by Marnie F.
I have lots of questions for these last chapters – mostly around plotting and the timeline. One in particular comes up for me over and over again in successive chapters as the story proceeds to the end:
Who knew what…when?
But since plot structure wasn’t something Dickens was strong on, I can imagine that he might not have cared all that much about these little details. So I consider these plotline and timeline questions to be a minor issue that might not even register for me in future readings of the novel. I do enjoy trying to figure out complicated timelines and in the case of these last several chapters, it’s like working on a puzzle – it’s fun. So I don’t hold it against the book but I do have to mention them when I see them. If anyone can shed light on or provide alternate theories around these questions, I would welcome them!
Here are the quick links:
It’s the turn of the Kenwigs and Lillyvick to make their last appearance on the stage of the novel.
First, there’s a continuation of the last scene in the last chapter. Nicholas expresses to Newman his despair over Madeline’s situation. Newman encourages Nicholas to not lose hope. Then Newman goes home. Mrs. Kenwigs talks him into taking Morleena for a haircut, where he and Morleena run into Mr. Lillyvick. But Lillyvick is a changed man from the one Newman remembered.
“It was Mr. Lillyvick, but strangely altered. If ever a collector had borne himself like a collector, it was Mr. Lillyvick – clean-shaven and dignified at all times. And now, there he sat, with the remains of a beard at least a week old in a soiled and crumpled shirt, and a demeanor so abashed and drooping, so despondent and expressive of humiliation, grief and shame that one body could hardly have expressed such mortification and defeat.”
This reminds me of Mr. Bumble at the end of Oliver Twist and how changed he was after he had lost his own gamble by marrying.
Lillyvick goes back to the Kenwigs’ lodgings with Newman and Morleena. There Mr. and Mrs. Kenwigs are as theatrical as ever.
Mr. Kenwigs: “Was it money that we cared for? Was it property that we ever thought of?”
Mrs. Kenwigs: “No. I scorn it.”
Mr. Kenwigs: “So do I, and always did.”
Mrs. Kenwigs: “My feelings have been lacerated.”
Lillyvick admits to them that his wife left him for another man.
Lillyvick: “It was in this room that I first saw Henrietta Petowker. It is in this room that I turn her off, forever.”
“Mrs. Kenwigs threw herself upon the old gentleman’s neck. Mr. Kenwigs grasped his hand and vowed eternal friendship. “ Lillyvick vows to immediately, the next day, “settle upon your children” … “Overpowered by this noble and generous offer – Mr. Kenwigs, Mrs. Kenwigs and Miss Morleena Kenwigs all began to sob together…. By the time [Lillyvick] had finished his first pipe and disposed of a half dozen glasses of punch – he seemed, though still very humble, quite resigned to his fate, and rather relieved than otherwise by the flight of his wife.”
I don’t quite know how to take the last sentence in the chapter.
“Mr. Kenwigs with one hand round Mrs. Kenwigs’s waist, his other hand supporting his pipe .. and his eyes on Morleena, who sat upon her uncle’s knee: When I see that man a mingling, once again, and see his affections developing themselves in legitimate situations, I feel that his nature is as elevated and expanded, as his standing afore society as a public character is unimpeached, and the voices of my infant children provided for in life, seem to whisper to me softly ‘This is an ewent at which Evins itself look down!’”
Kenwigs’ declaration is blatantly theatrical which signals a falseness, a hypocrisy, but I’m always glad to see Lillyvick here reconciled to his only family – and they to him. Does Dickens, a family man himself, mean this as a happy ending, or does the over-the-top tone throw too much of a shadow over that happy scene? I’m undecided and wonder what others think about it. What is Dickens’ tone or attitude or judgment of the Kenwigs and Lillyvick as we see them for the last time?
Nicholas is in despair that he won’t be able to save Madeline, and Dickens gives him one hugely long – almost a full page long – sentence that expresses his melancholy over the state of the world: : “But now, when he thought how regularly things went on from day to day in the same unvarying round … and add one small and unimportant unit to swell the great amount.” Those of you who have read Dickens’ later books might recall if there are any sentences this long or if this is his longest.
Nicholas tries to convince Madeline not to go ahead with her intention to marry Gride. Frankly, I don’t think I can hide my disinterest in this storyline, which makes it hard for me to come up with something to say about this chapter. I don’t dislike Madeline; I just don’t feel much of anything when she appears in a scene. Dickens does give her a few good, bold lines in this chapter. Nicholas has good reasons for her to reject the marriage and he put emotional pressure on her as well, yet she remains firm in her higher purpose of being determined to help the father who she loved in the only way she saw available to her.
Madeline: “This evil, if evil it be, has been of my own seeking. I am impelled to this course by no one, but follow it of my own free will. You see I am not constrained or forced. … I do not love this gentleman. This he knows but still offers his hand. By accepting it, and by that step alone, I can release my father who is dying in this place – prolong his life, perhaps, for many years, restore him to comfort.”
Then Nicholas breaks in to Gride’s house to confront Gride. This strikes me as a pointless meeting and scene. I don’t understand why Dickens includes it. It doesn’t seem to accomplish anything except making Nicholas look foolish, but maybe I’m missing something.
