly welcomed those advances, being flattered by them and defending him to Kate. So she ends up losing her gamble on him – in opening up herself to his attentions by engaging with him – as the madman spurns her and changes his attachment to Miss La Creevy instead.
Dickens gives another great ending to wonderful earlier characters.
After Mrs. Nickleby’s own speculative loss in the last chapter, Mulberry and Verisopht will both lose their gambles on each other. Significantly, the chapter starts at a gambling casino and ends in the most critical gamble of all, a life-and-death duel.
Mulberry again threatens retaliation against Nicholas. Verisopht, pointing out that he had promised to prevent that, stands up to Mulberry. Dickens shows us how Verisopht has come to the realization of having been duped by Mulberry and now comes to the point of challenging him.
“… the young lord having thought … upon the affair with Nicholas, and the circumstances which led to it, had arrived at a manly and honest conclusion. Sir Mulberry’s coarse and insulting behavior on the occasion in question had produced a deep impression on his mind; a strong suspicion of his having led him on to pursue Miss Nickleby for purposes of his own, had been lurking there, for some time; he was really ashamed of his share in the transaction, and deeply mortified by the misgiving that he had been gulled. … It wanted but a very slight circumstances to kindle his wrath against Sir Mulberry. This his disdainful and insolent tone in this recent conversation (the only one they had held on the subject since the period to which Sir Mulberry referred) effected.”
Then Dickens tells, in harrowing detail, the debauched, drunken scene that envelops Hawk and Verisopht.
“The debauchery gained its height; glasses were dashed upon the floor by hands that could not carry them to lips, oaths were shouted out by lips which could scarcely form the words to vent them; drunken losers cursed and roared, some mounted on the tables, waving bottles above their heads, and bidding defiance to the rest; some danced, some sang, some tore the cards and raved. Tumult and frenzy reigned supreme, when a noise arose that drowned all others, and two men, seizing each other by the throat, struggled into the middle of the room.”
The duel is arranged.
“Lord Frederick had no fear upon his mind, but, as he looked around him, he had less anger; and though all his old delusions, relative to his worthless late companion, were now cleared away, he rather wished he had never known him than thought of it having come to this…. The two shots were fired, as nearly as possible, at the same instant. In that instant, the young lord turned his head sharply round, fixed upon his adversary a ghastly stare, and without a groan or stagger, fell dead.”
Westwood urges Hawk to quickly get out of the country to France. Dickens details the grim result of Verisopht’s having gambled his life on Hawk.
“So died Lord Verisopht, by the hand which he had loaded with gifts, and clasped a thousand times; by the act of him, but for whom, and others like him, he might have lived a happy man, and died with children’s faces round his bed.”
The last new character is introduced in this chapter, Arthur Gride’s old deaf housekeeper, Peg Sliderskew. They make a funny couple – like an old, crotchety husband and wife – with their back-and-forth sniping to each other, as well as behind each other’s backs.
Newman comes in with a letter for Gride. We’ve seen so little of Newman lately that I’m always glad Dickens has given him this nice little scene. At the end, Newman hears Gride mention the name of the young lady he’s going to marry, which Newman doesn’t realize at this point is Nicholas’s love, but he hears and remembers the name.
Newman returns to Ralph. Ralph has seen Newman with Brooker and questions him as to what Brooker has told him, but Newman plays dumb.
Finally, at the end of the chapter, Newman meets Nicholas on the street. And we find out that “he was rejoiced to see Nicholas approaching, and darted out to meet him. Nicholas, on his part, was no less pleased to encounter his friend, whom he had not seen for some time.” So has Nicholas been too busy to see Newman – or to invite him home to dinner? While the new characters have been filing in and out of the little Nickleby cottage, as well as Miss La Creevy who is destined for Tim, I think the only appearance of Newman there was when he brought Smike back after being kidnapped. I have to admit it’s disappointing to see Newman marginalized.
Nicholas speaks to Newman of the girl he’s in love with and mentions that her name is Madeline. Newman realizes it’s the same girl that Gride is marrying and tells Nicholas what is happening with her, and the danger she’s in.
Newman also drops hints to Nicholas that he’s in the process of finding out something of Brooker’s mystery.
Newman: “I think I’m going to find out something. I don’t know what it may be, I don’t know what it may not be, it’s some secret in which your uncle is concerned – but what, I’ve not yet been able to discover, although I have my strong suspicions. I’ll not hint ‘em now, in case you should be disappointed.”
Nicholas: “Am I interested?”
Newman: “I think you are. I have found out a man, who plainly knows more than he cares to tell at once. And he has already dropped such hints as to puzzle me.”
This is curious. What could Newman possibly have strong suspicions about? Surely not that Ralph has a son or who that son may be! So what could he possibly have found out from Brooker except that he was Ralph’s clerk, which wouldn’t be enough information to arouse a suspicion of a deep dark secret? The mystery continues.