ntil quite recently, most critics have had little time for Nicholas Nickleby, finding the characters one-dimensional and the plot too episodic — too full of "detachable 'bits'" (Chittick 118). Far from being the springs of the action, characters like the Yorkshire schoolmaster Wackford Squeers, and the wicked uncle/usurer Ralph Nickleby, have struck such critics as cardboard figures. The actress Dame Sybil Thorndyke saw the latter as the very "Incarnation of Sin" (vii). Like Squeers, the kindly philanthropic Cheerybles were based on real people, but these too have failed to convince: "we cannot help reflecting on the position of the mass of workmen whose labours have accumulated their capital," groused one early cynic (Collins 152). Worst of all, the eponymous hero himself struck even some of the earliest reviewers as having "no character at all" (unsigned notice, Collins 90). Leaping into the sensational encounters that punctuate his loosely connected adventures, he has generally seemed little more than "a somewhat chivalrous young donkey" (Chesterton 32).
Yet Dickens's third novel has always been a favourite with the general public. Indeed, it was this book's huge sales that enabled Dickens to give up his parliamentary reporting and become a full-time writer (see Slater, Composition, 1). Years later, when Dickens was much less fashionable, the children's book illustrator Kate Greenaway would still write to Ruskin, "I am very fond of Nicholas Nickleby" (216). One reason for its popularity outside academe has been its theatricality, notable even among the works of this "most theatrical of Victorian novelists" (Glavin 189). Dedicated to Dickens's good friend, the actor William Macready, it not only has a dashing young hero who hangs on to panicked horses, beats up villains, and rescues damsels in distress, but includes episodes with the actor-manager Vincent Crummles, his family, and his troupe of itinerant actors. Desperate for a means of subsistence after decamping from Dotheboys Hall in Yorkshire with the pathetically ill-used Smike, Nicholas allows himself to be recruited by Crummles. He is given a French play to turn into English, takes to the boards himself, and, with infinite patience, coaches Smike to make a very brief appearance as the apothecarey to his own Romeo. For all Smike's difficulties with learning his lines, both seem made for the stage. When Crummles first talks Nicholas into joining him, he says, "There's a genteel comedy in your walk and manner, juvenile tragedy in your eye, and touch-and-go farce in your laugh" (283). As for Smike, the lad strikes Crummles as the ideal actor for the "starved business," so much so that he adds, "I never saw a young fellow so regularly cut out for that line, since I've been in the profession" (281). No wonder there have been so many successful stage and screen versions of the novel, dating from 1838 when the novel was still coming out in instalments, and the ending had to be invented (see Fawcett 236), right up to the present. Dickens himself responded favourably to its first adaptation, and found that it provided excellent material for his theatrical readings in the 1860s (see Bolton 154; Slater, Composition, 40). Since then over 250 productions have been identified (see Ford 15-16).
In the second half of the twentieth century, academe finally caught up with the general readership and the popular audience. The theatricality of the novel attracted new and more appreciative critical attention. Nicholas Nickleby demonstrates, according to one critic, the "inextricable link between the public and private stage. Macready helped Dickens fashion for the novel the popular technique of pantomimic expression" (Hecimovich 16). In this reading, the plot's larger than life characters and its fairytale and theatrical elements make good sense. So too do its melodramatic highlights, right from when Nicholas rains blows on the ogre Squeers, to when he snatches his beloved Madeline from the clutches of the lecherous old Arthur Gride. According to Edwin M. Eigner, pantomime even provided "the basis for his [Dickens's] psychological insights" (8). But that is to neglect another equally likely basis for them. Helpful as the dramaturgical approach is, it becomes even more rewarding when combined with insights from Rousseau, whose ideas on childhood and education Dickens would have imbibed from Thomas Day's (then) immensely popular children's classic, Sandford and Merton (1783-89) — a book he mentions in "The Christmas Tree" (8). Looking back from the standpoint of more recent theorists and fieldworkers in this area, like Erik H. Erikson, Erving Goffman, and James E. Marcia, we become more deeply aware of Dickens's accuracy in rendering the progress towards self-realisation in late adolescence.