This chapter comes in for a lot of criticism. It’s melodramatic! And Walter Bray’s death is awfully convenient, they say. But neither objection bothers me. Usually I’m fine with melodrama – I love the old-fashioned passion and I really enjoy it when Nicholas carries off Madeline, rescuing her from the clutches of Ralph and Gride. Good job, I say. And I’m fine with Bray dying when he did. He was in precarious health condition anyway. So it’s not surprising to me that such a pressure-filled situation where he’s forced his daughter into a miserable position should push him over the edge into heart failure. His is the easiest death in the book to read about. It’s harder to swallow that he would have felt badly for his daughter as he seems to express earlier in the chapter when he’s talking to Ralph.
The only text that I would throw out as over-the-top is when Dickens has Ralph “foaming at the mouth”. I don’t know if that was the last time he used that phrase but I always hope it’s the last time I read it.
This is the last time Nicholas sees Ralph and as he leaves Ralph, he lays a message on him that is puzzling at the time, but the words of Nicholas to Ralph sound like a chilling curse on him that will haunt and hover over Ralph for the rest of his story.
Nicholas: “I tell you, that misfortune and discovery are thickening about your head; that the structures you have raised, through all your ill-spent life, are crumbling into dust, that your path is beset with spies; that this very day, ten thousand pounds of your hoarded wealth have gone in one great crash!”
Kate tends an ill Madeline in the Nickleby home and they became closer, with Kate putting in good words for her brother.
Then Smike becomes ill, the final phase of his fatal consumption.
“Nicholas was warned by the same medical authority to whom he had at first appealed, that the last chance and hope of his life depended on his being instantly removed from London. That part of Devonshire in which Nicholas had been himself bred, was named as the most favorable spot … every token of rapid consumption had appeared, and he might never return alive.”
The Cheeryble brothers and Tim are touchingly helpful:
Charles: “This lad shall not die, if such human means as we can use, can save his life – neither shall he die alone, and in a strange place. Remove him tomorrow morning, see that he has every comfort that his situation requires, and don’t leave him, my dear sir, until you know there is no longer any immediate danger. It would be hard, indeed, to part you now.”
Very nice – but I have to think – where’s Newman? Dickens, again disappointingly, doesn’t show us any touching scenes showing us Newman with Smike, or even mentioning Smike’s name; the last time was way back when Squeers had kidnapped Smike. Dickens emphasizes the benevolence of Nicholas and Smike’s new friends but doesn’t consider it important – though most readers like myself would have so loved to see it – to include a scene between Smike and his older, dear friend Newman, who has cared for Smike a lot longer than the Cheerybles. I truly ache to read that missing scene.
The chapter ends with the heartbreakingly wrenching scene where Smike has to part from Kate and Mrs. Nickleby – and the Nickleby home – which he knows he’ll never return to.
Dickens now goes backward in time – days before? weeks before? Madeline seems to have been ill for awhile by the end of the last chapter; it seems that she’s recovering by the time Smike becomes ill, or Nicholas would have felt torn as to whether to stay home to see that Madeline isn’t critical, or else go to Devon.
So it seems quite a while that we’re going back in time to the day of the failed wedding. Ralph and Arthur Gride are still standing in the room where Bray has just died and Nicholas has just carried off Madeline. We finally find out later in the chapter that the Cheerybles apparently told Nicholas of Ralph’s financial loss.
Ralph: “Ten thousand pounds! He said ten thousand pounds! The precise sum paid in but yesterday for the two mortgages, and which would have gone out again, at heavy interest, tomorrow. If that house has failed, and he the first to bring the news!”
Ralph goes with Gride to Gride’s house. Gride intends to destroy Madeline’s document, since apparently it’s worthless now to Gride who might now be implicated by it – supposedly he has it illegally. These plot details are rather complicated – and frankly, not convincing – which probably wouldn’t bother me if I cared more about the plot itself. Since Dickens seems to leave so much of it unexplained, I wonder how much he himself was interested in it.
Gride finds that the will – or bond – or deed – or whatever it was – is now gone, he figures that Peg, who has disappeared, has stolen it. Gride panics. Peg can’t read so she’ll take it to somebody else to “cash” it and apparently he’s afraid Peg and this other person will tell the police that he, Gride, had it and the police will arrest him because again, Gride seems to have had it illegally.
Ralph returns home and finds a letter which confirms his loss.
Ralph: “The worst has happened. The house has failed. I see. The rumor was abroad in the City last night, and reached the ears of those merchants [Cheeryble brothers].”
And the loss of it just feeds into his hatred for Nicholas, increasing it.
Ralph: “Ten thousand pounds! And only lying there for a day. How many anxious years, how many pinching days and sleepless nights, before I scraped together that ten thousand pounds! … The time has been when nothing could have moved me like the loss of this great sum. Nothing. For births, deaths, marriages, and all the events which are of interest to most men, have no interest for me. But now, I swear, I mix up with the loss, his triumph in telling it. If he had brought it about – I almost feel as if he had – I couldn’t hate him more. Let me but retaliate upon him, by degrees – however slow – let me but begin to get the better of him – let me but turn the scale – and I can bear it.”
Ralph feels that by succeeding in striking at Nicholas – in however small a way today – will make himself feel that he’s turned the table on Nicholas so that his luck (speculation) has turned and he can continue to build toward crushing Nicholas more completely in the future. I think – I’m guessing – that that’s why getting Madeline’s document is so important to Ralph. Surely Ralph must realize that the document itself can’t be all that important to Nicholas – Nicholas, after all, loves Madeline for herself and doesn’t care if she’s rich or not.
