Nicholas Nickleby – 1838-1839 – a monthly serialised novel
Nicholas Nickelby Charles Dickens, engraved portrait of 1838
The first instalment of Nicholas Nickleby was published on 31 March 1838 and the last on 1 October 1839 – so Dickens worked on this while he was still writing Oliver Twist.
Nicholas Nickleby is the tale of a young man seeking to assist his family after his father died suddenly, quite soon after he lost all his money in a failed scheme.
Travelling from Devonshire to join his only relative, Ralph Nickleby, a businessman with dubious contacts and no desire to help his poor relations, Ralph sends his nephew to work in a Yorkshire boarding school, and despatches his sister-in-law and niece to live in a London slum.
We meet all manner of Victorian characters along the way, but Nicholas eventually wins through, marries well and moves back to Devon.
The book takes a look at what it is to be a gentleman in Victorian England, and shows that money and position does not make a gentleman. Nicholas Nickelby contains several stand-alone tales: The Five Sisters of York and The Baron of Grogzwig (VI) May 1838.
Dickens’s mother, Elizabeth Dickens, was the model for the always-confused Mrs. Nickleby. Luckily for Charles, she didn’t recognise herself in the character. In fact, she asked someone if they ‘really believed there ever was such a woman’.
Following the sudden death of his father, Nicholas has to travel with his family, his mother and sister, from a comfortable life in Devonshire to seek an income in London. He asks for help from his only relative, Uncle Ralph, who is not inclined to help and dislikes Nicholas, who reminds him of his brother.
Ralph feigns help by sending Nicholas to work at Dotheboys Hall school in Yorkshire. Newman Noggs, Ralph’s clerk, passes Nicholas a letter expressing concern about this appointment and pledging his support.
Once in Yorkshire he is to be the assistant to Wackford Squeers. Nicholas comes to realise the school is a fraud. Squeers has little education. He is acting as a repository for unwanted children for a high fee. Many of these children were illegitimate, crippled or deformed. Squeers uses the pretence of education to give the boys chores. He underfeeds his charges and mistreats them violently.
The daughter of the head, Fanny Squeers, imagines that Nicholas is in love with her. When he makes clear he has no such intention, Fanny becomes an enemy plotting against him.
Nicholas befriends Smike, a boy older than the others who is acting as an unpaid servant at the school. He is particularly maltreated, and after Nicholas makes an enemy of Fanny the beatings increase in number and severity. He tries to escape but is recaptured. When Squeers starts to beat Smike, Nicholas intervenes. In the melée Squeers strikes Nicholas across the face. He snaps and in turn attacks Squeers. Fanny joins the argument, but Nicholas beats Squeers.
Nicholas hurriedly packs his belongings and flees. He meets John Browdie who finds the news of Squeers being beaten amusing. He gives Nicholas a walking stick and some money to help him on his way to London. Smike catches up with Nicholas and joins him on the trip to London. Nicholas wants to reach his uncle and find out what Squeers has said about their argument.
In the meantime Ralph has forced his mother and sister, Kate, to move in with Miss LaCreevy, a portrait painter. She is living in a house Ralph owns in a London slum. Ralph has found Kate work with a milliner, Madame Mantalini, where she falls foul of Miss Knag and is left friendless.
Nicholas seeks out Newman Noggs and sees the letter sent by Fanny Squeers to his uncle Ralph, exaggerating the fight with her father. While they believe Ralph knows the truth, he uses the letter against Nicholas. Noggs suggests Nicholas seeks a job, so he goes to an employment office, where he meets a beautiful girl, but finds no work. Noggs finds him a role as French teacher to a neighbour, Kenwigs, for which he uses the name ‘Johnson’.
Ralph asks Kate to attend a dinner with some of his business contacts. As the only woman present, Ralph plans to use her to lure Lord Frederick Verisopht into doing business with him. The other person present is Sir Mulberry Hawk, who humiliates Kate at the table and later tries to force himself on her. But he is halted by Ralph. He threatens to remove his financial support if Kate tells her mother.
Nicholas arrives at his mother’s home as Ralph is about to read Fanny Squeers note to them. He argues his case. Ralph declares that he will not give the Nickelbys any financial support if Nicholas stays with them. Nicholas agrees to leave but threatens a day of reckoning sooner or later, and that it will be a heavy one for Ralph if they are wronged.
