The novel centres on the life and adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, a young man who must support his mother and sister after his father dies.
Cover of serial, Vol. 13 1839
|Original title||The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby|
|Illustrator||Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz)|
|Published||Serialised March 1838 -October 1839; book format 1839|
|Publisher||Chapman & Hall|
|Pages||952 (first edition)|
|Preceded by||Oliver Twist|
|Followed by||The Old Curiosity Shop|
Nicholas Nickleby is Charles Dickens's third published novel. He returned to his favourite publishers and to the format that was considered so successful with The Pickwick Papers. The story first appeared in monthly parts, after which it was issued in one volume. The style is considered to be episodic and humorous, though the second half of the novel becomes more serious and tightly plotted. Dickens began writing Nickleby while still working on Oliver Twist and while the mood is considerably lighter, his depiction of the Yorkshire school run by Wackford Squeers is as moving and influential as those of the workhouse and criminal underclass in Twist.
Nickleby marks a new development in a further sense as it is the first of Dickens's romances. When it was published the book was an immediate and complete success and established Dickens's lasting reputation.
The cruelty of a real Yorkshire schoolmaster named William Shaw became the basis for Dickens's brutal character of Wackford Squeers. Dickens visited Shaw's school in Bowes and based the school section of Nicholas Nickleby on his visit.
Like most of Dickens's early works, the novel had a contemporary setting. Much of the action takes place in London, with several chapters taking place in Dickens's birthplace of Portsmouth, as well as settings in Yorkshire and Devon.
The tone of the work is that of ironic social satire, with Dickens taking aim at what he perceives to be social injustices. Many memorable characters are introduced, including Nicholas's malevolent Uncle Ralph, and the villainous Wackford Squeers, who operates an abusive all-boys boarding school at which Nicholas temporarily serves as a tutor.
Nicholas Nickleby's father dies unexpectedly after losing all of his money in a poor investment. Nicholas, his mother and his younger sister, Kate, are forced to give up their comfortable lifestyle in Devonshire and travel to London to seek the aid of their only relative, Nicholas's uncle, Ralph Nickleby. Ralph, a cold and ruthless businessman, has no desire to help his destitute relations and hates Nicholas, who reminds him of his dead brother, on sight. He gets Nicholas a low-paying job as an assistant to Wackford Squeers, who runs the school Dotheboys Hall in Yorkshire. Nicholas is initially wary of Squeers (a very unpleasant man with one eye) because he is gruff and violent towards his young charges, but he tries to quell his suspicions. As Nicholas boards the stagecoach for Greta Bridge, he is handed a letter by Ralph's clerk, Newman Noggs. A once-wealthy businessman, Noggs lost his fortune, became a drunk, and had no other recourse but to seek employment with Ralph, whom he loathes. The letter expresses concern for him as an innocent young man, and offers assistance if Nicholas ever requires it. Once he arrives in Yorkshire, Nicholas comes to realise that Squeers is running a scam: he takes in unwanted children (most of whom are illegitimate, crippled or deformed) for a high fee, and starves and mistreats them while using the money sent by their parents, who only want to get them out of their way, to pad his own pockets. Squeers and his monstrous wife whip and beat the children regularly, while spoiling their own son. Lessons are no better; they show how poorly educated Squeers himself is and he uses the lessons as excuses to send the boys off on chores. While he is there, Nicholas befriends a "simple" boy named Smike, who is older than the other "students" and now acts as an unpaid servant. Nicholas attracts the attention of Fanny Squeers, his employer's plain and shrewish daughter, who deludes herself into thinking that Nicholas is in love with her. She attempts to disclose her affections during a game of cards, but Nicholas doesn't catch her meaning. Instead he ends up flirting with her friend Tilda Price, to the consternation of both Fanny and Tilda's friendly but crude-mannered fiancé John Browdie. After being accosted by Fanny again, Nicholas bluntly tells her he does not return her affections and wishes to be free of the horrible atmosphere of Dotheboys Hall, earning her enmity.