Ralph enlists Squeers in his plot to steal Madeline’s document back. Even though the plot has gotten a bit dodgy, it’s good to see Squeers again – especially since we know Smike is “safe” from ever being taken back to him. Ralph sends Newman out of the office while he’s speaking to Squeers – he’s suspicious of Newman now. Apparently Newman is working with the Cheerybles at this point and will tell them about Squeers so that the Cheerybles will set their spies to follow Squeers.
Squeers tells Ralph that he’s worried about Snawley caving in and will confess that he fraudulently signed papers saying he was Smike’s father. Ralph reassures Squeers that he’s in no danger. Ralph, Squeers and Snawley took a gamble in their plot to take Smike from Nicholas. Ralph feels that he himself and Squeers have no risk to lose from the failed plot – only Snawley will lose if he confesses his perjury. However Ralph then deliberately uses the word ‘conspiracy’ – that the three of them were in a conspiracy – by which Ralph lets Squeers know that Squeers is, in fact, at risk – that the conspiracy can be laid at Squeers’s feet if he doesn’t cooperate with Ralph. Squeers, looking uneasily around, says: ‘I say, don’t call it that’ [a conspiracy].”
Ralph continues to turn the screws on Squeers so that he understands his “risk” now if he doesn’t go along with Ralph.
Kudos to the Stationmaster who earlier pointed out an interesting passage in this scene. In pressuring Squeers to go along with his plan, Ralph “dwelt on a long train of benefits, conferred since their first acquaintance, when he had reported favourably of his treatment of a sickly boy who had died under his hands (and whose death was very convenient to Ralph and his clients, but this he did not say).” This was the “sickly boy” that was mentioned way back in chapter four when Nicholas first met Squeers – and Ralph had reminded Squeers that he had left a boy with him years ago! It sounds as if Ralph had covered up for Squeers in this boy’s death. So, Ralph uses it as leverage over Squeers even though it seems to have been something that would have threatened himself – and his clients – if it became known – but he doesn’t tell Squeers that! It’s interesting that Dickens would have remembered such a small detail from the beginning of the novel – so long ago – and would tie it in so subtly here.
Ralph points out that if the document should fall into Madeline’s hands, it would come to her husband, Nicholas, and that would make Nicholas “a rich and prosperous man, and a most formidable enemy”. Ralph wants Squeers to get the deed and bring it to Ralph himself who will burn it before Nicholas’s face.
Among Ralph’s arguments to win Squeers over: “In addition, Ralph drew, with his utmost skill and power, a vivid picture of the defeat which Nicholas would sustain in, linking himself to a beggar, where he expected to wed an heiress.”
Again – Ralph should know that Nicholas doesn’t care about money, about her being an heiress or a beggar. Unless, in this case, Ralph is just saying something that he thinks Squeers wants to hear, but he does seem to believe it himself – as he seemed to believe that Nicholas would be disappointed that Smike wasn’t the son “of a man of high degree”. I get the feeling that Ralph didn’t really know or understand Nicholas – and may have been projecting his own “romance” with monied people onto Nicholas, too.
Even though the plotting of these last several chapters seems contrived and uninteresting – perhaps Dickens was just hasty to finish the novel and get on to something else – still his writing for this little aside chapter is wonderful. Squeers, by himself, at the beginning of the chapter, and then the interaction between Squeers and Peg are delightful scenes that I wish could go on longer. The chapter is capped off by Newman and Frank breaking in and getting the drop on Squeers and Peg, which results in their arrest, though we don’t find that out until later.
It’s a bit of a challenge to keep track of the overall timeline as the story is starting to wrap up. Squeers tells us: “Here have I been a matter of how many weeks – hard upon six – a-follering up this here blessed old dowager, petty larcenerer.”
Then he says about Ralph: “To see how sly and cunning he grubbed on, day after day, a-worming and plodding and tracing and turning, and twining of hisself about, till he found out where this precious Mrs. Peg was hid, and cleared the ground for me to work upon.”
So, if Ralph was days or weeks finding Peg, and then Squeers spent six weeks working on Peg, that’s a long span of time between the failed wedding and this scene. Meanwhile, Newman has been working with the Cheerybles and the Cheerybles have had Ralph and Squeers followed.
And meanwhile, parallel to the Ralph and Squeers storyline, Kate had been tending an ill Madeline for a while and then Nicholas was in Devon with Smike for another unknown span of time.
This chapter marks the convergence of the two timelines – Ralph/Squeers and Nicholas/Smike.
There can only be a short period of time – maybe a day or two – between this collapse of Ralph’s plan and the end of his storyline. So, Smike must be recently dead – with Nicholas and Brooker on their way back to London. Both need to be back in London by the time Ralph’s storyline ends; both must arrive in London only a day or two before that end, as we’ll see.
I wish Dickens hadn’t killed off Smike, but it’s hard to conceive a more heartbreakingly beautiful and moving death than he gives to Smike. And the way that Nicholas is so very lovingly attentive and caring for Smike throughout the chapter is wonderfully touching.
There’s a scene in the garden – Nicholas “had brought Smike out in his arms… a child might have carried him then” – where Smike is terrified to see the man who had brought him to Squeers.
“Do you remember,” said Smike, in a low voice, and glancing fearfully round, “do you remember my telling you of the man who first took me to the school?…I raised my eyes, just now, towards the tree – that one with the thick trunk – and there, with his eyes fixed on me he stood!”
We can recall now when Ralph met Brooker back in chapter 44, he was standing under a tree and “was leaning against it, still buried in thought, when, happening to raise his eyes, he suddenly met those of a man who peered into his face.”
