The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby
||Chapman and Hall
||Print (Hardback, Paperback)
The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, (or Nicholas Nickleby for short) is a comic novel of Charles Dickens. Originally published as a serial from 1838 to 1839, it was Dickens' third novel.
The lengthy novel centres around the life and adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, a young man who must support his mother and sister after his father dies. His Uncle Ralph, who thinks Nicholas will never amount to anything, plays the role of an antagonist.
Like nearly all of Dickens' works, the novel has a contemporary setting. Much of the action takes place in London, with the exception of several chapters taking place in Dickens' hometown of Portsmouth, as well as settings in Yorkshire and Devon.
The tone of the work is burlesque, with Dickens taking aim at what he perceives to be social injustices. Many memorable characters are introduced, including Nicholas' malevolent uncle Ralph, and the villainous Wackford Squeers, who operates a squalid boarding school at which Nicholas temporarily serves as a tutor.
As in most of Dickens’ works, there is a sprawling number of characters in the book. The major characters in Nicholas Nickleby include:
- Nicholas Nickleby The hero of the novel. His father has died and left Nicholas and his family penniless. Nicholas is not a common Byronic hero: He can be violent, naïve, and emotional. But he is devoted to his friends and family and fiercely defiant of those who wrong those he loves.
- Ralph Nickleby The book’s major antagonist, Nicholas’s uncle. He seems to care about nothing but money and takes an immediate dislike to the idealistic Nicholas. But, as gruff as he is, he harbours something of a soft spot for Kate. Ralph’s anger at Nicholas’s beating of Squeers leads to a vow to destroy the younger man, but the only man Ralph ends up destroying is himself. When it is revealed that Smike was his son, and that the boy died hating him, he takes his own life.
- Kate Nickleby Nicholas's younger sister. Kate is a fairly passive character, typical of Dickensian women, but she shares some of her brother’s fortitude and strong will. She does not blench at hard labour to earn her keep, and defends herself against the lecherous Sir Mulberry Hawk. She finds well-deserved happiness with Frank Cheeryble.
- Mrs. Nickleby Nicholas and Kate’s Mother, who provides much of the novel’s comic relief. The muddleheaded Mrs. Nickleby does not see the true evil her children encounter until it is directly pointed out to her. She is stubborn, prone to long digressions on irrelevant or unimportant topics and unrealistic fantasies and an often vague grasp of what is going on around her.
- Smike A poor drudge living in Squeers’ “care”. Smike is a pathetic figure, perpetually ill and a cripple, who has been in Squeers’ care since he was very young. Nicholas gives him the courage to run away, but when that fails Nicholas saves him again and he latches himself on to his protector. He falls in love with Kate, but his heart is broken when she falls in love with Frank Cheeryble. After Smike dies of “a dread disease ” (tuberculosis), it is revealed that he is Ralph Nickleby’s son.
- Newman Noggs: Ralph’s clerk, who becomes Nicholas’s closest friend. He was once a businessman of high standing, but went bankrupt. He is an alcoholic, and his general good nature and insight into human nature is hidden under a veneer of irrational ticks and erratic behavior.
- Miss La Creevey: The Nicklebys' landlady. A plump, kindly woman in her fifties, she is a miniature-portrait painter. She is the first friend the Nicklebys meet in London, and one of the truest. She is rewarded for her good-heartedness when she falls in love with Tim Linkinwater.
- Wackford Squeers: A cruel, one-eyed, Yorkshire schoolmaster. He runs “Dotheboys Hall”, a place where unwanted children can be sent away. He mistreats the boys horribly, whipping them regularly. He gets his comeuppance at the hands of Nicholas when he is beaten in retaliation for the whipping of Smike. He travels to London after he recovers and partakes in more bad business, fulfilling his grudge against Nicholas by becoming a close partner in Ralph’s schemes to fake Smike’s parentige and later to hide the will of Madeline Brey. He is arrested during the last of these tasks and sentenced to transportation to Australia.
- Mr. Snawley An oil merchant who puts his two step-sons in Squeers' “care”. He pretends to be Smike’s father to help Squeers get back at Nicholas, but cracks under the pressure and eventually confesses to the police. He is arrested.
- Mrs. Squeers Squeers' formidable wife. If possible, she is even crueler and less affectionate than her husband to the boys in their care.
- Fanny Squeers The Squeers’ daughter. She is 23, and is beginning to feel the pressure to find a man to settle down with. She falls in love with Nicholas until he rebuffs her affections, at which point she begins to feel hatred for him. Tilda Price (later Browdie) is her best friend, but the relationship is strained by Fanny’s pride and spitefulness. She is full of bluster and is under severe delusions about her own beauty and station.
- Young Wackford Squeers The Squeers' loutish, piggy son. He is mainly preoccupied with filling his belly as often as he can and bullying his father’s boys, to his father’s great joy.