Fanny uses her new-found loathing of Nicholas to make life difficult for the only friend he has at the school: Smike, whom Squeers takes to beating more and more frequently. One day Smike runs away, but is caught and brought back to Dotheboys. Squeers begins to beat him, but Nicholas intervenes. Squeers strikes him across the face and Nicholas snaps, beating the schoolmaster violently. During the fight, Fanny steps in and attacks Nicholas, hating him for rejecting her love. Nicholas ignores her and goes on to beat Squeers bloody. Quickly packing his belongings and leaving Dotheboys Hall, he meets John Browdie on the way. Browdie finds the idea that Squeers himself has been beaten uproariously funny, and gives Nicholas money and a walking staff to aid him on his trip back to London. At dawn, he is found by Smike, who begs to come with him. Nicholas and Smike set out towards London. Among other things, Nicholas wants to find out what Squeers is going to tell his uncle.
Meanwhile, Kate and her mother are forced by Ralph to move out of their lodgings in the house of the kindly portrait painter Miss LaCreevy and into a cold and draughty house Ralph owns in a London slum. Ralph finds employment for Kate working for a fashionable milliner, Madame Mantalini. Her husband, Mr Mantalini, is a gigolo who depends on his (significantly older) wife to supply his extravagant tastes, and offends Kate by leering at her. Kate proves initially clumsy at her job, which endears her to the head of the showroom, Miss Knag, a vain and foolish woman who uses Kate to make herself look better. This backfires when a client prefers to be served by the young and pretty Kate rather than the ageing Miss Knag. Kate is blamed for the insult, and as a result, Kate is ostracised by the other milliners and left friendless.
Nicholas seeks out the aid of Newman Noggs, who shows him a letter that Fanny Squeers has written to Ralph. It viciously exaggerates the events of the beating and slanders Nicholas. They suspect Ralph secretly knows the truth, but is latching onto Fanny's account to further persecute Nicholas. Noggs tells Nicholas, who is intent on confronting his uncle, that Ralph is out of town and advises him to find a job. Nicholas goes to an employment office, where he encounters a strikingly beautiful girl. His search for employment fails, and he is about to give up when Noggs offers him the meagre position of French teacher to the children of his neighbours, the Kenwigs family, and Nicholas is hired under the assumed name of "Johnson" to teach the children French.
Ralph asks Kate to attend a dinner he is hosting for some business associates. When she arrives she discovers she is the only woman in attendance, and it becomes clear Ralph is using her as bait to entice the foolish nobleman Lord Frederick Verisopht to do business with him. The other guests include Verisopht's mentor and friend, the disreputable nobleman Sir Mulberry Hawk, who humiliates Kate at dinner by making her the subject of an offensive bet. She flees the table, but is later accosted by Hawk. He attempts to force himself on her but is stopped by Ralph. Ralph shows some unexpected tenderness towards Kate but insinuates that he will withdraw his financial help if she tells her mother about what happened.
The next day, Nicholas discovers that his uncle has returned. He visits his mother and sister just as Ralph is reading them Fanny Squeers' letter and slandering Nicholas. He confronts his uncle, who vows to give no financial assistance to the Nicklebys as long as Nicholas stays with them. His hand forced, Nicholas agrees to leave London, but warns Ralph that a day of reckoning will one day come between them.
The next morning, Nicholas and Smike travel towards Portsmouth with the intention of becoming sailors. At an inn, they encounter the theatrical manager Vincent Crummles, who hires Nicholas (still going under the name of Johnson) on sight. Nicholas is the new juvenile lead, and also playwright, with the task of adapting French tragedies into English and then modifying them for the troupe's minimal dramatic abilities. Nicholas and Smike join the acting company and are warmly received by the troupe, which includes Crummles's formidable wife, their daughter, "The Infant Phenomenon", and many other eccentric and melodramatic thespians. Nicholas and Smike make their debuts in Romeo and Juliet, as Romeo and the Apothecary respectively, and are met with great acclaim from the provincial audiences. Nicholas enjoys a flirtation with his Juliet, the lovely Miss Snevellici.