Looking the Part
From left to right: Kate Nickleby looking appealing in her bonnet, from Kate Greenaway's sketch in a letter to John Ruskin (taken from Spielmann and Layard 217). (b) Phiz's "old illustration" showing "Kate Nickleby Sitting to Miss La Creevy" — the latter's hat is a particularly extraordinary confection, especially when contrasted with Kate's demure, unadorned hairstyle. (c) Phiz's "Mysterious Appearance of the Gentleman in Small-Clothes" — Mrs Nickleby's demented and fickle suitor, identified only by his clothes (here, indeed, only the trousers appear). (c) Phiz's "Newman Noggs Leaves the Ladies in the Empty House," showing Noggs's poor clothes at the beginning. His jacket is actually out at the elbows. [Click on these and the following thumbnails for larger images and, in the case of the Phiz illustrations, more information.]
To adopt a role, it is first necessary to look the part. It is no accident that Nicholas's sister Kate is apprenticed to the dressmaker, Madame Mantalini. Predictably, Greenaway was fascinated by this side of it, reminding Ruskin of "the dreadful costume of Miss La Creevy" as seen in the early illustrations, adding "but Kate Nickleby looks Pretty in the large bonnets Madame Mantalini too" (Spielmann and Layard, following 216). In the text as in the illustrations, clothes tell much about the wearer. One character, a demented neighbour who seeks out Mrs Nickleby in an unconventional way in Chapter 49, by coming down the chimney, is identified only by his attire: he is the "gentleman in Small-clothes" (breeches), the designation suggesting his diminished mental capacity as well as identifying him. Of the more important characters, Newman Noggs gets off to a shaky start. He is first seen in a threadbare suit, too small for him and minus most of its buttons. He has to apologise for being unable to offer Nicholas something dry to wear when the young man arrives at his lodgings wet through after his flight from Yorkshire. Fallen on hard times himself, Noggs is unable fully to act out his generous impulses. Noggs's later return to himself, to his self-respect and due place in society, is marked by his assumption of more respectable clothes: Nicholas is overjoyed to meet him near the end "genteelly dressed in black" (816).
Other characters' ill-fitting and/or inappropriate clothes are markers of more permanent, insoluble problems. When first met, Squeers is part over-dressed in "scholastic black" (31), part under-dressed, with his sleeves too long and his trousers too short, indicating his unfittedness to his "vocation." His lack of an eye marks him out as a misfit, too, and a man of warped vision. When last seen, he is wrapped in a huge greasy old great-coat, either through want of anything better to wear, or in an attempt at disguise. Both possibilities suggest a total collapse of identity. For young people to be dressed ridiculously is also deeply significant. It indicates that something is wrong, more generally, in the way they are being treated. Smike is a shambles. The lame, skinny, gangling eighteen- or nineteen-year-old, around the same age as Nicholas, is first seen in a very small boy's suit, which is naturally "absurdly short in the arms and legs," a large, decrepit pair of overboots such as farmers might wear, and his old child's neckfrill half-hidden by a "coarse, man's neckerchief" (79). This youth's predicament, wedged between childhood and adulthood and unable to advance from one to the other, is grotesquely manifested here. The Crummles's fifteen-year-old daughter has also been dressed inappropriately for her age: the "Infant Phenomenon" is got up to look as if she is ten, with sandals, a pink bonnet and so on. This could be seen as grotesque too, but the pink and the frills and the flounces soften the effect. Her exploitation, though recognised for what it is, especially when the naughty Borum boys torment her in Chapter 24, bothers Dickens less. This child is a voluntary victim. Demanding attention to her costume even when off-stage — requiring "one leg of the little white trousers" to be even with the other (310) —, she is a theatre child, and has evidently chosen to identify herself as such.
