Dreams are the bright creatures of poem and legend, who sport on earth in the night season, and melt away in the first beam of the sun, which lights grim care and stern reality on their daily pilgrimage through the world.

Reading Nicholas Nickleby straight after Pickwick and Oliver Twist, the abilities and ambitions of the young author begin to to take shape, while the autobiographical element continues to thread its way through the narrative.

The writing and serialization of Nicholas Nickelby, through 1837 -1839, overlapped with that of Oliver Twist, and encouraged by the popular success of that novel with its indictment of the workhouses of the New Poor Law, Dickens began with the idea of taking on another social injustice which he had learned of from press reports: the scandal of the ‘Yorkshire Schools’ and in particular the notorious case of William Shaw, headmaster of Bowes Academy in Greta Bridge.

Dickens decided that he would expose these schools in his new novel – schools where unwanted children were incarcerated in squalid conditions, malnourished and tyrannised by brutal adults.  The schools were often advertised in the London newspapers, and Dickens had seen William Shaw’s own advertisement which claimed that ‘YOUTH are carefully instructed in English, Latin and Greek languages …Common and Decimal Arithmetic; Book-keeping, Mensuration, Surveying, Geometry, Geography and Navigation … No extra charges whatever, Doctor’s bills excepted.  No vacations.’

That ‘navigation’ tickled Dickens, who adapted it for the advertisement for Dotheboys Hall which Ralph Nickleby reads out to his nephew Nicholas in chapter 3:

 ‘This caught my eye this morning, and you may thank your stars for it.’  With this exordium, Mr Ralph Nickleby took a newspaper from his pocket, and after unfolding it, and looking for a short time among the advertisements, read as follows:

“EDUCATION.–At Mr Wackford Squeers’s Academy, Dotheboys Hall, at the delightful village of Dotheboys, near Greta Bridge in Yorkshire, Youth are boarded, clothed, booked, furnished with pocket-money, provided with all necessaries, instructed in all languages living and dead, mathematics, orthography, geometry, astronomy, trigonometry, the use of the globes, algebra, single stick (if required), writing, arithmetic, fortification, and every other branch of classical literature.

Dickens actually met Shaw, when travelling incognito with his illustrator Hablot Brown (Phiz) to Yorkshire in January 1838 to research the Yorkshire Schools for his novel.  Shaw had been prosecuted in 1823 by the parents of two children who went blind while in his care at Bowes Academy, and in the local graveyard Dickens noted that between 1810 and 1834 twenty-five boys from the school, aged between 7 and 18 had been buried there.

The scenes at Dotheboys Hall which form the early chapters of the novel echo those of the workhouse in Oliver Twist, and reflect his  concern with child cruelty and neglect, the failings of educational provision and the way in which ignorance lay at the root of social ills – a deep concern that threads its way through all his work:

Pale and haggard faces, lank and bony figures, children with the countenances of old men, deformities with irons upon their limbs, boys of stunted growth, and others whose long meagre legs would hardly bear their stooping bodies, all crowded on the view together; there were the bleared eye, the hare-lip, the crooked foot, and every ugliness or distortion that told of unnatural aversion conceived by parents for their offspring, or of young lives which, from the earliest dawn of infancy, had been one horrible endurance of cruelty and neglect. There were little faces which should have been handsome, darkened with the scowl of sullen, dogged suffering; there was childhood with the light of its eye quenched, its beauty gone, and its helplessness alone remaining; there were vicious-faced boys, brooding, with leaden eyes, like malefactors in a jail; and there were young creatures on whom the sins of their frail parents had descended, weeping even for the mercenary nurses they had known, and lonesome even in their loneliness. With every kindly sympathy and affection blasted in its birth, with every young and healthy feeling flogged and starved down, with every revengeful passion that can fester in swollen hearts, eating its evil way to their core in silence, what an incipient Hell was breeding here!

But there is much comedy, even here in the harsh Yorkshire episodes.  Indeed, although the novel pits light against dark, evil against goodness, the overall tone is comic and lively, with episodes that hark back to Pickwick Papers: the storytelling in the inn on the way to Yorkshire, the hilarious breakfast set-to between Madam Mantalini and her husband, the performances of the Crummles’ theatrical troupe, and the old gentleman on the other side of the wall who becomes infatuated with Mrs Nickleby are all richly comic and light-hearted.

