Read an Excerpt
From Jill Muller’s Introduction to Nicholas Nickleby
Appropriately dedicated to actor-manager William Macready, Nicholas Nickleby is the most theatrical of Dickens’s novels. The members of the Crummles troupe of provincial players are only the most honest actors in a huge cast of performers: comedians, tragedians, villains and heroes of melodrama, monologists and mimes. Yet the show business exuberance of the novel is shadowed by a constant awareness of the injustice and cruelty of the world offstage. Dickens knew very well that the clown’s tomfoolery is sometimes a brittle defense against despair. Indeed while working on the early episodes of Nicholas Nickleby, he was also engaged in editing the memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi, the most celebrated clown in early Victorian England. Dickens and Grimaldi had much in common: Both men were driven and insecure, obsessively punctual and neat, and haunted by childhood misery. In Nicholas Nickleby, the writer’s two sides, comedian and social reformer, coexist in an exhilarating but sometimes uneasy partnership. Scenes of shocking abuse slide into slapstick and farce. Acts of violence and exploitation are performed by hilarious grotesques. Victims and villains are dogged by their comic doubles.
Dickens derives the central plot of Nicholas Nickleby from his own primal scene of childhood abandonment. As in Oliver Twist, the victim-hero is less interesting than many of the characters he encounters, and the sum of incidents and episodes far more entertaining and memorable than the underlying plot. However, the author has plainly learned from the main fault of Oliver Twist, the passivity and colorlessness of the hero, because this time he divides his experience of childhood suffering between two characters, Nicholas and Smike. Oliver’s passivity is bestowed upon Smike, freeing Dickens to place the more dynamic figure of Nicholas at the center of his narrative. Smike, the pitiful, mentally retarded son of Nicholas Nickleby’s chief villain, Ralph Nickleby, is abandoned in infancy to the tender mercies of the Squeers family at their Yorkshire boarding school, Dotheboys Hall. Although eventually rescued by Nicholas, he is too damaged to survive. He dies of a combination of tuberculosis and unrequited love. The novel’s closing scenes of marriages and pastoral contentment yield to a final contemplation of Smike’s grave. The dead boy represents the child victim that Dickens always carried within him, and to whom he would return with still more self-indulgent pathos in the figure of Little Nell in his next novel, The Old Curiosity Shop. Smike’s fate is the fate Dickens believed could have been his if he had lacked the energy and talent that propelled him out of poverty to early fame.
In Nicholas, Smike’s cousin and doppelganger, Dickens presents a more robust victim-hero who succeeds, like his creator, in triumphing over humiliation and misfortune. The eponymous protagonist of Nicholas Nickleby is a genteel Victorian version of Tom Jones or Roderick Random, the picaresque heroes of Fielding and Smollett, whose stories were Dickens’s favorite childhood reading. Young, handsome, and brave, forced by his parents’ financial mismanagement to fend for himself in a hostile world, he is also a rather flattering portrait of the artist as a young man. Like Dickens himself, and unlike Smike, Nicholas plays an active role in improving his fortunes; he is clever, resourceful, and quick to defend himself and those he loves from insult or injury. Yet, for all his intelligence and vigor, Nicholas is unable to win back his lost birthright, his identity as a gentleman, without the help of an unconvincing pair of fairy godfathers, the merchant-philanthropists Ned and Charles Cheeryble.
Although Dickens himself knew all too well that worldly success is seldom achieved without the exercise of aggressive and competitive instincts, he was at first reluctant to bestow any but noble and generous impulses on his protagonists. Hence his early heroes are no match for the relentless and gleeful malevolence of his villains. For one thing, they are inevitably associated with the values of a romanticized pre-industrial society. In the pre-history of Nicholas Nickleby, the hero’s grandfather, Godfrey Nickleby, marries imprudently for love and is saved from poverty only by a well-timed legacy. His fiscally naive younger son, Nicholas Senior, who chooses to “shun the great world and attach himself to the quiet routine of a country life,” loses his inheritance through risky speculation undertaken on the advice of his wife. The family estate is sold to strangers, Nickleby dies of grief, and his wife and children are left to struggle for subsistence in early Victorian London. When this man’s son, our Nicholas Nickleby, finally becomes “a rich and prosperous merchant,” he turns his back on the thriving city in which his fortune was made in order to “buy his father’s old house” in which “nothing with which there was any association of bygone days was ever removed or changed.” His deepest longings are melancholy and nostalgic; his future is an idealized past. In contrast, Nicholas’s wicked uncle, Ralph Nickleby, throws himself wholeheartedly into capitalism from an early age, progressing from making small-scale loans to his schoolfellows to becoming a director of the blatantly crooked United Metropolitan Improved Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking and Punctual Delivery Company, and a usurer with half of fashionable London in his debt. It is Ralph Nickleby, and not his nephew Nicholas, who embodies the raw, driven energy of the Victorian age, an energy that found voice and expression in Dickens himself. Nicholas Nickleby may represent Dickens’s ideals, but the restless and unscrupulous Ralph, who attributes his avarice to the early shock of his parents’ financial imprudence, also contains more than a trace of his creator.