Back in London, Mr Mantalini's reckless spending has bankrupted his wife. Madame Mantalini is forced to sell her business to Miss Knag, whose first order of business is to fire Kate. She finds employment as the companion of the social-climbing Mrs Wittiterly. Meanwhile, Sir Mulberry Hawk begins a plot to humiliate Kate for refusing his advances. He uses Lord Frederick, who is infatuated with her, to discover where she lives from Ralph. He is about to succeed in this plot when Mrs. Nickleby enters Ralph's office, and the two rakes switch their attentions from Kate's uncle to her mother, successfully worming their way into Mrs Nickleby's company and gaining access to the Wittiterly house. Mrs. Wittiterly grows jealous and admonishes Kate for flirting with the noblemen. The unfairness of this accusation makes Kate so angry that she rebukes her employer, who flies into a fit of hysterics. With no other recourse, Kate goes to her uncle for assistance, but he refuses to help her, citing his business relationships with Hawk and Verisopht. It is left to Newman Noggs to come to her aid, and he writes to Nicholas, telling him in vague terms of his sister's urgent need of him. Nicholas immediately quits the Crummles troupe and returns to London.
Noggs and Miss La Creevy confer, and decide to delay telling Nicholas of Kate's plight until it is too late at night for him to seek out Hawk and take violent action. So, when Nicholas arrives, both Noggs and Miss La Creevy are out. Nicholas is about to search the city for them when he accidentally overhears Hawk and Lord Frederick rudely toasting Kate in a coffeehouse. He is able to glean from their conversation what has happened, and confronts them. Hawk refuses to give Nicholas his name or respond to his accusations. When he attempts to leave, Nicholas follows him out, and leaps onto the running board of his carriage, demanding his name. Hawk strikes him with a riding crop, and Nicholas loses his temper, returning the blow and spooking the horses, causing the carriage to crash. Hawk is injured in the crash and vows revenge, but Lord Verisopht, remorseful for his treatment of Kate, tells him that he will attempt to stop him. Later, after Hawk has recovered, they quarrel over Hawk's insistence on revenging himself against Nicholas. Verisopht strikes Hawk, resulting in a duel. Verisopht is killed, and Hawk flees to France. As a result, Ralph loses a large sum of money owed to him by the deceased lord.
Nicholas collects Kate from the Wittiterlys, and with their mother and Smike, they move back into Miss LaCreevy's house. Nicholas pens a letter to Ralph, refusing, on behalf of his family, a penny of his uncle's money or influence. Returning to the employment office, Nicholas meets Charles Cheeryble, a wealthy and extremely benevolent merchant who runs a business with his twin brother Ned. Hearing Nicholas's story, the brothers take him into their employ at a generous salary and provide his family with a small house in a London suburb.
Ralph encounters a beggar, who recognises him and reveals himself as Brooker, Ralph's former employee. He attempts to blackmail Ralph with a piece of unknown information, but is driven off. Returning to his office, Ralph receives Nicholas's letter and begins plotting against his nephew in earnest. Wackford Squeers returns to London and joins Ralph in his plots.
Smike, on a London street, has the misfortune to run into Squeers, who kidnaps him. Luckily for Smike, John Browdie is honeymooning in London with his new wife Tilda and discovers his predicament. When they have dinner with Squeers, Browdie fakes an illness and takes the opportunity to rescue Smike and send him back to Nicholas. In gratitude, Nicholas invites the Browdies to dinner. At the party, also attended by the Cheerybles's nephew Frank and their elderly clerk Tim Linkinwater, Ralph and Squeers attempt to reclaim Smike by presenting forged documents to the effect that he is the long-lost son of a man named Snawley (who, in actuality, is a friend of Squeers with children at Dotheboys Hall). Smike refuses to go, but the threat of legal action remains.
While at work, Nicholas encounters the beautiful young woman he had seen in the employment office and realises he is in love with her. The brothers tell him that her name is Madeline Bray, the penniless daughter of a debtor, Walter Bray, and enlist his help in obtaining small sums of money for her by commissioning her artwork, the only way they can help her due to her tyrannical father.