Dickens continues to re-work episodes from his own history.  Poor Smike’s abandonment by his father echoes that of Oliver – and Dickens’ own experience of the blacking factory, which he never forget.  His love of the stage and his own involvement in theatrical productions find their way into the high-spirited scenes that feature Mr Vincent Crummles, Mrs Vincent Crummles, Master Crummles, Master P. Crummles, and Miss Crummles, ‘the infant phenomenon’. Several commentators suggest that the personality of Nicholas himself – impetuous, quick to anger, firm in his opposition to injustice – is not unlike that of the writer himself, while Mrs Nickleby is cited as a portrait of Dickens’ own mother.  There is much more on the parallels between real people and fictional characters in Nicholas Nickleby in Peter Ackrod’s biography, though Ackroyd warns that

Dickens is rarely, if ever, a ‘realistic’ writer in any accepted sense; all of his polemic and observation are at the service of the larger themes or moods with which he animated his narrative.  What he saw, and remembered, was determined by what he felt; his temperament, grave or gay, filled the world its own shapes.

Dickens is ‘a mythologist, a poet of the novel’, writes Robert Giddings, in what is ostensibly a review of a 2002 film version of Nicholas Nickleby, but is in fact one of the most extensive online essays on the novel.

The novel is highly melodramatic, with goodness relentlessly pitched against pure evil, and a great deal of sentimentality in the portrayal of Smike and Kate Nickleby. The coincidences and lengthy and creaking plot expositions, can make the book frustrating in parts for a modern reader.  In the last few chapters especially, Dickens seems in a hurry to tie up the very loose ends of the mystery of Smike’s parentage. The final chapter in which, in the 18th century style, the author feels it necessary to tell us what happened to everyone afterwards is bathetic and unnecessary.

Set against these indictments, though, consider this, from Joyce Carol Oates in the current issue of the New York Review of Books:

If Dickens’s prose fiction has “defects”—excesses of melodrama, sentimentality, contrived plots, and manufactured happy endings—these are the defects of his era, which for all his greatness Dickens had not the rebellious spirit to resist; he was at heart a crowd-pleaser, a theatrical entertainer, with no interest in subverting the conventions of the novel

The Cheeryble brothers, Tim Linkinwater and Nicholas by Phiz

The melodramatic representation of moral values, the struggle between good and evil is central to the novel. Dickens’ heroes and villains are embodiments of moral absolutes, portrayed most vividly in the contrast between Ralph Nickleby and the Cheeryble brothers, all three of them in business, but pursuing their calling in diametrically different ways.

Ralph is introduced as a man of business, though what kind of business is unclear:

Mr Ralph Nickleby was not, strictly speaking, what you would call a merchant, neither was he a banker, nor an attorney, nor a special pleader, nor a notary. He was certainly not a tradesman, and still less could he lay any claim to the title of a professional gentleman; for it would have been impossible to mention any recognised profession to which he belonged. Nevertheless, as he lived in a spacious house in Golden Square, which, in addition to a brass plate upon the street-door, had another brass plate two sizes and a half smaller upon the left hand door-post, surrounding a brass model of an infant’s fist grasping a fragment of a skewer, and displaying the word ‘Office,’ it was clear that Mr Ralph Nickleby did, or pretended to do, business of some kind …

As Robert Giddings notes in his essay, this makes Ralph is a particularly relevant figure for our times:

He does not own land. He does not farm. He does not, apparently, actually work. He makes nothing. Except money.  He is a dealer, a chancer, a speculator and a swindler.

When we meet him, Ralph is on his way to a public meeting, part of a campaign to lobby support in Parliament for a bill to recognise a new joint-stock company – the delightfully-named and, again, very modern-sounding United Metropolitan Improved Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking and Punctual Delivery Company which intends to deal with the appalling state of the Muffin Trade (the houses of the poor in the various districts of London being destitute of the slightest vestige of a muffin) by ‘prohibiting, under heavy penalties, all private muffin trading of every description’ and ‘themselves supplying the public generally, and the poor at their own homes, with muffins of first quality at reduced prices’.

Meanwhile, we have learned that Ralph Nickelby’s brother, deceased father of Nicholas and Kate, has left the family destitute after speculating all his money on a similar enterprise, and losing everything:

Speculation is a round game; the players see little or nothing of their cards at first starting; gains MAY be great – and so may losses. The run of luck went against Mr Nickleby. A mania prevailed, a bubble burst, four stock-brokers took villa residences at Florence, four hundred nobodies were ruined, and among them Mr Nickleby.

Ralph Nickelby, though, is forged of a different metal.  A rich and miserly moneylender, he might seem to be a prototype for Scrooge; the difference is that Dickens allows Ralph Nickelby no redemption.  His evil plans and schemes ultimately are his undoing and he eventually hangs himself.  Nickelby’s impending doom is foreshadowed in several melodramatic passages such as this:

The night was dark, and 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 at 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.

…….He had to pass a poor, mean burial-ground – a dismal place, raised a few feet above the level of the street, and parted from it by a low parapet-wall and an iron railing; a rank, unwholesome, rotten spot, where the very grass and weeds seemed, in their frouzy growth, to tell that they had sprung from paupers’ bodies, and had struck their roots in the graves of men, sodden, while alive, in steaming courts and drunken hungry dens. And here, in truth, they lay, parted from the living by a little earth and a board or two – lay thick and close – corrupting in body as they had in mind- a dense and squalid crowd. Here they lay, cheek by jowl with life: no deeper down than the feet of the throng that passed there every day, and piled high as their throats.