It may be that Brooker was an intimation of death, a death figure, for both Smike and Ralph when they both saw Brooker in a similar setting. It’s also interesting that there is a violent rain storm when Ralph seeks shelter under the tree and sees Brooker – and it was raining when Brooker brought Ralph’s son to Dotheboys.
Smike confesses his love for Kate.
“He had procured a lock of her hair, which hung at his breast, folded in one or two slight ribbons she had worn He prayed that, when he was dead, Nicholas would take it off, so that no eyes but his might see it, and that when he was laid in his coffin and about to be placed in the earth, he would hang it round his neck again, that it might rest with him in the grave.”
This reminds me of Rachel’s Ackroyd quote in her “To Look after a Day that is Gone”, regarding Mary Hogarth’s death and Dickens’ grief over it: “He cut off a lock of Mary Hogarth’s hair and kept it in a special case; he took a ring off her finger, and put it on his own.” This is one of the strongest indications that Dickens, at least in some part, projected his own hopeless love for his sister-in-law on Smike’s hopeless love for his cousin. Both loves could never have been consummated in life, even if Mary and Smike had lived.
And then: “He fell into a light slumber, and waking smiled as before; then, spoke of beautiful gardens, which he said stretched out before him, and were filled with figures of men, women, and many children, all with light upon their faces; then, whispered that it was Eden – and so died.”
According to John Forster, Dickens received lots of letters, although not the volume as for [SPOILER – a similar deceased character in The Old Curiosity Shop], begging for Smike to be saved. Andrew Lang, in his introduction to an edition of NN: Dickens “celebrated his completion of ‘Nickleby’ by a dinner to Talfourd, Macready, Maclise and other friends, after hardening his heart to kill Smike, in neglect of many letters praying for a reprieve.” Much is made of the death in The Old Curiosity Shop which caused so many letters to be written to Dickens and how hard it was for Dickens to carry out the deed, but here we see that both happened, to a lesser extent, with Smike. The death chapter is so moving that it’s hard not to imagine that it must have been a difficult, heartwrenching experience for him to write it, especially if he had Mary Hogarth in the back of his mind.
This chapter is the beginning of Ralph’s fall. Ralph is feeling the effect of all the events that seem to be going against him:
Ralph: “What is this that hangs over me and I cannot shake off? … I have never moped, and pined and yielded to fancies, but what can a man do, without rest? If I sleep, what rest is that which is disturbed by constant dreams of the same detested faces crowding round me – of the same detested people, in every variety of action, mingling with all I say and do, and always to my defeat! Waking, what rest have I, constantly haunted by this heavy shadow of – I know not what!”
He notices that Newman is missing. Then Charles Cheeryble comes to his house. Ralph doesn’t want to speak to him so Charles tells him to come to his own house when he’s ready to hear what Charles has to tell him.
Ralph goes to Snawley’s house, but his wife tells him that Snawley is out.
Mrs. Snawley: “I always told him what dealing with you and working out your schemes would come to. It was either you or the schoolmaster – one of you or the two between you – that got the forged letter done, remember that! That wasn’t his doing, so don’t lay that at his door.”
Then he goes to the building where Squeers was watching Peg Sliderskew. One of the residents tells him that Squeers and an old woman were taken away by two men. Next he went to Gride’s but Gride doesn’t want to talk to him either.
Ralph: “How is this that they all fall from me and shun me like the plague, these men who have licked the dust from my feet! Is my day past, and is this indeed the coming on of night? “
Finally he goes to the Cheeryble’s. There he is confronted by Newman who finally gets to unload on Ralph in a wonderfully spirited condemnation. Newman lets Ralph know his own role in taking Ralph down, overhearing his plot with Gride, going to the Cheerybles, assisting them to track him down. And Charles tells Ralph that Snawley has confessed.
Dickens writes: “Then brother Ned, Tim Linkinwater and Newman Noggs – all three at once – who, after a vast deal of talking together, laid before Ralph in distinct terms, the following statement: That Newman, having been solemnly assured by one not then producible [Brooker – was he not yet back from Devon?] that Smike was not the son of Snawley, and this person having offered to make oath to that effect….”
I’m thinking that because Brooker wasn’t “producible” at this time, he probably was out of town, still making his way back from Devon.
I don’t understand how Brooker could have told Newman at that previous point that Snawley wasn’t Smike’s father, without telling Newman also that Smike was Ralph’s son. If Brooker knew that Snawley wasn’t Smike’s father, Newman must have known that he did know who was – and how couldn’t he have asked Brooker who that father was? Obviously, Newman, Charles and Ned don’t know at this point that Ralph is the father. They will later contact Ralph again, urging him to come to them as an emergency (when they did find out), so Brooker must have returned from Devon and then revealed that Ralph was the father. Brooker must have revealed to Newman and the Cheerybles that Snawley wasn’t the father before he left for Devon but revealed the real father, Ralph, after he came back. The only reason I can think of for Brooker to withhold the identity of Smike’s father for so long was that, perhaps, he wanted to reveal it to Smike first, and when he found out that Smike was dead, he felt free to reveal it to the Cheerybles on his return from Devon.
The Cheerybles reveal to Ralph that Newman had seen Ralph and Squeers together and followed them and learned that they were on the trail of Peg, and when Squeers set up lodging at the place where Peg was, a watch was put upon him. Frank and Newman had listened at the door to the conversation of Squeers and Peg and then got the drop on them. This news was conveyed to Snawley who immediately caved and confessed, and implicated Ralph. Furthermore, Squeers was in police custody.