Nicholas and Smike head off to Portsmouth assuming they might become sailors, but meet up with Vincent Crummles, a theatrical manager. Crummles hires them, Nicholas as the juvenile lead and playwright, taking French tragedies into English and seeking to match the troupe’s dubious acting skills. The troupe is populated with interesting characters including Crummles daughter, The Infant Phenomenon. Nicholas plays Romeo and Smike plays the Apothecary in their debut performance to much provincial acclaim.
Back in London Mr Mantalini’s spending has bankrupted his wife’s millinery business, and she is forced to sell to Miss Knag, who promptly sacks Kate.
She finds a new position as companion to Mrs Wititterly, a social-climber. Hawk is plotting to humiliate Kate, and embroils Verisopht in seeking her address. The two ‘gentlemen’ engage with Kate’s mother to gain access to the Wititterly household. Mrs Wititterly becomes jealous and accuses Kate of flirting with the noblemen. Kate reacts to this false claim and her employer has a fit of hysterics. Kate seeks out her Uncle Ralph, but he says he is powerless given his business relationship with the two ‘gentlemen’.
Newman Noggs writes to Nicholas and prompts him to return to London. Noggs and Miss La Creevy decide to delay telling the details to Nicholas and are out when he calls. In searching for them he overhears Hawk and Verisopht toasting Kate in a coffeehouse. He follows them and demands his name, Hawk strikes him with a riding crop. The resulting interaction spooks the carriage horses and it has a crash. Hawk is injured and vows revenge, but Verisopht is remorseful. The two noblemen later argue and the result is a duel in which Verisopht is killed, and Hawk escapes to France. As a result, Ralph, loses the money owed to him by Verisopht.
Nicholas moves his mother and Kate, together with Smike, back in with Miss La Creevy. He writes to Ralph and declares they will take no more money or influence from him. He goes back to the employment office where he meets with Charles Cheeryble, a wealthy and extremely benevolent merchant who, with his twin brother Ned, runs a business. The two brothers employ Nicholas and move the family into a small house in a London suburb.
Ralph meets a beggar, Brooker, who identifies himself as a previous employer and tries to blackmail him. Ralph ignores this threat and returns to the office, where he finds the letter from Nicholas and seeks to plot against him. He is aided by Squeers who has returned to London.
Smike unfortunately runs into Squeers and is kidnapped. But John Browdie is honeymooning with Tilda in London and during a dinner he feigns being unwell and rescues Smike, returning him to Nicholas.
Over a celebratory meal with Frank Cheeryble and Tim Linkinwater, they are approached by Ralph and Squeers claiming that Smike is the long-lost son of someone called Snawley. This is rebuffed but the threat of legal action is left unresolved.
At work Nicholas meets the beautiful young woman from the employment office and learns she is Madeline Bray, the penniless daughter of a debtor, Walter Bray. Realising his feelings for her, he manages to get some small sums of money to her for commissioning artworks.
Arthur Gride, an elderly miser, and Ralph come together in a plot. They have learned of the will of Madeline’s grandfather and know that she will inherit upon her marriage. They plot for her to marry Gride, with the promise that he will pay off a debt to Ralph. Nicholas learns of this quite late in the process, He tries to convince Madeline to cancel but to no avail. Brail dies, guilt-ridden about the plan, and she now does not need to marry Gride.
Smike has contracted TB and becomes very ill. Nicholas takes him back to his home in Devonshire. There he says he has seen the man who sent him to the school and Squeers, though this is dismissed as an illusion due to his illness, though later this turns out to be true. Smike dies peacefully in the arms of Nicholas, declaring his love of Kate.
After the cancelled wedding, Ralph and Gride discover that Peg Sliderskew, Gride’s aged housekeeper, has robbed Gride of various things including in the will. They despatch Squeers to recover them, but Noggs learns of the plot.
Noggs and Frank Cheeryble manage to get there first and have Squeers arrested. The Cheerybles confront Ralph, explaining his various plots against Nicholas have failed. They threaten him with legal action if he doesn’t leave London, because Squeers is ready to confess and implicate him.