The Cheeryble brothers, by contrast, build a thriving business by treating others with respect and compassion. They are largely responsible for helping Nicholas and his family rise from their sorry circumstances.  The chapter in which they are introduced and Nicholas starts his employment with them and chief clerk Tim Linkinwater’s birthday is celebrated is a crucial one, in which Dickens sketches his dream of an alternative world, however unlikely, ruled by goodness and kindness.

Everything gave back, besides, some reflection of the kindly spirit of the brothers. The warehousemen and porters were such sturdy, jolly fellows, that it was a treat to see them. Among the shipping announcements and steam-packet list’s which decorated the counting-house wall, were designs for almshouses, statements of charities, and plans for new hospitals. A blunderbuss and two swords hung above the chimney-piece, for the terror of evil-doers, but the blunderbuss was rusty and shattered, and the swords were broken and edgeless. Elsewhere, their open display in such a condition would have realised a smile; but, there, it seemed as though even violent and offensive weapons partook of the reigning influence, and became emblems of mercy and forbearance.


Dickens will come to be regarded as the great poet of London.  Already, in Nicholas Nickelby, there are splendid passageslike this one that richly evoke the city in his time:

They rattled on through the noisy, bustling, crowded street of London, now displaying long double rows of brightly-burning lamps, dotted here and there with the chemists’ glaring lights, and illuminated besides with the brilliant flood that streamed from the windows of the shops, where sparkling jewellery, silks and velvets of the richest colours, the most inviting delicacies, and most sumptuous articles of luxurious ornament, succeeded each other in rich and glittering profusion. Streams of people apparently without end poured on and on, jostling each other in the crowd and hurrying forward, scarcely seeming to notice the riches that surrounded them on every side; while vehicles of all shapes and makes, mingled up together in one moving mass, like running water, lent their ceaseless roar to swell the noise and tumult.

As they dashed by the quickly-changing and ever-varying objects, it was curious to observe in what a strange procession they passed before the eye. Emporiums of splendid dresses, the materials brought from every quarter of the world; tempting stores of everything to stimulate and pamper the sated appetite and give new relish to the oft-repeated feast; vessels of burnished gold and silver, wrought into every exquisite form of vase, and dish, and goblet; guns, swords, pistols, and patent engines of destruction; screws and irons for the crooked, clothes for the newly-born, drugs for the sick, coffins for the dead, and churchyards for the buried– all these jumbled each with the other and flocking side by side, seemed to flit by in motley dance like the fantastic groups of the old Dutch painter, and with the same stern moral for the unheeding restless crowd.

Nor were there wanting objects in the crowd itself to give new point and purpose to the shifting scene. The rags of the squalid ballad-singer fluttered in the rich light that showed the goldsmith’s treasures, pale and pinched-up faces hovered about the windows where was tempting food, hungry eyes wandered over the profusion guarded by one thin sheet of brittle glass–an iron wall to them; half-naked shivering figures stopped to gaze at Chinese shawls and golden stuffs of India. There was a christening party at the largest coffin-maker’s and a funeral hatchment had stopped some great improvements in the bravest mansion. Life and death went hand in hand; wealth and poverty stood side by side; repletion and starvation laid them down together.

But it was London.

Roger Rees and David Threlfall in David Edgar’s stage adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby

Leaving the novel aside, I’d like to recall the wonderful Royal Shakespeare Company production, directed by Trevor Nunn and adapted by David Edgar, that was filmed in a 9-hour version for television, the first major drama commissioned by Channel 4, transmitted in four parts on consecutive Sundays in November 1982. In his adaptation, Edgar drew out the novel’s evocation of a world of individual greed and ruthless commercialism in a subtle comment on the ethos of monetarism and Victorian values espoused by the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher.  Later Dickens adaptations such as the BBC’s Bleak House (1985) and Christine Edzard’s two-part film of Little Dorrit (1987) brilliantly followed its lead.

Finally, a memory of the time when I would read to my daughter:

‘I is reading it hundreds of times,’ the BFG said. ‘And I is still reading it and teaching new words to myself and how to write them. It is the most scrumdiddlyumptious story.’

Sophie took the book out of his hand. ‘Nicholas Nickleby,’ she read aloud.

‘By Dahl’s Chickens,’ the BFG said.

― Roald Dahl, The BFG

See also

2 thoughts on “Re-reading Dickens: Nicholas Nickleby, the most scrumdiddlyumptious story

  1. Nice one. I read it for the first time last year and loved it. This very evocative piece of writing brought back the genius of the story. And didn’t know the BFG quote – brilliant! Thank you.

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