Charles Cheeryble now makes an interesting proposal to Ralph: “How far you may be implicated in this last transaction, or how far the person who is now in custody may criminate you, you best know. But, justice must take its course against the parties implicated in the plot against this poor, unoffending, injured lad. It is not in my power, or in the power of my brother Ned, to save you from the consequences. The utmost we can do, is, to warn you in time, and to give you an opportunity of escaping them. We would not have an old man like you disgraced and punished by your near relation – nor would we have him forget, like you, all ties of blood and nature. We entreat you … to retire from London, to take shelter in some place where you will be safe from the consequences of these wicked designs, and where you may have time, sir, to atone for them, and to become a better man.”
Ralph defies them and leaves. However, I always remember this “out” that Ralph has – as we follow Ralph to his end. It seems to me that he could always have taken it, though it’s an arguable point.
Ralph goes to see Squeers at the police station and we get Squeers’s send-off scene. Squeers is drunk and full of woozy self-pity and yet he’s able to defy Ralph, resisting all of Ralph’s attempts to mollify him and get him to cover for Ralph himself.
“I ain’t going to have any stories made for me, and I ain’t a going to stick to any. If I find matters again me, I shall expect you to take your share, and I’ll take care you do. You never said anything about danger. I never bargained for being brought into such a plight as this, and I don’t mean to take it as quiet as you think.”
Squeers realizes he’s lost his gamble by throwing in with Ralph.
Ralph goes home. Tim comes and says there’s been terrible news and convinces Ralph to come along with him back to Cheerybles. Charles tells him that the news is about a death. Ralph eagerly hopes it’s Nicholas who is dead. Ned says that it’s Smike.
Ned: “… a warmhearted, harmless, affectionate creature, who never offended you, or did you wrong, but on whom you have vented the malice and hatred you have concerned for your nephew… What if we tell you that, sinking under your persecution, sir, and the misery and ill-usage of a life short in years but long in suffering, this poor creature has gone to tell his sad tale where, for your part in it, you must surely answer?”
Again, we hear that Smike’s death has resulted from his years under Squeers and then the persecution from Ralph (his own father), for using Smike’s continued suffering to strike at Nicholas. Of course, Ned wouldn’t be aware of the other factor in Smike’s death – his doomed love for Kate, but it’s clear that Smike’s love for Kate wasn’t the only factor in his death.
Ralph responds with shocking malicious glee at the idea that Nicholas is suffering from the loss of Smike.
Then Brooker comes forward and reveals the whole sad history – Ralph’s secret marriage and the secret son who didn’t die and who Brooker took to Squeers and called Smike. He goes on that he approached Ralph who rebuffed him and:
Brooker: “I then found out his clerk, and, going on from little to little, and showing him that there were good reasons for communicating with me, learnt what was going on; and it was I who told him that the boy was no son of the man who claimed to be his father. “
Again, we have to assume that he didn’t tell Newman at that point who the father really was, since Newman would have quickly told Nicholas. But it must have been then that Newman told Brooker that Smike was ill and where he was, so that Brooker went there and saw Smike.
Brooker: “After a few days’ indecision, I applied to the young gentleman in whose care he was, and I found that he was dead. He knows how quickly he recognized me again, how often he had described me and my leaving him at the school, and how he told him of a garret he recollected: which is the one I have spoken of, and in his father’s house to this day. This is my story.”
Did Brooker tell Nicholas at that point, in Devon, that Ralph was the real father?! It doesn’t seem so, since Nicholas doesn’t show any awareness of it when he returns to London, but why wouldn’t Brooker tell him in Devon. Did he not know that this “young gentleman” was the nephew of Ralph and cousin of Smike? Maybe not since I can’t think of any other reason Brooker would have withheld the information then.
When Nicholas arrives back in London, he shows no sign of knowing of his relationship to Smike. Nicholas doesn’t seem to tell Kate and his mother this when he comes back and they are mourning Smike. And when Nicholas then goes to see Charles, he and Charles don’t bring it up.
In any case, Brooker stops his story there and Ralph runs out.
It’s helpful to hear the whole story from Brooker, but really – what I long for are the touching heartbreaking scenes that we don’t get from Dickens:
Brooker telling Newman that Ralph was Smike’s father.
Someone – was it Brooker? – telling Nicholas (at Devon?) that Ralph was Smike’s father – or was it Charles later, after the chapter 61 meeting of Nicholas and Charles? We never “see” Nicholas finding out that Smike was his cousin!
Someone – Newman? Nicholas? – telling Kate that Smike was their cousin.
Most of all it’s heartbreaking to me that Smike himself never knew that he was their cousin. How much that would have meant to him.
I appreciate having the whole history recounted in this chapter, but it’s a rather poor substitute for the emotional scenes I yearn for. It seems that, having to concentrate on finishing Ralph’s story, Dickens’ attention was on Ralph now, with Smike behind him. Perhaps Dickens wasn’t interested in looking back and filling in with emotional scenes that might only serve to remind the reader how much he was missed. Dickens was nearing the end of the story and had to get on with tying up the loose ends.
Dickens starts off this chapter with:
“On the next day after Brooker’s disclosure had been made, Nicholas returned home.”
What disclosure? It must have been either Brooker telling Nicholas that Smike was Ralph’s son – which seems unlikely, again because it’s not discussed by Nicholas with his family or with Charles Cheeryble. Or just that Brooker had been present in Devon and appeared to Smike? We’ll never know.
