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NA632612 - DICKENS, C.: Nicholas Nickleby (Abridged)

Charles Dickens
Nicholas Nickleby

‘…a faithfull account of the Fortunes, Misfortunes, Uprisings, Downfallings, and Complete Career of the Nickleby Family,’ is how an advertisement of 1838 described the forthcoming story of Nicholas Nickleby. The story at that time was entitled The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby and was, like all the other novels by Charles Dickens, published in monthly episodes, the first appearing on 31 March 1838, the last in September 1839.

The second child of the Dickens family, Charles was born on 7 February 1812 in Portsmouth.

An intelligent young man, Charles Dickens particularly enjoyed reading works such as Smollett’s Roderick Random and Fielding’s Tom Jones. These were both at least partly in the picaresque tradition which chronicles the travels and adventures of the hero together with a companion, usually of inferior intellect and social status. Not surprisingly then, Nicholas Nickleby, an early work by Dickens, is written in picaresque style, describing Nicholas’s adventures, often in the company of Smike.

Although clever, young Dickens had rather a disrupted education due to the family’s fluctuating finances. His father’s debts resulted in the twelve-year-old Charles having to leave school and work in a shoeblacking factory, and only later was he able to return to education for a further twoand- a-half years. His mother would have preferred him to remain at the factory, and it has been suggested that Dickens never really forgave her for this, and, as a result, based some of Mrs Nickleby’s less pleasant characteristics on her.

The poverty and harshness experienced by the young Nicholas Nickleby has been seen by some as Dickens describing some of his own early experiences, and we may, indeed, view Nicholas as a partial self-portrait of Dickens. Born a gentleman, Nicholas has to overcome adversity, in spite of a lack of parental support, to finally achieve success and a comfortable life. However, Dickens’s own success was a rather more public one, since his episodes of Nicholas Nickleby were hugely popular, akin to the popularity of the soap operas of today.

The theme of the power of money is very apparent in Nicholas Nickleby where we see money put to good use by the Cheerybles, to bad use by Ralph Nickleby and its lack causing problems for the Mantalinis. Arthur Gride and Sir Mulberry Hawk are greedy for more, whilst the Crummles theatre group members have to work hard to earn theirs. However, one of the main aims for Dickens when writing Nicholas Nickleby was to expose the cruelty of the notorious Yorkshire schools which were flourishing in the 1830s. In 1829 young Charles was employed by the Morning Chronicle as their parliamentary reporter, and his probing, journalistic skills, together with his philanthropic concerns, eventually resulted in this work which highlighted the plight of many unwanted children. On a visit to Yorkshire in January 1838 Dickens witnessed their ill-treatment in such schools and also saw the graves of children who died as a result. One such grave was that of a nineteen-year-old youth on whom Dickens based the sad character, Smike. Mr Squeers, the headmaster of Dotheboys Hall, one of Dickens’s most successfully unpleasant characters, was based on one William Shaw, headmaster of a school which, as a result of the publication of Nicholas Nickleby, was forced to close.

Dickens chose humour as the vehicle for his exposure of the cruelty of the schools, since he felt that this would lighten the horrors of the awful reality. Consequently, Nicholas Nickleby is a very funny novel. Dickens’s choice of names for his characters amuses us when we appreciate that, for example, Miss Knag is, indeed, a nag, and that Dotheboys Hall is a place where awful things are done to boys. The letter written by Fanny Squeers to Ralph Nickleby has been described as one of the most amusing passages in English literature, whilst the tea party where she pretends to be engaged to Nicholas is a scene of much amusement. Dickens’s description of Fanny, a plain girl with an unpleasant nature, in terms more suited to a romantic heroine, is another of his comic touches, and many more instances of comedy are found throughout the story.

Dickens’s journalistic skills, such as his ability to use language effectively, and his attention to detail, are evident in Nicholas Nickleby. At times he describes at length and in depth, at others he conveys vivid meaning through judicious choice of a single word or a short phrase. His use of imagery is also very effective, whilst he conveys information about his characters through those characters’ use of language, for example Newman Noggs speaking in short bursts and incomplete sentences, and the Crummles players’ use of theatrical language.

The theatre played a prominent part in Charles Dickens’s life, and Nicholas Nickleby was dedicated to his friend and Shakespearean actor, Charles Macready. Dickens himself enjoyed amateur dramatics, and he also became romantically linked with an actress, Ellen Ternan. In 1858 this resulted in separation from his wife Kate, to whom he had been married for twenty-two years and with whom he had ten children. The inclusion of Vincent Crummles’s theatrical troupe in Dickens’s novel is, therefore, not surprising.

Giving public readings of his novels was another way in which Dickens enjoyed performing, and many people have suggested that he actually wore himself out doing so. He died on 9 June 1870 and was buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.

During his lifetime Dickens was a prolific novelist. Following the publication of The Pickwick Papers in 1836-7, Oliver Twist in 1837 and then Nicholas Nickleby, he produced The Old Curiosity Shop in 1840- 41, Barnaby Rudge in 1841, A Christmas Carol in 1843, Martin Chuzzlewit in 1843- 44, Dombey and Son in 1846-48, and David Copperfield in 1849-50. Bleak House followed in 1852-53, Hard Times in 1854, Little Dorrit in 1855-57, A Tale of Two Cities in 1859, Great Expectations in 1860-61 and Our Mutual Friend in 1864-65, whilst at the time of his death Dickens was working on The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Notes by Helen Davies

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