Arthur Gride, an elderly miser, offers to pay a debt Ralph is owed by Walter Bray in exchange for the moneylender's help. Gride has illegally gained possession of the will of Madeline's grandfather, and she will become an heiress upon the event of her marriage. The two moneylenders persuade Bray to bully his daughter into accepting the disgusting Gride as a husband, with the promise of paying off his debts. Ralph is not aware of Nicholas's involvement with the Brays, and Nicholas does not discover Ralph's scheme until the eve of the wedding. He appeals to Madeline to cancel the wedding, but despite her feelings for Nicholas, she is too devoted to her dying father to go against his wishes. On the day of the wedding, Nicholas attempts to stop it once more but his efforts prove academic when Bray, guilt-ridden at the sacrifice his daughter has made for him, dies unexpectedly. Madeline thus has no reason to marry Gride and Nicholas and Kate take her to their house to recover.
Smike has contracted tuberculosis and become dangerously ill. In a last attempt to save his friend's health, Nicholas takes him to his childhood home in Devonshire, but Smike's health rapidly deteriorates. On his deathbed, Smike is startled to see the man who brought him to Squeers's school. Nicholas dismisses it as an illusion but it is later revealed that Smike was right. After confessing his love for Kate, Smike dies peacefully in Nicholas's arms.
When they return to Gride's home after the aborted wedding, Ralph and Gride discover that Peg Sliderskew, Gride's aged housekeeper, has robbed Gride, taking, amongst other things, the will. To get it back, Ralph enlists Wackford Squeers's services to track down Peg. Noggs discovers this plot, and with the help of Frank Cheeryble, he is able to recover the will and have Squeers arrested.
The Cheeryble brothers confront Ralph, informing him that his various schemes against Nicholas have failed. They advise him to retire from London before charges are brought up against him, as Squeers is determined to confess all and implicate Ralph. He refuses their help, but is summoned back to their offices that evening and told that Smike is dead. When he reacts to the news with vicious glee, the brothers reveal their final card. The beggar Brooker emerges, and tells Ralph that Smike was his own son. As a young man, Ralph had married a woman for her fortune, but kept it secret so she would not forfeit her inheritance for marrying without her brother's consent, and wait for the brother to die. She eventually left him after bearing him a son, whom he entrusted to Brooker, who was then his clerk. Brooker, taking the opportunity for vengeance, took the boy to Squeers' school and told Ralph the boy had died. Brooker now repents his action, but a transportation sentence kept him from putting the matter right. Devastated at the thought that his only son died as the best friend of his greatest enemy, Ralph commits suicide. His ill-gotten fortune ends up in the state coffers because he died intestate and his estranged relatives decline to claim it.
Squeers is sentenced to transportation to Australia, and, upon hearing this, the boys at Dotheboys Hall rebel against the Squeers family and escape with the assistance of John Browdie. Nicholas becomes a partner in the Cheerybles' firm and marries Madeline. Kate and Frank Cheeryble also marry, as do Tim Linkinwater and Miss LaCreevy. Brooker dies penitent. Noggs recovers his respectability. The Nicklebys and their now extended family return to Devonshire, where they live in peace and contentment and grieve over Smike's grave.
As in most of Dickens's works, there is a sprawling number of characters in the book. The major characters in Nicholas Nickleby include:
While some consider the book to be among the finest works of 19th century comedy, Nicholas Nickleby is occasionally criticised for its lack of character development.
The novel has been adapted for stage, film or television at least seven times. A large-scale version (from playwright David Edgar) was premiered in 1980 in the West End by the Royal Shakespeare Company. It was a theatrical experience which lasted more than ten hours (counting intermissions and a dinner break – the actual playing time was approximately eight-and-a-half hours). 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, and David Threlfall, who played Smike (due to the large amount of time they were on stage). The play moved to Broadway in 1981. In 1982 the RSC had the show recorded as three two-hour and one three-hour episode for Channel 4, where it became the channel's first drama. In 1983, it was shown on television in the United States, where it won an Emmy Award for Best Mini-Series. This version was released on DVD and rebroadcast in December 2007 on BBC Four.