Well might John Carey claim that Dickens spends "more time describing clothes than describing people" (89). But, curiously, in this respect the author has nothing to say about Nicholas. It is clear only that the young hero strikes other characters, like Squeers, not to mention Squeers's enamoured daughter Fanny, as looking like a gentleman. Squeers, for example, senses immediately that he will be out of place at Dotheboys Hall. So "unprepossessing" himself (39), Squeers is, in fact, "perplexed with such an application form a youth of Nicholas's figure" ( (38). For all his vicissitudes, then, and in strong contrast to Squeers, to Noggs at the beginning, and also to fops like Lord Verisopht in Ralph Nickleby's London circle, Nicholas is unremarkably but suitably attired. This might remind us of Tommy Merton at the end of Sandford and Merton, who divests himself of his flashy buckles and other accoutrements to indicate his new seriousness of outlook and dignity of character. Nicholas too gets rid of some of his wardrobe. He not only has his own change of clothes when he gets to London; he has more to spare which he sells in order to relieve Noggs of the burden of hospitality, and pay for lodgings for himself and Smike. In a narrative packed with references to money, clothes have been seen as a form of currency already: new boys were required to bring various garments to Dotheboys Hall, for Mrs Squeers to purloin. Nicholas's dealings, however, are above-board, and show not simply that clothes or of secondary importance to him, but that he is resourceful and considerate. Above all, the cash will enable him to be independent. It is a propitious start.
Acting the Part
Left to right: (a) "The Yorkshire Schoolmaster at the Saracen's Head" — Squeers looks suitably brutish here, like a Neanderthal, one side of his face accurately wizened. (b) Phiz shows Nicholas at the moment of his first big triumph, looking taller than Dickens suggests he is, though very spindly, in "Nicholas Astonishes Mr Squeers and Family." (c) Phiz's "Nicholas Instructs Smike in the Art of Acting," with Smike looking made for the part. (d) "Nicholas Hints at the Probability of His Leaving the Company;" he feels himself to be growing into his own role now.
Role, spectacle and meaning are subtly intertwined throughout the narrative. Attracted as he was by vivacious theatre folk, keen as he was to maintain the extraordinarily high volume of sales for this new work, Dickens was not using the "pantomimic" just to entertain. Far from presenting a kind of escapist romp, he was offering his readers a vehicle through which he could express the world-view earlier expressed in his essay on "The Pantomime of Life" in Bentley's Miscellany: that "the close resemblance which the clowns of the stage bear to those of every-day life is perfectly extraordinary" (293); the implication being that society itself is a pantomime, in which people act outrageously and risibly. This invites the Bahktinian corollary that the carnavelesque has a subversive purpose, providing a diversity of voices and provoking a diversity of responses, producing fluidity, liberation and change — providing, in fact, "an opportunity for changing his readers' basic stories about the nature of reality" (Eigner 41). Bahktinian readings, bringing out the fantastical in the text, and showing the subversive purposes it serves, seem highly appropriate here. After all, this was the novel that had the most direct and specific impact of all Dickens's novels, making the so-called "Yorkshire schools" notorious, and forcing their closure (see Ackroyd 257). As in Oliver Twist, which he was finishing while writing the earlier chapters, the general idea was to show goodness endangered but finally triumphant. But the Crummleses epitomise the author's current approach to the conflict involved, as a struggle dramatic in its intensity, far-reaching in its possibilities, and heroic to the core.
In this reading, the Crummles episodes do not constitute "a glorious fragment," as Paul Schlicke suggests in Dickens and Popular Entertainment (86), but are a key to our understanding of the whole novel. Oliver Twist cannot carry the day for himself. He is, in a sense, lily-livered, that is to say, he is at once pure and weak. "Why, where's your spirit?" asks the Dodger (163), when the boy yearns to be restored to Mr Brownlow's in Chapter 18 of that novel. Oliver has to be rescued and reinstated by others, and by fate, in the manner of life to which his mother had once been accustomed. Nicholas is different. He is the first of Dickens's heroes to accomplish such a reinstatement for himself. However, his role as hero, like the stage Romeo's, has to be grown into and mastered. He may already look the part, but he is not quite nineteen at the beginning, and has not yet adopted it. Dickens would have been thoroughly conversant with Rousseau's ideas. and not just through his childhood reading of Sandford and Merton. In another of his essays, for instance, he roundly criticises the French thinker's notion of "The Noble Savage" as "nonsense" (117). But as for the period that we now call adolescence, Dickens was evidently more in tune with his ideas. Rousseau saw this time as a crucial period, a kind of "second birth," a time when "ordinary educations end" (212) and when, for example, the boy "begins to feel himself in his fellows, to be moved by their complaints and to suffer from their pains" (222). This last is very much the case with Nicholas when he travels to Dotheboys Hall and sees the ill-treated boys there, among whom he particularly notices Smike: "He was such a timid, broken-spirited creature, that Nicholas could not help exclaiming, 'Poor fellow!'" (96).