Ralph is told that Smike has died and shows glee at the news. But the brothers and Brooker reveal that Smike was his son. Brooker as his clerk had been entrusted with Smike when Ralph’s wife had left them. He sent him to Squeers’s school and told Ralph that he was dead. Ralph commits suicide as a result. Brooker dies penitent.
Noggs regains his respectability. Squeers is sentenced to transportation to Australia, which prompts the boys at Dotheboys Hall to rebel and escape, assisted by John Browdie.
Kate and Frank Cheeryble marry, and Tim Linkinwater marries Miss LaCreevy.
Nicholas becomes a partner in the Cheerybles company and marries Madeline.
The Nicklebys and their extended family return to Devonshire where they live happily while grieving over Smike’s grave.
Nicholas with Smike
Nicholas Nickleby – hero of the novel
Ralph Nickleby – the main antagonist, Nicholas’s uncle
Catherine “Kate” Nickleby – Nicholas’s younger sister
Mrs. Catherine Nickleby – Nicholas and Kate’s mother
Newman Noggs – Ralph’s clerk
Smike – who has been in Squeers’s care from very young
Wackford Squeers – cruel ‘schoolmaster’ of Dotheboys Hall
Charles and Ned Cheeryble – identical twin wealthy brothers
Madeline Bray – a beautiful but destitute young woman
Sir Mulberry Hawk – a lecherous and devious gentleman
Lord Frederick Verisopht – a young nobleman, Hawk’s dupe
Brooker – A mysterious figure, an old beggar
Mrs Squeers – more cruel, less affectionate than her husband
Fanny Squeers – the Squeers’s unattractive daughter
John Browdie – a bluff Yorkshire corn merchant
Miss La Creevy: The Nicklebys’ landlady, a portrait painter
Mr and Madame Mantalini – milliners, Kate’s employers
Miss Knag – Mrs Mantalini’s right-hand woman
Henry and Julia Wititterly – social-climbing couple, hire Kate
Mr Vincent Crummles – the actor-manager of the troupe
Mrs Crummles – a diva
Miss Ninetta Crummles – ‘Infant Phenomenon’, daughter
Mr Pluck and Mr Pyke – stooges to Hawk and Verisopht
Arthur Gride – an elderly miser and associate of Ralph
Peg Sliderskew – Gride’s elderly housekeeper
Young Wackford Squeers – the Squeers’s loutish son
Matilda ‘Tilda’ Price (Browdie) – Fanny’s best friend
Phib (Phoebe)- the Squeers’s housemaid
Hannah – Miss La Creevy’s maid
Mr Snawley – oil merchant places two stepsons with Squeers
The Kenwigs family – Newman Noggs’s neighbours
Mr Lillyvick – Mrs Kenwigs’s uncle
Henrietta Petowker – a minor actress
Frank Cheeryble – Ned’s and Charles’s nephew
Walter Bray – Madeline’s father
Tim Linkinwater: – the Cheerybles’ devoted clerk
The Man Next Door – madman, lives next to the Nicklebys
Mr Augustus ‘Tommy’ Folair – a pantomimist with Crummles
Miss Snevellicci – the leading lady in Crummles troupe
Mr Thomas Lenville – the tragedian in Crummles troupe
Borum, Mr and Mrs
Cutler, Mr and Mrs
Dabber, Sir Dingleby
Dowdles, The Two Miss
Grimble, Sir Thomas
La Creevy, John
Ledrook, Miss (Led)
Nickleby, Mrs Godfrey
Nickleby, Mrs Nicholas
Nickleby, Nicholas Sr
Nickleby, Mrs Ralph
Pupker, Sir Matther
Snuffim, Sir Tumley
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).
Great quotes from Nicholas Nickleby:
Happiness is a gift and the trick is not to expect it, but to delight in it when it comes
Such is hope, heaven’s own gift to struggling mortals…
Weakness is tiring, but strength is exhausting.
The pain of parting is nothing to the joy of meeting again.
Family need not be defined merely as those with whom we share blood, but as those for whom we would give our blood.
If a man would commit an inexpiable offence against any society, large or small, let him be successful. They will forgive any crime except that.