Again, this makes the timing of this chapter a bit weird because Ralph would have died the night before, so his body was found on the same day as the events of this chapter – although news of that death won’t reach these characters until after the events and conversations in this chapter.
There are a couple of nice little scenes of mourning for Smike. But no mention that Ralph was Smike’s father or that Smike was their cousin, which again makes me think the family didn’t know at this point. Then Nicholas and Kate move onto a discussion of their love lives. They both feel they can’t accept the love of those they love. They feel that they are poor and indebted to the Cheeryble brothers, so for Kate to accept the love of their nephew and for Nicholas to accept the love of their charge, so to speak, would be taking advantage of the kind patrons who have given them so much. So they agree between the two of them to sacrifice their feelings, their loves, and they will be content to live happily with each other.
It’s been pointed out that the brother-sister relationship in this book, especially expressed in this chapter, comes across as more special than the married spousal relations. I wonder if this reflects the special relationship of Dickens to Mary Hogarth, perhaps being more important to him than that with his wife.
Nicholas goes to the Cheeryble brothers. First he sees Tim Linkinwater. Dickens gives Tim a tender, touching memory and sadness for Smike. I have mixed feelings for this scene. While I love Tim’s emotional response to Nicholas telling him that Smike mentioned him:
Nicholas says: “And he mentioned your name a score of times, and often bade me carry back his love to Mr. Linkinwater.”
“Tim rejoined, sobbing outright: ‘No, no, did he though! Poor fellow! I wish we could have had him buried in town. There isn’t such a burying ground in all London, as that little one on the other side of the square … And he sent his love to me, did he? I didn’t expect he would have thought of me. Poor fellow, poor fellow! His love too!’”
Still, I can’t help feeling a bit resentful that Tim gets this scene and Newman is left with no such expressions for Smike. Reading this passage just makes me yearn for Newman’s own heartbroken response to Smike’s death.
After that, Nicholas discusses his and Kate’s love situation with Charles and the chapter ends with Charles saying:
Charles: “Come to me in half an hour. I have strange things to tell you, my dear sir, and your uncle has appointed this afternoon for your waiting upon him with me…. Return to me in half an hour, and I’ll tell you more.”
“Nicholas waited upon him at the time mentioned, and then learnt all that had taken place on the previous day, and all that was known of the appointment Ralph had made with the brothers; which was for that night.”
So Ralph hadn’t been found dead yet, though his death happened the night before. And what did Charles tell Nicholas later that Nicholas didn’t already know – that Smike was his cousin? Or just that Ralph was informed that Smike was his son – which doesn’t seem to be something Charles would need to keep from Nicholas at this point if Nicholas already knew Ralph was the father. Dickens doesn’t clarify the timeline as far as I can tell. I don’t think this kind of level of detail was important to Dickens but I would have loved to have known myself – probably because I’ve yearned to see those scenes around them, such as Nicholas being told about Smike.
Dickens always seems to give his villains great death scenes so that we end up sympathizing with them – despite their brutal acts for the whole novel up to then. We feel sorry for Fagin, pathetic in prison as he awaits execution; we may even feel sorry for Sikes, pursued through the countryside seemingly by the ghost of Nancy and then besieged by a maddening crowd. Ralph is pursued by his own ghost in this chapter:
“…groping with his hand when first he got into the street as if he were a blind man, and looking often over his shoulder while he hurried away, as though he were followed in imagination or reality by someone anxious to question or detain him…. A cold wind blew, driving the clouds furiously and fast before it. There was one black, gloomy mass that seemed to follow him; not hurrying in the wild chase with the others, but lingering sullenly behind, and gliding darkly and stealthily on. He often looked back as this, and more than once stopped to let it pass over, but somehow, when he went forward again it was still behind him, coming mournfully and slowly up like a shadowy funeral train.”
As wonderfully written as this chapter and Ralph’s death is, I’m not able to believe that Ralph Nickleby would have committed suicide. It doesn’t make sense to me.
In thinking about Ralph’s suicide, the first factor, probably, to be considered would be Ralph learning that Smike was his son. I do not believe that Ralph would feel at this late date in his life, any kind of residual tender feeling for Smike. Ralph only knows Smike as the “imbecile” as he called him. And he has just expressed glee over receiving the news of his death:
Ralph: “If you tell me that he is dead, I forgive you all else. If you tell me that he is dead, I am in your debt and bound to you for life. He is! I see it in your faces. Who triumphs now? Is this your dreadful news? You see how it moves me.”
Dickens does give Ralph a brief, tantalizing reverie on how different his life might have been had Smike grown up with him.
“If he had known his child to be alive; if no deceit had been ever practiced, and he had grown up, beneath his eye; he might have been a careless, indifferent, rough, harsh father – like enough – he felt that; but the thought would come that he might have been otherwise, and that his son might have been a comfort to him and they two happy together. He began to think now, that his supposed death and his wife’s flight had had some share in making him the morose, hard man he was. He seemed to remember a time when he was not quite so rough and obdurate; and almost thought that he had first hated Nicholas, because he was young and gallant, and perhaps like the stripling who had brought dishonor and loss of fortune on his head.”
“But, one tender thought, or one of natural regret, in his whirlwind of passion and remorse, was as a drop of calm water in a stormy maddened sea.”
So just as Dickens had given Ralph, over and over, throughout the book, reveries on Kate that touched his heart and he had immediately overridden those feelings every single time, with his own cold self-interest, so Ralph’s tender feelings about Smike now are quickly overridden, thrust aside by his darker self.