Amazed by what he sees at the school, and laid siege to by the simpering Fanny Squeers, Nicholas is now exactly at the stage Rousseau sketches further on in Émile: "he knows what is done in society; it remains for him to see how one lives in it" (327). According to Rousseau, this period, when the youth is first let loose in the adult world, is one of "so great and so sudden a change" that it is truly a dangerous time for him, when he is liable to become both vulnerable and "jaunty" (330). As for the former, we learn in the opening chapter that Nicholas has been brought up by a good, if weak and hen-pecked, father — that is to say, one who values "the quiet routine of a country life" much like the one Rousseau proposes for his Émile. In this respect, the youth has been as properly preserved from the "great world" and its vices as Rousseau would have wished (3). Consequently, he is not influenced by his new companions, or drawn to their way of thinking. As to the latter, he does indeed become jaunty, at least insofar as he strikes a pose with Squeers, flourishing words and blows together when he leaps to Smike's defence. Far from swaggering or trying to look good in order to impress, however, he is launching himself boldly and effectively against corruption and cruelty; the "inflated stage diction" here, as elsewhere, expresses what he truly feels in his heart (Johnson 5). This first encounter is an important milestone for him. He, who had previously thought he should follow the path his uncle had laid out for him, is now following no one's principles but his own. And in doing so, he is choosing his path for himself, and taking his preliminary steps towards establishing his own identity.
Rousseau does not posit, let alone explore, adolescent angst during the critical period of choice, and nor does Dickens. It is enough for Rousseau that the youth should now manage to "cut out his own road to happiness following in no one else's tracks" (223), and for Dickens that his hero should make the right decision when confronted by difficult circumstances. Nevertheless, there are many hints of the novelist's interest in the developing self. Indeed, much that Nicholas does can be interpreted in light of later ideas about it. In particular, from this point, "the very process of growth provides new energy even as society offers new and specific opportunities" for its use (Erikson 163). Having successfully stood up to the preposterous Squeers, Nicholas is now able to deal with the far more insidiously evil Ralph Nickleby. Realising that his uncle has no one's best interest at heart except his own, in successive episodes he refuses to tolerate what should not be tolerated — his uncle's cold-heartedness towards his bereaved mother and disrespect to his sister, and, later on, the cruel sacrifice of his beloved Madeline to Gride. On this last occasion, he manages to keep his composure, presses his sister's arm reassuringly, and stands "erect and undaunted, front to front with his unworthy relative" (715), ready to take any action required to thwart the mismatch. He seems, now, every inch a man. But all these encounters represent very important advances, both for Nicholas and his author. For here is a romantic hero who demonstrates that vigour is no longer all on the side of evil. A character has now appeared who, though or even because he is impetuous, is willing to take the initiative and shape his own future. It is worth remembering at this point that many of Dickens's first readers considered Nicholas to be sufficiently natural, so much so, that Dickens felt the need to defend him against those who found him too natural — that is, too hot-blooded (Preface to the First Cheap Edition, lvi): "young men are rash, very rash," comments Mr. Crumrnles later (398). But the important point is that Nicholas's rashness at Dotheboys Hall, and afterwards, is all on the side of good.; this is what makes him a worthy hero.
