Why Readers & Actors Love “Nicholas Nickleby”

Imagine an idealistic couple just out of graduate school, dazed by long years of performing arcane tasks like translating the Gettysburg Address into ancient Greek, and distressed by the discovery that their degrees have prepared them for only the lowest-paid jobs: teaching, writing for non-profits, or working as a paralegal.

It seemed that one minute we were reading the pre-Socratics and scanning the odes of Horace, and the next we were living in a dowdy dump and recovering from our commutes by attending exercise classes and binge-reading Henry Fielding.

One weekend we left our seedy digs to splurge on the eight-and-a-half hour play, Nicholas Nickleby. This adaptation of Dickens’s novel was charming, but I wished I had brought a pillow. I still remember the opening scene: enthusiastic actor/muffin vendors roamed the aisles and tossed muffins at the audience – which we never caught, unfortunately. We enjoyed ourselves but so exhausted by sitting that we left after four hours. “We could have read the book faster,” my mate murmured.

Roger Rees (Nicholas Nickleby) and David Threlfall (Smike) in the Royal Shakespeare Company production

Having just read Nicholas Nickleby for the third time, I am charmed by Dickens’s vibrant characters, bewitched by his hyperbole, thrilled by his witty dialogue, and grieved by the death of a favorite character. I see why it is perfect for the stage. For one thing, many of the characters are actors, and we see them both on- and off-stage. Nicholas Nickleby and his sidekick, Smike, fall in with a traveling theater: at an inn, they meet Mr. Vincent Crummles, who is directing his two sons in stage swordplay. And Mr. Crummles, always plotting new prospects for his theater troupe, hires Nicholas to write a play, and suggests Smike might be a good actor.

I love the adorable Mr. Crummles.

…Mr. Crummles looked, from time to time, with great interest at Smike, with whom he had appeared considerably struck from the first. He had now fallen asleep, and was nodding in his chair.

“Excuse my saying so,” said the manager, leaning over to Nicholas, and sinking his voice, “but what a capital countenance your friend has got!”

“Poor fellow!” said Nicholas, with a half smile, “I wish it were a little more plump, and less haggard.”

“Plump!” exclaimed the manager, quite horrified, “you’d spoil it for ever.”

“Do you think so?”

“Think so, sir! Why, as he is now,” said the manager, striking his knee emphatically; “without a pad upon his body, and hardly a touch of paint upon his face, he’d make such an actor for the starved business as was never seen in this country. Only let him be tolerably well up in the Apothecary in Romeo and Juliet with the slightest possible dab of red on the tip of his nose, and he’d be certain of three rounds the moment he put his head out of the practicable door in the front grooves O. P.”

“You view him with a professional eye,” said Nicholas, laughing.

“And well I may,” rejoined the manager. “I never saw a young fellow so regularly cut out for that line, since I’ve been in the profession. …”

This novel is really about family, biological families and found families, and eventually the Nicklebys have a large extended family of kind-hearted friends not related by blood. How else can an impoverished Dickensian family survive ? Nicholas, his mother Mrs. Nickleby, and his sister Kate go to London after their father’s death to seek help from Uncle Ralph Nickleby. He wants to be rid of them – and wants to kill off Nicholas.

Ralph acts on the “divide-and-conquer” strategy. He sends Nicholas to teach at a horror factory of a school directed by the sadistic Wackford Squeers. Nicholas rebels, whacks Wackford for beating his students, and is followed by the adoring Smike, a simpleton who has worked at the school for years as a slave. Meanwhile, back in London, Kate first works for a milliner (it doesn’t work out), then as a companion. Unfortunately, she is sexually harassed by friends of Ralph and is actually in danger .

Before I end this post, let me mention the magnificent Mrs. Nickleby, mother of Nicholas and Kate. She is one of Dickens’s stock characters, the silly middle-aged woman who, always confused, makes coy or absent-minded remarks which, in Dickens’s view, are more appropriate for a younger woman. Think of Flora Finching in Little Dorritt. I do not agree with his view of middle-aged women, and yet they are comic, brilliantly-drawn.

This is one of Dickens’s brilliant early books.