Contrary to those who criticize Dickens for making Ralph one-dimensionally evil, I think this is a very subtle and insightful aspect to Ralph that these critics overlook. This is like the way that many, if not most, people override their softer feelings in favor of self-interest or pride.
And what primarily pushes aside any incipient paternal feelings for Smike? His stronger, deeper feelings toward Nicholas. Any new paternal feelings for Smike only serve to increase his hatred for Nicholas (just as earlier his softer feelings for Kate were overridden by his hatred of Nicholas).
Ralph: “Dying beside Nicholas, loving him, and looking upon him as something like an angel! That was the worst…. That his, of all others, should have been the hands to rescue his miserable child; that he should have been his protector and faithful friend; that he should have shown him that love and tenderness which, from the wretched moment of his birth, he had never known, that he should have taught him to hate his own parent and execrate his very name; that he should now know and feel all this, and triumph in the recollection; was gall and madness to the usurer’s heart. The dead boy’s love for Nicholas, and the attachment of Nicholas to him, was insupportable agony. The picture of his deathbed, with Nicholas at his side, tending and supporting him, and he breathing out his thanks and expiring in his arms, when he would have had them mortal enemies and hating each other to the last, drove him frantic.”
It is at that point, driven by hatred, hearing church bells ringing, that Ralph, cursing life itself, hangs himself.
Ralph: “Throw me on a dunghill, and let me rot there, to infect the air!”
“With a wild look around, in which frenzy, hatred, and despair, were horribly mingled, he shook his clenched hand at the sky above him, which was still dark and threatening, and closed the window. The rain and hail pattered against the glass” – falling as it did when he had met Brooker, a symbol of his death, under the tree earlier – and when Brooker first brought Smike, Ralph’s son, to Dotheboys.
It’s a strong, moving ending but I’ll still never believe that Ralph would surrender, so to speak, to Nicholas. He would never say – “OK, Nicholas won, I’ll kill myself.” Ralph would never have given up trying to bring Nicholas down, to destroy him.
The only question is – was Ralph so impotent there at the end that he didn’t have the means anymore to strike back at Nicholas. And I don’t think for a minute that Ralph wouldn’t have had the resources to get out of the legal and financial troubles that Dickens tries to box him in with.
As others have pointed out, his legal situation wasn’t that serious that he couldn’t manipulate his way, legally, out of it, and though he had lost 10,000 pounds, even Dickens admits, in the wrap-up, that Ralph still had plenty of money left. And even if he was in legal and financial straits, I firmly believe that Ralph, with decades of money lending behind him, would absolutely know where the skeletons of the rich and powerful were buried and could have leveraged them to get out of any legal and financial trouble he was in. And we can remember that at the end of chapter 59, Charles Cheeryble himself laid out a plan that Ralph could have still taken, even now: “We entreat you to retire from London, to take shelter in some place where you will be safe from the consequences of these wicked designs” – and to plot further how to get at Nicholas.
However, Ralph had to die because Dickens – and we readers too – do not want Ralph hanging over Nicholas’s future as a threat that could endanger Nicholas and the whole Nickleby family at any time. I wish his death had been more convincing, but I think I understand Dickens’ dilemma – after all he’d just “used up” two good villain deaths in “Oliver Twist”: Sikes’ freaky accidental hanging death and Fagin’s arrest and execution. What else was left? 😊
Dickens wraps up the romances of Nicholas and Madeline, Frank and Kate, and Tim and Miss La Creevy happily, by giving them a nice Pickwickian party. I love the Pickwickian parties that come at the end of The Pickwick Papers. I love how Pickwick himself brings all the young couples together in the end. They perfectly end what to me is a perfectly wonderful, warm, funny novel that lifts me up, from beginning to end, every time I read it. No other book does that for me.
Dickens’ attempt to re-create that wonderful ending here doesn’t work as well for me. There’s an important difference between Pickwick and Nickleby. Nobody dies in Pickwick, let alone the emotional center of the novel. For myself, as enjoyable as the chapter is, I always see a big black hole where Smike should be but isn’t.
I won’t mention the details of how the Cheerybles bring the couples happily together – I’m fine with all that. I would note that while it’s common for some critics to refer, usually contemptuously, to the Cheeryble brothers as “fairy godfathers”, the way they shepherd the couples together reminds me of the “good parent” figure, as Nicholas was a good parent to Smike, who provides a nice contrast to all the many bad parents in the book. The Cheeryble brothers were good parents/godfathers to Nicholas and to the whole Nickleby family – and I’m very glad they were there for the Nicklebys.
The best scenes come toward the end of the chapter. Tim’s proposal to Miss La Creevy is so sweet: “Come, let’s be a comfortable couple.”
And to cap the chapter off, we can rejoice with Newman being brought back at the end in a lovely scene with Nicholas, and incorporated into the Nickleby family. It’s rather bittersweet for me, though, that Newman has been added to the family that Smike has been subtracted from. But It is wonderful to see Newman restored to and dressed as a “gentleman”.
I wonder exactly how the Cheerybles restored Newman to a gentleman – it had to be more than just a change of clothes and giving him a handout so that he can be affluent again. I can’t see Newman just accepting charity – so maybe the Cheerybles could provide him with funds to enable him to find his own way to become prosperous again – or perhaps they could find a position for him to earn his way back to respectability, including self-respect.