Significantly, John Carey talks of Nicholas's "impressive showing" (29) in this first episode. It needed to be a "showing" or indeed a show, and a convincing one, because after all he is just a slip of a lad in himself. We are told that to John Brodie he must have "seemed a mere dwarf" (157). The hulking Yorkshireman is perfectly amazed by his feat: "Beatten the schoolmeasther! Ho! ho! ho! Beatten the schoolmeasther!" he cries, startling his horse when he meets Nicholas on the footpath afterwards. "God, it's the best thing a've heerd this twonty yeer!" (157-78). Nicholas, we realise, has acted beyond what might have been expected of him. Even before his flirtation with the acting as a profession, he has given one of those "idealised performances" that Goffman discusses in his pioneering work, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (44). In such cases, Goffman suggests, the point is not just to attain some immediate object, but, more generally, to act a part in order to learn it — and indeed to become it. Goffman often draws on behavioural description already current in Dickens's time. One such is Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), for which he uses a mid-Victorian edition — note that one of Mr Gradgrind's children in Hard Times is named after Smith. In the passage Goffman selects, Smith describes the young aristocrat's cultivation of his "air ... manner ... deportment" in order to be treated as superior to others (44). Goffman goes on to explore this "quite common" notion of "performance" in a section entitled "Idealizations," dealing with the strategies used by those seeking to maintain or improve their social status, something of obvious relevance to Dickens's heroes in general. Later he also quotes from the early Victorian "courtesy book" The Canons of Good Breeding: Or the Handbook of the Man of Fashion (1839). Instead of simply describing such "performances," this advises on how they should be staged. Nicholas's acting roles are not confined to the Crummleses' theatre appearance; these work as a metaphor for the way he comports himself in general, becoming not simply a stage hero, but (looking ahead to the opening sentence of David Copperfield) "the hero of [his] own life."
The Role of Smike
Left to right: (a) "The Internal Economy of Dotheboys Hall." Phiz shows Mrs Squeers, her nightcap topped by a "beaver bonnet," administering brimstone and treacle to the hapless boys. Towards the left, a kneeling Smike, with his child's frill round his neck, is trying to get Wackford Squeers Jr's feet into one of the new pupil's boots, and getting kicked for his pains. (b) Illustrating the interpolated traveller's tale of "The Five Sisters of York," Phiz puts Alice, the youngest and merriest of the sisters, at the centre, with two of her elder sisters looking up at her. She, like Smike, is fated to die early. (c) In "A Sudden Recognition, Unexpected on Both Sides," Squeers has bumped into Smike in the streets of London, and hooked the terrified boy by the collar, while Wackford Jr. clings to his leg. In the background, tellingly, an omnibus driver whips some abject horse. (d) "The Children at Their Cousin's Grave." Phiz's title is misleading. Smike is actually Nicholas's cousin, not the children's — just another sign that he has never got free from the trammels of his youth — never grown up.
Smike is important for eliciting Nicholas's first strong performance, and the reader's sympathy, and also for showing Dickens's insight into the psychological springs of human behaviour. Critics sometimes fail to recognise the particularity of his case, and see Smike as the repository of Nicholas's inner life: he "exaggerates and makes visible the inner wounds that Nicholas suppresses," claims Paul Davis (334). But the childhood experiences of each have been totally different. Nicholas, as he himself never forgets, is the "son of a country gentleman" (417); his widowed mother, though comically lacking in judgement and even common sense, has not lacked affection. Indeed, she "still doted on her children" (28). Smike's development, on the other hand, has been stunted by deprivation and cruelty, his "years of misery and suffering lightened by no ray of hope." Making his own psychological analysis here, Dickens surmises that in such a case "the chords of the heart, which beat a quick response to the voice of gentleness and affection, must have rusted and broken in their secret places, and bear the lingering echo of no old word of love or kindness" (500). The physical illness (consumption) that carries Smike off is so accurately described that Dickens's account of it could be cited in contemporary medical books (Slater, Notes, 971); but this explanation of Smike's mental dullness is even more commendable. It reveals an understanding of the consequences of prolonged emotional neglect that was entirely lacking in Oliver Twist. Smike is so damaged that, unlike his cousin, he can never grow up to man's estate.