- John Browdie A bluff Yorkshireman, Tilda’s fiancé, later her husband. Although he and Nicholas get off on the wrong foot, they become good friends when John helps Nicholas escape from Yorkshire. He later rescues Smike from Squeers again, proving himself a good and intelligent man. He is not, however, well-schooled in manners and has a rough and boisterous air.
- Tilda Price (Browdie) Fanny’s best friend and Browdie’s fiancée. A pretty girl of 18, she puts up with Fanny’s pettiness because of their childhood friendship, but later breaks with her. She is rather coquetish, but settles down happily with John Browdie.
- Mr. and Mrs. Mantalini Milliners, Kate’s employers. Mr. Mantalini (real name Alfred Muntel) is a handsome man, with a fine moustache, who lives off his wife. He is not above stealing from his wife and threatens to dramatically kill himself when he does not get his way. Mrs. Mantalini is much older than her husband and equally prone to dramatics. She eventually gets wise and leaves him, but not until he has ruined her with extravagant spending and she is forced to sell the business to Miss Knag. Mr. Mantalini is seen again at the end of the book living in much reduced circumstances, married to a washerwoman, but still up to his old tricks.
- Miss Knag Mrs. Mantalini’s right-hand woman and leader of the showroom forces. Miss Knag is a lady of considerable years, but is under the impression that she is a raving beauty. When Kate begins her employment with the Mantalinis, Miss Knag is quite kind to her, but when her age is insulted by a disgruntled customer who prefers Kate, she blames Kate and begins to treat her quite shabbily. She takes over the business when the Mantalinis go bankrupt, but fires Kate. A spinster, she lives with her brother Mortimer, a failed novelist.
- The Kenwigs Family Newman Nogg’s neighbors. Mr. And Mrs. Kenwigs are dependant on the latter’s wealthy uncle Mr. Lilyvick, and everything they do is designed to please him so he will not write their children (including their baby, named Lilyvick) out of his will. Their daughter Morlena, is an awkward child of 7.
- Mr. Lilyvick Mrs. Kenwig’s uncle, a collector of the water rate, a position which gives him great importance among his poor relatives. He falls in love with Miss Petowker, and marries her to the Kenwigs' great distress. But when she elopes with another man, he comes back to his family a sadder but wiser man.
- Henrietta Petowker of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. A minor actress with a prestigious company, though a major star with the somewhat less stellar Crummels troop. Mrs. Crummel’s protégée. She marries Mr. Lilyvick after meeting him at the Kenwig’s wedding anniversary, but leaves him very quickly.
- Sir Mulberry Hawk is a lecherous nobleman and money-lender, who has taken Lord Verisopht under his wing. One of the most truly evil characters in the novel, he forces himself upon Kate and behaves in a thoroughly abhorrent manner. He is beaten by Nicholas, and swears revenge, but nothing comes of it. His reckoning comes when he kills Lord Frederick in a duel and must flee to France.
- Lord Frederick Verisopht Hawk’s friend, a rich young nobleman. He owes both Ralph and Sir Mulberry vast sums. He becomes infatuated with Kate and is used by Hawk to find her whereabouts. When Nicholas confronts them in a coffeehouse, Lord Frederick sees the error of his ways and breaks with Hawk. Some weeks later, they meet again in a casino on the Riviera and get into an altercation, an event which leads to a duel, in which Lord Frederick is Killed. He is one of the few characters in the novel to undergo a journey, from a thoughtless, drunken boy to a mature young man who dies redeemed and repentant.
- Mr. Pluck and Mr. Pyke Hangers-on to Hawk and Verisopht. They are never seen apart and are quite indistinguishable from one another. Pluck and Pyke are intelligent, sly and dapper, perfect to do Hawk’s dirty work for him.
- Mr. and Mrs. Wittiterly A wealthy, pretentious couple who employ Kate as a companion to Mrs. Wittiterly. Julia Wittiterly is a hypochondriac who acts as if a feather would knock her over, but she has a fierce temper when she does not get her way. Mr. Wittiterly flatters his wife and toadies to her every whim. They are oblivious to the degradation Kate goes under on under their noses.
- Mr. Vincent Crummles Head of the Crummles theatre troop, a larger-than-life theatre manager and actor who takes Nicholas under his wing. He takes great pride in his profession, but also sometimes yearns for a quieter life settled down with his wife and children.
- Mrs. Crummles, Mr. Crummles' wife, a glamorous dowager. A formidable but loving presence to the actors in her troop.
- The “Infant Phenomenon”, Miss Ninetta Crummles, Mr. and Mrs. Crummles daughter. She is a very prominent member of the Crummles troop, a dancing part is written for her in every performance. She is supposedly ten years old, but according to the narratpr, she has been “ten” for the last five years, and is fed a steady diet of gin to keep her looking young.
