Readers are advised that this post makes the detail of the plot explicit. But you probably weren’t planning on reading the book anyway.
My only recollection from reading Nicholas Nickleby in high school is that I liked it. Forty-five years later I understand why I liked it but I don’t see how I got through it. It’s picaresque—the full title is The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby— with the usual unmanageable cast of characters and is exceptionally rambling. Dickens’ third novel, it was written in monthly installments that carried on for nearly two years, which meant that on any given month he could go off onto some kind of tangent. He does this a lot. One bought the paper installments much like one now buy serialized e-books and for the same reason: to find out what happens. It would have annoyed me no end to have the main tale interrupted for two months while I had to read about the “gentleman in small clothes” who threw root vegetables over the wall to Mrs Nickleby as an apparent overture of affection.
I’ll be as succinct as I can with the main tale: when Nicholas, his mother, and his sister Kate are left without money at his father’s death, they apply to their father’s rich brother, Ralph to help them out. Ralph, a villain I loved to hate, gives the two women a small allowance and a nasty little house and sends Nicholas to teach at a boarding school in Yorkshire. Now I have been to Yorkshire and have familial connections with the North Riding. It’s beautiful and the people are lovely and they say “aye” instead of “yes.” But I gather that in Dickens’ time sending someone to Yorkshire was like sending him to Siberia. (It should now be understood that I’m not being succinct any longer). In the 1800s there were a bunch of boarding schools in Yorkshire where unwanted children were starved and beaten in exchange for generous guilt tuition. Dickens visited some of these schools before writing his scathing descriptions in Nicholas Nickleby and it seems that within ten years of the book’s publication and because of its influence, all of them had closed down.
Back to the novel: One of the residents of Dotheboys School is Smike, a young man of 19 who was first dropped off at the school at the age of about five and who has been so mistreated and malnourished that he has grown up unable to talk clearly, stand up straight or walk without strange limps and contortions. Nicholas who has observed the abuse handed out to his charges by Wackford Squeers, the one-eyed owner of the school feels helpless to interfere until a day that Mr. Squeers prepares to beat Smike particularly severely. Nicholas intercepts the whip and goes after Mr. Squeers himself, after which he packs himself off, intending to walk to London.
Once on the road, he discovers that Smike has followed him and the two become fellow travelers. They become involved with a provincial acting company of generous artists, over-sized egos, sullen performers and The Infant Phenomenon, a female billed as age 10 but who looks twice that age. There are some touching scenes with Nicholas helping Smike learn the lines for the apothecary in Romeo and Juliet. With warmhearted support from the entire acting troupe, Smike delivers in the performance.
Back in London, Ralph is infuriated by the news from Yorkshire even as he goes about his many exploitative schemes to make money. He develops an intense hatred of Nicholas, seemingly for his idealism and youth, even as he tries to insinuate himself into the lives of Mrs. Nickleby and Kate and tries to marry Kate off to a predatory but rich man.
There’s a mole in Ralph’s office: his secretary, Newman Noggs, a man with ticks and quirks, “shrugging his shoulders and cracking his finger-joints, smiling horribly all the time, and looking steadfastly at nothing, out of the tops of his eyes, in a most ghastly manner.” Throughout the novel Newman goes about quietly undermining Ralph while looking after the interests of Kate and Mrs. Nickleby. He was the connecting thread that held the novel together for me; he was liable to show up anywhere weaving a web around Ralph while serving him without the “smallest speculation” in his face. “If it be possible to imagine a man, with two eyes in his head, and both wide open, looking in no direction whatever, and seeing nothing, Newman appeared to be that man while Ralph Nickleby regarded him.”
When Nicholas gets word of how Kate is being exploited, he and Smike leave the acting troupe and go to London. Nicholas removes his family from Ralph’s machinations. He finds a job and falls in love, but the woman is at the crux of one of Ralph’s schemes. Nicholas marries her and as a result Ralph loses a great deal of money. The wheel of fortune has turned. But there’s more.
Smike dies of tuberculosis. Through a tale of past and present as twisted as London’s streets and involving numerous characters old and newly introduced, Ralph and the reader learn simultaneously that Smike was his son. Chapter 62 is titled “Ralph makes one last Appointment—and keeps it.” The next day he is found by his neighbors hanging from a beam in the attic room of his home where Smike spent the first five years of his life. So—if you’re following this—Nicholas and Smike were cousins. It made me think back over all the scenes of the two of them and burst into tears.
Finally here is a marvelous description of the London that Nicholas and Smike entered when they came home to save the day for the Nickleby family:
“Emporiums of splendid dresses, the materials brought from every quarter of the world; tempting stores of everything to stimulate and pamper the sated appetite . . . 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.
. . . 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; and the old country lady inside, who had put her head out of the coach-window a mile or two this side Kingston, and cried out to the driver that she was sure he must have passed it and forgotten to set her down, was satisfied at last.”