In recent thinking, the opposite outcomes of adolescence are seen as the achievement of a stable sense of self (Erikson's "ego identity"), and the failure to commit to a course in life (Erikson's "ego diffusion"). Nicholas attains the former: Dickens shows him deliberating over his future, withdrawing from his family "seriously to reflect upon the state of his affairs, and to determine, if he could, upon some course of life which would enable him to support those who were so entirely dependent upon his exertions" (447); this is when he firmly decides against an acting career, on the sensible grounds that he may not, after all, be the right material for it, and that it would be an inconvenient and uncongenial way of life for his mother and sister. When, immediately after this, he meets one of the Cheeryble brothers, he appreciates their good-heartedness and quickly settles down to work in their counting-house with "steadiness and perseverance" (471). This is largely in line with the idea that "the identity-achievement subject" has "seriously considered several occupational alternatives and has made a decision on his own terms," achieving "a resolution that leaves him free to act" (Marcia 551-52). Smike's case, however, is not the opposite. He lies nowhere on the scale of playboy to schizoid on which the "identity-diffusion subject" can be placed (see Marcia 557). Rather, his is a case of "foreclosure," that is to say, of accepting, without the kind of healthy deliberation in which Nicholas engages, a course laid out for him by others. The "poor, unoffending, injured lad" (777-78) has simply attached himself to Nicholas with dog-like devotion, exhibiting exactly the tendencies towards obedience, submission, shaky self-esteem, and vulnerability to stress, found in such subjects (see Marcia 557-58). Dickens's insight here is remarkable, confirming Freud's opinion that, while the social scientist will consciously observe processes "so as to be able to elicit and announce their laws," writers have always attended to them unconsciously, understanding their "possible developments and [lending] them artistic expression" (82).
Smike himself is well aware of his limitations, and becomes doubly so when he has to learn the apothecarey's few lines for Romeo and Juliet. Dickens's choice of this part for him is apt. Romeo comments thus on the apothecarey's evident poverty: "The world is not thy friend nor the world's law:/The world affords on law to make thee rich" (V. i. 72 -3). Smike is beyond the pale, his chances of improvement non-existent. "I want no clothes," he tells Nicholas early on, "drawing his rags together" (159). When he conceives his passion for Kate Nickleby, there is so obviously — to his own dismay — no future in it that his languishing and dying with "no rallying, no effort, no struggle for life" (762), is the only possible conclusion. Indeed, his death has already been prepared for in two stories: first, the traveller's tale of "The Five Sister of York " in Chapter 6, in which the sweetest sister dies first; and, much more recently, the report by the Cheerybles' clerk Tim Linkinwater of the "sickly bed-ridden hump-backed boy" in the back-attic (514) — another candidate for premature death. John Forster claims that as many people begged Dickens not to kill Smike, as women of an earlier generation had petitioned Richardson on behalf of Clarissa (1:103). Still, there was not such a furore as there would be over Little Nell's death. Smike is younger in mentality than Nell, not much older in years, and every bit as innocent and devoted. But by this point he has come to be of secondary interest. The romances of the two Nickleby children have blossomed, and he has fallen into the background, literally retiring into his own room when young Frank Cheeryble comes to court Kate. His role now is as part of the plot machinery that will bring Ralph Nickleby to book. For his suffering is finally to be laid at the door, not only of Squeers and his cruel regime in Yorkshire, but of the father in whom greed for money had eclipsed all natural feeling. It seems fair that, in the last words of the novel, Smike should be referred to as the "dead cousin" of the new generation of Nicklebys, rather than of Nicholas himself. "Foreclosure" seems the right word for his life on every score.
Earlier in the narrative, Dickens had consciously separated his bold, gallant hero from all taint of the grave when he cut from the very end of Chapter 20 certain words with which Nicholas had originally comforted Smike by promising to share the same doom: "'I tell you,' said Nicholas, 'that the same fate shall be ours in life and the same grave shall hold us both in death'" (Slater, Appendix A, 939). Dickens was right to have cut these words; they are not consonant with the "buoyant and sanguine temperament" that Nicholas feels lucky to possess (447). In the event, the young hero nurses his dying cousin tenderly among the scenes of his own happy youth, to which the whole Nickleby family returns in the end. Nicholas has continued to thrive, has become, in fact, "a rich and prosperous merchant" (830), and has bought back the old family home. The mood at the end is nostalgic, but not as nostalgic as it might have been. With Kate and her family living nearby as well, there are too many new young faces for such as that.