- Mr. Folnair a pantomimist with the company. He is an apt flatterer, but does not hesitate to say exactly what he thinks of them once their back is turned.
- Miss Snevilicci. The talented leading lady of the Crummles troop. She plays a flirting game with Nicholas, and eventually leaves the troop to get married.
- Mr. Lenville an overdramatic, self-centered Tragedian, who becomes jealous of the notice Nicholas is getting as an actor, and attempts to pull his nose in front of the company.
- Charles and Ned Cheeryble twin brothers, wealthy merchants who are as magnanimous as they are jovial. They give Nicholas a job and provide for his family, and become key figures in the turning about of the happy ending. Like Pluck and Pyke, they are rather indistinguishable, but Ned is more emotional and Charles has the more prominent position in the story, being the first one to meet Nicholas.
- Frank Cherryble Ned and Charles’ nephew by their late sister, who is just as open-hearted as his uncles. He shares Nicholas’s streak of anger when his sense of chivalry is roused. He falls in love with, and later marries, Kate.
- Tim Linkinwater The brother Cheeryble’s loyal clerk. An elderly, stout, pleasant gentleman, he is jokingly referred to by the Brothers as “a Fierce Lion”. He is prone to hyperbole. He finds well-deserved happiness with Miss La Creevey.
- Brooker an old man. A Mysterious figure who appears several times during the novel, we eventually find out that he was formerly Ralph’s clerk. He was responsible for bringing Ralph’s son (Smike) to Dotheboy’s Hall. He was a convict, but returns to extort money from Ralph with the information his son is alive. When that fails, he goes to Noggs, and eventually brings his story to light.
- Madeleine Brey A beautiful but destitute young woman. Proud and dutiful to her father, she is willing to throw her life away for him. Nicholas falls in love at first sight, and she comes to feel the same way.
- Walter Brey Madeleine’s father, formerly a gentleman. He is extremely selfish man who has wasted his wife’s fortune and is dying in debtor’s prison, owning vast sums of money to both Ralph and Gride. He fools himself that he is acting for the benefit of his daughter by agreeing to her marriage with Gride, but when he realizes what he has done, he dies of grief. Luckily, he dies before the marriage goes through.
- Arthur Gride an elderly miser and associate of Ralph. He pretends to be in love with Madeline, but is, as usual, only interested in her inheritance. A coward and a boot-licker, he is one of the least likable characters in the novel.
- Peg Sliderscew Gride’s elderly housekeeper. Very deaf and going senile, she ends up playing a large part in the denouncement when she steals Madeline’s grandmother’s will.
Literary significance & criticism
While some consider the book to be among the finest works of 19th century comedy, Nicholas Nickleby is occasionally criticized for its lack of character development. It has been adapted for stage, film or television at least seven times. Perhaps the most extraordinary version was created in 1980 when a large-scale stage production of the novel was produced in the West End by the Royal Shakespeare Company. It was a theatrical experience which lasted more than ten hours with intermissions and a dinner break. The production received both critical and popular acclaim. All of the actors played multiple roles because of the huge number of characters, except for Roger Rees, who played Nicholas (due to the large amount of time he was on stage). The play moved to Broadway in 1981 where it was produced by Nelle Nugent among others. In 1982 the RSC had the show recorded for Channel 4, where it becoming the channel's first drama. This version is currently available in the DVD format
Perhaps a testament to its cultural significance, Nicholas Nickleby has been mentioned numerous times in a diverse range of literary works. In Roald Dahl's story of The BFG, the Big Friendly Giant learns to write by reading the Dickens novel "hundreds of times." In Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust, Nicholas Nickleby is one of several Dickens' novels Tony Last is forced to read to the psychotic Mr. Todd as compensation for having his life saved by the latter.
Nicholas Nickleby was originally issued in 19 monthly numbers; the last was a double-number and cost two shillings instead of one. Each number comprised 32 pages of text and two illustrations by Phiz:
- I - March 1838 (chapters 1-4);
- II - April 1838 (chapters 5-7);
- III - May 1838 (chapters 8-10);
- IV - June 1838 (chapters 11-14);
- V - July 1838 (chapters 15-17);
- VI - August 1838 (chapters 18-20);
- VII - September 1838 (chapters 21-23);
- VIII - October 1838 (chapters 24-26);
- IX - November 1838 (chapters 27-29);
- X - December 1838 (chapters 30-33);
- XI - January 1839 (chapters 34-36);
- XII - February 1839 (chapters 37-39);
- XIII - March 1839 (chapters 40-42);
- XIV - April 1839 (chapters 43-45);
- XV - May 1839 (chapters 46-48);
- XVI - June 1839 (chapters 49-51);
- XVII - July 1839 (chapters 52-54);
- XVIII - August 1839 (chapters 55-58);
- XIX-XX - September 1839 (chapters 59-65).