My reading of Dickens novels has started once more, this time with Nicholas Nickleby, his third novel. He began writing this simultaneously with the last installments of Oliver Twist just as he had begun Oliver while he was still writing Pickwick Papers. Dickens was full of energy and at all of twenty four years of age it is not surprising that he could handle the novel-writing along with some editing duties and forays into the theater that he loved to do.
In Nicholas Nickleby we find Dickens consolidating his approach in the two previous novels, returning to some of the humor found in Pickwick while continuing the social criticism begun in Oliver Twist.
The focus is on the boys' boarding schools in Yorkshire which were notorious for their poor conditions. Early in 1838 Dickens visited the schools in Yorkshire accompanied by his illustrator Hablot Browne and Dickens used some of his experiences in his novel. With Nicholas Nickleby we also see Dickens first attempt using a young man as his protagonist and incorporating the bildungsroman style into the novel along with the picaresque approach that was so effective in Pickwick Papers. The novel begins with Nicholas and his sister Kate and their mother destitute upon the death of their father. Turning to their uncle, Ralph Nickleby, they find a man comparable to Dicken's later creation, Scrooge (although a fellow member of our class at the Newberry Library suggested he more correctly corresponded to Marley, for as far as we know he will not be reformed). Here is a sample of the meeting with Ralph:
'Oh,' growled Ralph, with an ill-favoured frown, 'you are Nicholas, I(Chapter 3, pp. 36-37)
'That is my name, sir,' replied the youth.
'Put my hat down,' said Ralph, imperiously. 'Well, ma'am, how do you do?
You must bear up against sorrow, ma'am; I always do.'
'Mine was no common loss!' said Mrs Nickleby, applying her handkerchief
to her eyes.
'It was no Uncommon loss, ma'am,' returned Ralph, as he coolly
unbuttoned his spencer. 'Husbands die every day, ma'am, and wives too.'
'And brothers also, sir,' said Nicholas, with a glance of indignation.
'Yes, sir, and puppies, and pug-dogs likewise,' replied his uncle,
taking a chair. 'You didn't mention in your letter what my brother's
complaint was, ma'am.'
'The doctors could attribute it to no particular disease,' said Mrs
Nickleby; shedding tears. 'We have too much reason to fear that he died
of a broken heart.'
'Pooh!' said Ralph, 'there's no such thing. I can understand a man's
dying of a broken neck, or suffering from a broken arm, or a broken
head, or a broken leg, or a broken nose; but a broken heart!--nonsense,
it's the cant of the day. If a man can't pay his debts, he dies of a
broken heart, and his widow's a martyr.'
'Some people, I believe, have no hearts to break,' observed Nicholas,
'How old is this boy, for God's sake?' inquired Ralph, wheeling back his
chair, and surveying his nephew from head to foot with intense scorn.
'Nicholas is very nearly nineteen,' replied the widow.
'Nineteen, eh!' said Ralph; 'and what do you mean to do for your bread,
'Not to live upon my mother,' replied Nicholas, his heart swelling as he
'You'd have little enough to live upon, if you did,' retorted the uncle,
eyeing him contemptuously.
'Whatever it be,' said Nicholas, flushed with anger, 'I shall not look
to you to make it more.'
I look forward to the experiences of Nicholas at Mr. Wackford Squeer's Academy, Dotheboys Hall where he will be assisting Mr. Squeers. His education will be immediate and jolting to his refined character. Likewise his sister will find changes as she takes a position with a dress-maker. The story begins.
Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens. Penguin Classics. 2003 (1839).