This is fundamentally a hopeful work, then, one that has struck many critics from Gissing onwards a showing Dickens in his "boyish mood " (Gissing 96). This is partly, no doubt, because of its theatricality, its sheer vivacity. But it also features a large number of characters who are children in age as well as behaviour. When he was writing Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens himself was a new father. Little Charles ('Boz') was just over a year old when the first number of the novel appeared; in that same month, Mary, Dickens's second child, was born. While he was still writing, another was on the way: the birth of his third child, Katey, coincided with the publication of the novel in one volume. When Squeers's three little new boys look each other over self-consciously at The Saracen's Head, "writhing their bodies into most remarkable contortions, according to the custom of little boys when they first become acquainted" (37), Dickens reveals himself at once as a writer with an interest in and an eye for children. This of course is soon confirmed by his descriptions of the pitifully cowed or resentful pupils at Dotheboys Hall, the horribly spoilt and greedy Wackford Squeers Jr., the Kenwigses' six young "olive branches" (162), some of whom Nicholas is engaged to tutor, and so on. Particularly noteworthy are the lucky, unfettered gipsy children at Hampton race-course, described in Chapter 50 as children who are really "children, and lead children's lives" (653). Finally, there are the happy little Nickleby and Cheeryble children with whom the novel ends, who put fresh flowers on Smike's grave, as if to exorcise the wrong done to him in his lifetime.
Dickens also sets a premium in the novel on adults who (unlike Squeers and Ralph Nickleby) relate well to children, and who are in tune with the child in themselves. Prime examples here are the jolly Cheeryble twins, who greet each other with "beaming looks of affection, which would been most delightful to behold in infants" (453), and kindly Tim Linkinwater, teasingly called by the brothers "a mere child — an infant" (561). The equally kindly Newman Noggs, whose very Christian name suggests his status, is idolised by children at the end: "His chief pleasure and delight was in the children, with whom he was a child himself, and master of the revels. The little people could do nothing without dear Newman Noggs" (831). It is he who cheers on Nicholas in his darkest hour, when he thinks there is no way of preventing Madeline's marriage. "Hope to last," he says, "Always hope, that's a dear boy. Never leave off hoping, it don't answer.... Don't leave a stone unturned. It's always something to know you've done the most you could. But don't leave off hoping, or it's of no use doing anything. Hope, hope, to the last!" To which Nicholas at once replies.:"You read me a good lesson, Newman, and I will profit by it" (681). And there is ground for hope to, not only in this episode, but in general. "There is some spell about that boy," rages the increasingly impotent wicked uncle, "Circumstances conspire to help him. Talk of fortune's favours!" (569).
It is unfair to credit Providence though. Nicholas has taken a very active part in his own success. Nicholas Nickleby, as earlier criticisms of it would suggest, is not really susceptible to detailed character-analysis of the traditional type, and is not seen at its best when subjected to it. As ideas about the self became more sophisticated in the Victorian age as a whole Kincaid (13), Dickens would grow more adept at unfolding his characters' inner lives. But his acuity even in his early novels should not be underestimated. This one is by no means a stage strutted by stock figures. It shows a great interest in childhood and how children develop. It draws just as much on the literary tradition of the Bildungsroman as on the conventions of the theatre, and not just in an old-fashioned way. Yes, as Paul Schlike points out, it starts with "the classic situation" of the "novel of education," with a provincial youth arriving in town and having to make his way in life and find his life's partner (Introduction xxviiii). And, yes, the narrative ends with his achieving both these goals. But the journey in between has been properly charted, even if it takes hindsight to appreciate this fully. "Scene after scene in this wonderful procession of events do we enjoy vicariously," said Thorndyke, adding tellingly, "because we are shown ourselves" (xiii).
- Towards "Brave Self-Reliance": Overcoming Frailties" (Smike in the context of other weak boys in Victorian fiction)
- The Roots of Dickens's Christmas Books and Plays in Early Nineteenth-Century Melodrama and Pantomime (see especially the section on pantomime)
- The Bildungsroman Genre: Great Expectations, Aurora Lee and Waterland (for a definition of the term)
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Chesterton, G. K. Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens. New York: Haskell House, 1970.
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_____. Nicholas Nickleby. Ed. Paul Schlicke. Oxford: Oxford World's Classics, 1990. (Textual references are all to this edition.)
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Last modified 15 September 2021