I would add another word in defense of the Cheerybles. I have read a negative, contemptuous view of them, tying their sexlessness to their benevolence (as with Pickwick also). I would comment that the Cheeryble brothers are able to be generously charitable to others precisely because they have no family – as opposed to all the families in the novel (Nickleby, Kenwigs, Crummles) – even Dickens’ own family growing up – whose money had to go to support the family itself.
Nicholas and Kate take a wrong turn and find themselves in a poor part of town where Kate catches sight of a degraded Mantalini, now tied to a shrew of a wife. As much as Mantalini deserved to be brought down low, I still hate to see him in this humiliating situation. I always find it more uncomfortable than funny. Mark Ford noted in his Introduction to the Penguin Nicholas Nickleby that the later editions of the novel, 1848 and 1867, inserted the phrase “not the lawful Madame Mantalini” because Dickens must have received letters wondering whether the laundress was Madame Mantalini or a new “wife”.
Then Dickens gives us one last wonderful view of John Browdie – in his home with Tilda – and then at Dotheboys. Nicholas lets John know that Squeers: “has been sentenced to be transported for seven years, for being in the unlawful possession of a stolen will; and, after that, he has to suffer the consequence of a conspiracy – a conspiracy connected with his school.”
John becomes worried how the news might have affected the boys left at Dotheboys, that they might revolt against and harm Mrs. Squeers and Fanny. John rides alone to Dotheboys where he learns that the rebellion has just broken out and the boys are assaulting the Squeers’s when John comes in and puts an end to the chaos. He announces that Squeers is in jail and the school’s broken up and they can leave. The boys run out. Fanny is defiant to John but John graciously offers help to her – his and Tilda’s – if she will have it. Then he leaves.
The RSC’s Nickleby has Nicholas accompanying John to Dotheboys and present at its breaking up. I wonder why Dickens brought Nicholas to Greta Bridge but had him stay back with Tilda while John did the heavy lifting to oversee the end of Dotheboys. Still, Dickens leaves the chapter in his typically eloquent way, showing us heartbreaking pictures of boys who had no place to go to, wandering lost and even ending up back there again because it was the only home they knew.
“…by degrees they were claimed, or lost again; and, in course of time, Dotheboys Hall and its last breaking up began to be forgotten by the neighbors, or to be only spoken of, as among the things that had been.”
Wrapping up: on the same day, Nicholas and Madeline, and Kate and Frank are married, with Miss La Creevy later marrying Tim. Nicholas uses the money from his wife’s property to invest in the Cheerybles’ company. Eventually he and Frank are partners in the company “Cheeryble and Nickleby”, as the Cheeryble brothers retired.
Dickens makes it clear that – despite losing 10,000 pounds – Ralph died a rich man. “Ralph, having died intestate, and having no relations but those with whom he had lived in such enmity, they would have become in legal course his heirs. But they could not bear the thought of growing rich on money so acquired, and felt as though they could never hope to prosper with it. They made no claim to his wealth. And the riches for which he had toiled all his days, and burdened his soul with so many evil deeds, were swept at last into the coffers of the state.”
Nicholas becomes a rich man: “The first act of Nicholas, when he became a rich and prosperous merchant, was to buy his father’s old house. “
The last paragraph of the book reminds me of the ending of “The Five Sisters of York” from chapter 6, earlier in the book, where the stained glass was fitted into the window and “when the sun shone brightly, as she had so well loved to see it, the familiar patterns were reflected in their original colours, and throwing a stream of brilliant light upon the pavement, fell warmly on the name of Alice”. Then the merry gentleman adds: “If anything could soothe the first sharp pain of a heavy loss, it would be – with me – the reflection, that those I mourned, by being innocently happy here, and loving all about them, had prepared themselves for a purer and happier world…. If our affections be tried, our affections are our consolation and comfort; and memory, however sad, is the best and purest link between this world and a better” – bringing us back full circle to Rachel’s “To Look After a Day that is Gone” from the first week of our Nickleby reading. I had to bring back that quote here at the end. Beautiful.
Despite wishing that Dickens had not chosen to kill off Smike, I loved the death scene he gave him and love him for ending the novel with such a lovely image captured by Phiz in his last drawing for the book: “The grass was green above the dead boy’s grave, and trodden by feet so small and light, that not a daisy drooped its head beneath their pressure. Through all the spring and summer-time, garlands of fresh flowers, wreathed by infant hands, rested on the stone; and, when the children came there to change them lest they should wither and be pleasant to him no longer, their eyes filled with tears, and they spoke low and softly of their poor dead cousin.”
Nicholas coming back to Devonshire here accomplishes two extraordinarily touching ends:
- The redemption and restoration of his father: after his father’s failure and death, Nicholas is able to redeem his beloved father;
- The restoration of his cousin: Nicholas is able to reclaim Smike as a cousin and member of the Nickleby family, restoring him to his rightful place in the family.
Despite all my little questions and nitpicking on plot points that don’t ultimately matter, I find Nicholas Nickleby a truly great novel with the most captivating characters, funniest scenes and most touching pathos of anything I’ve read. And despite my problems late in the story, Dickens’ writing is not only just as good as earlier in the book but at time soars to greater heights. His death scenes are always extraordinary, and in this last section (chapters 40-65), there are so many emotional and moving deaths and farewells and remembrance passages that these heights, for me, override whatever minor issues I have toward the end. I’ve read it twice in the past year and I look forward to reading it again – maybe in 2024 after Rachel and Boze have guided us through all the other Dickens novels!