In 2006 Edgar prepared a shorter version for a production at the Chichester Festival, which transferred in December 2007 and January 2008 to the Gielgud Theatre in the West End. This version has been produced in the US by the California Shakespeare Festival.
Early theatrical adaptations include Smike, the 1838 Nicholas Nickleby; or, Doings at Do-The-Boys Hall (premièred at the Adelphi Theatre and City of London Theatre, and featuring Mary Anne Keeley as Smike), an 1850s American version featuring Joseph Jefferson as Newman Noggs, and another in the late-19th century featuring Nellie Farren as Smike. The most recent theatre adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby as a musical was performed by The Bedford Marianettes. The world premiere opened on 23 October 2012 at The Place theatre in Bedford, featuring Daniel Pothecary as the eponymous Nicholas Nickleby, Chris Lynch as Smike and Bill Prince as Mr Squeers. The music, lyrics and libretto were written by Tim Brewster and are available for both professional and amateur production.
An early theatrical version actually appeared before publication of the serialised novel was finished, with the resolution of the stage play wildly different from the finished novel. Dickens' offence at this plagiarism prompted him to have Nicholas encounter a "literary gentleman" in chapter forty-eight of the novel. The gentleman brags that he has dramatised two hundred and forty-seven novels "as fast as they had come out – in some cases faster than they had come out", and claims to have thus bestowed fame on their authors. In response Nicholas delivers a lengthy and heated condemnation of the practice of adapting still-unfinished books without the author's permission, going so far as to say:
If I were a writer of books, and you a thirsty dramatist, I would rather pay your tavern score for six months, large as it might be, than to have a niche in the Temple of Fame with you for the humblest corner of my pedestal, through six hundred generations— chapter 48.
A two-minute short showing the fight scene at "Dotheboys Hall" was released in 1903. A half-hour film adaptation which attempted to cover most of the novel followed in 1912, featuring Victory Bateman as Miss La Creevey and Ethyle Cooke as Miss Snevellici. The first sound film adaptation, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, was released in 1947, starring Cedric Hardwicke as Ralph Nickleby, Sally Ann Howes as Kate, Derek Bond as Nicholas and Stanley Holloway as Crummles.
In 1957, it was a TV series lasting one season, with William Russell in the title role.
In 1968, it was made into a TV serial starring Martin Jarvis.
In 1977, BBC Television adapted the novel in a production directed by Christopher Barry, starring Nigel Havers in the title role, Derek Francis as Wackford Squeers and Patricia Routledge as Madame Mantalini.
In 2001, ITV produced The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby winning a BAFTA and an RTS award for costume design. It was directed by Stephen Whittaker. It features James D'Arcy, Charles Dance, Pam Ferris, Lee Ingleby, Gregor Fisher, Tom Hollander, J. J. Feild and Tom Hiddleston.
In 2002, Nicholas Nickleby was released. It was directed by American director Douglas McGrath and its cast featured Charlie Hunnam, Anne Hathaway, Jamie Bell, Alan Cumming, Jim Broadbent, Christopher Plummer, Juliet Stevenson, Nathan Lane, Tom Courtenay and Barry Humphries.
In 2012, the novel was adapted as a modern drama (with several changes to the plot and characters) for the BBC, filmed in Belfast, Northern Ireland, with mainly local actors. The five-part series was titled Nick Nickleby. In this version, the title character is played by Andrew Simpson, with Linda Bassett as Mrs Smike, Adrian Dunbar as Ralph Nickleby, Jonathan Harden as Newman Noggs (also narrating the series), Bronagh Gallagher as Mrs Nickleby and Jayne Wisener (Kat Nickleby) also starring. It was aired on BBC One from 5–9 November at 2:15pm. Each episode was 45 minutes long and produced by Kindle Entertainment Ltd and distributed by Indigo Film and Television.
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: