Nicholas Nickleby – Charles Dickens

[I wrote this journal in ten sections, taking in two of the original twenty instalments at a time. I wrote about each pair of instalments before reading the next, so I never knew what was coming up in the rest of the novel.]

19 August 2016
Chapters 1-7 [I-II]
If you read a summary of these early chapters – I just did – it sounds almost unbearably bleak. This is from Wikipedia: ‘Ralph Nickleby, 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. Squeers … is gruff and violent towards his young charges….’ Ok. So how does Dickens make it so much fun?

He was only just 26 when he started to write this, having made his name with The Pickwick Papers. He had been writing two novels simultaneously for a while – he had begun Oliver Twist some months before finishing Pickwick – and, after finding time to edit somebody’s memoirs, he was back to the simultaneous production-line. He was finishing off Oliver as he began Nicholas Nickleby, and the task he seems to have set himself was to combine the campaigning spirit of the novel he was still working on – in his Preface to Nickleby he writes of ‘the monstrous neglect of education in England’ – with the comedy of the one that made his name. So what do we get? Comic nastiness? Maybe, but not only that. There’s comic incompetence in the behaviour of Nicholas’s father, who listened to his wife’s advice only once in his life – she suggested he should invest what money he had – and was so shocked by the ruin this brought on him and his family that ‘he solemnly commended them to One who never deserted the widow or her fatherless children … and observed, that he thought he could fall asleep.’ Before this, his suggestion that his brother Ralph would help them after his death is presented as evidence of how his mind is ‘wandering.’

There’s a kind of knockabout comedy in almost every character and every situation. Ralph Nickleby might be the unacceptable face of capitalism, but the detail of his comically small-minded need for money – it’s no accident that Dickens starts with the childish buying and selling scams of his early years – makes it easy for us to feel scorn rather than fear. He’s the first of two comic monsters we meet in these chapters, and he has an ill-paid factotum who seems as misanthropic as he is. This is Newman Noggs, another man fallen on hard times – wealth and poverty are already big themes – and he speaks to Ralph as contemptuously as Ralph speaks to him. It’s a topsy-turvy world, and before we’ve even met Nicholas, we accompany Ralph to the inauguration of a ‘great Joint Stock Company of national importance.’ In other words – Dickens makes no pretence of it being anything else, despite the hype – it’s another scam. Ralph and his fellow financiers will make fortunes on the backs, we know, of people like Ralph’s brother.

Language is a slippery thing in this world. When Ralph, to his horror and disdain, finds himself expected to help his brother’s widow and family, his solution is to present the first of his pragmatic quick fixes as a marvellous opportunity for Nicholas. His eye has been caught by Squeers’s newspaper advertisement, another product of linguistic fantasy. We’re into Chapter 3 by now, so we’re tuned into what is likely to be the reality behind the comedy hype: ‘Dotheboys Hall, at the delightful village of Dotheboys, near Greta Bridge in Yorkshire, Youth are boarded, clothed, booked, furnished with pocket-money, provided with all necessaries, instructed in all languages living and dead….’

You only need the most basic common sense to see through this almost random list of ready-made selling points, and Ralph Nickleby knows exactly what Squeers is about. (So does the reader. Dickens has already introduced a minor character who knows how to give the public what they want, the painter of miniature portraits. She doesn’t paint people as they are, but how they want to think of themselves – just as any parent or guardian would like to think of themselves as having the true welfare of their sons or wards at heart.) But, of course, Nicholas is the son of his guileless father, and when he seems determined to be taken in by Squeers’s humbug we begin to realise what kind of a novel this might be. Nicholas is loveable, but at this early stage he’s an idiot, like Candide. Ralph likes to play along with his nephew’s fantasies – ‘Bless me, only think! if he were to die, why your fortune’s made at once’ – but really, the world is a wicked place, and Nicholas is going to have to learn how to make his way in it. In his less sarcastic moments, Ralph l­ikes to remind both Nicholas and his mother – there’s a sister on the scene as well – that the world doesn’t owe any of them a living.

The subtitle for the first chapter had told us that it ‘Introduces all the Rest,’ and that’s what all these early chapters are doing. We know what Squeers is like as soon as we’ve seen his treatment of the little boy already in his charge when Ralph and Nicholas arrive, and this is only confirmed by his unashamed assurance to a new customer that everything’s fine, he will never need to think about his two boys again so long as the money keeps coming. Dickens keeps letting us know that Nicholas might have misgivings, but he doesn’t recognise these for what they are because he has no experience to allow him to judge a man like Squeers. It becomes part of the comedy that the reader can see what this innocent can’t – however much we might like him, he was clearly born yesterday, and in his own way he’s as absurd as both his uncle and Squeers.

I re-read Tom Jones recently, and I decided that there could never have been a Dickens without Fielding. Or maybe I just mean that Dickens took the novel back to its roots in the mid-18th Century, before novelists aimed to create a believable, realistic-seeming world. Characters, often with names that are somehow appropriate (like Wackford Squeers, surely named in homage to Thwackum in Tom Jones), move around in a virtual space of the novelist’s invention. Their behaviour approximates to that of human beings – the more sympathetic the character, the more fully rounded – and Dickens, like Fielding, always ascribes proper motives and responses. But really, it’s clear that both authors have some other purpose in mind than the creation of an entirely plausible world.

It’s the start of the journey to Yorkshire that made me think of Tom Jones. The middle third of that novel is set on the road, or various roads, and at the beginning of the second instalment of Dickens’s novel we’re at a coach station in a London that is straight out of one of his sketches. It’s a set piece of comic description and, once the coach sets off, the comedy of how Squeers’s little pupils manage to retain their precarious perches somehow keeps our sympathy for them neatly bundled away. They are cold, they are hungry, they are almost in shock – but, for the time being, they are in a cartoon-like world where no harm ever really comes to anyone, surely? Maybe that idea needs saving for later.

There are other passengers – Dickens always likes to give the impression that all human life is there – including a lady, clearly down on her luck, who ‘loudly lamented, for the behoof of the outsides, the non-arrival of her own carriage which was to have taken her on, and made the guard solemnly promise to stop every green chariot he saw coming.’ We will be very surprised if the chariot ever does turn up, and we vaguely wonder what story she is failing to tell about herself. There’s also a middle-aged male passenger, whose function seems to be to demonstrate that you’ll find good-heartedness in human nature too, if you wait around long enough. When there’s an accident – we’re not too worried about the deaths this might have led to, because we’re still in cartoon-land – everybody has to wait at an inn…

…where there’s a curious interlude that takes up almost a whole chapter. One old passenger, dressed in funeral clothes, tells an obscure little tale of ‘The Five Sisters of York’, which seems to have no moral beyond the universal truth that everybody has to die. ‘That’s a melancholy tale,’ says the pleasant-mannered passenger, who tells his own story. Death appears in it – but only to be outwitted by the man that Death was attending as he prepares to kill himself when his domineering wife and dozen or so children have used up all his money. How bad can it be, he seems to ask himself, and having made his mind up ‘he soon brought the baroness … to reason, and died many years afterwards: not a rich man that I am aware of, but certainly a happy one.’ We choose our own stories, it seems.

At Dotheboys Hall, not really any kind of hall, of course, things are as we knew they would be. Or worse. Squeers and his wife play out a grotesque pantomime of married harmony: ‘“How is my Squeery?” said this lady in a playful manner, and a very hoarse voice. “Quite well, my love,” replied Squeers.’ But it doesn’t hide the squalid truth of arrangements at the so-called school. Even Nicholas is beginning to realise that something really is amiss, and is appalled by their treatment of Smike, an unpaid drudge who was left on their hands as a child. But Dickens keeps the savage comedy going almost until the end of the chapter: ‘Mr. Squeers then nudged Mrs. Squeers to bring away the brandy bottle, lest Nicholas should help himself in the night; and the lady having seized it with great precipitation, they retired together.’

The chapter ends with Nicholas finding the letter that Noggs had thrust upon him as he boarded the coach in London. Noggs, a completely broken man who remembers a time when ‘I was a gentleman,’ knows that Ralph has tricked Nicholas, and offers him a space to lay his head if ever he needs it. A little act of kindness like this is a rare thing in the world he now finds himself in and, at the very end of the instalment, ‘Nicholas Nickleby’s eyes were dimmed with a moisture that might have been taken for tears.’

25 August
Chapters 8-14 [III-IV]
The third instalment is cleverly done. What was I saying about Dickens combining the serious campaigning with the comic? In Chapter 8, ‘Of the Internal Economy of Dotheboys Hall’, you’d be hard pressed to find any comedy at all. It’s Squeers and his wife in all their foulness, and the so-called school is a relentlessly nasty place. We know from what Dickens tells us in the Preface that it’s closely based on the horrors that he heard all about on his tour of Yorkshire just before he started writing the novel. (Where on earth did he ever find the time?) But there is comedy, if you can call it comedy when Master Squeers, cut from identical cloth to his father’s, clumps about in ‘a pair of new boots that bore a most suspicious resemblance to those which the least of the little boys had worn on the journey down—as the little boy himself seemed to think, for he was regarding the appropriation with a look of most rueful amazement.’ We see Mrs S and her brimstone and treacle, fed to the boys in lieu of breakfast to stave off the pangs of hunger as much as to prevent any illnesses. We see Squeers’s response to a letter explaining why one of the boys’ guardians can’t pay the full fee just now: he beats the boy with a kind of excited pleasure, and Nicholas finds it hard not to intervene. And Smike is always there, always the put-upon ‘drudge’.

And so on, and so on. Any money or clothes the boys receive – Squeers has brought letters and packages with him from London – go either to Mrs Squeers for safekeeping or to Master Squeers to wear: ‘everything that came into the school fitted him to a nicety. His head, in particular, must have been singularly elastic, for hats and caps of all dimensions were alike to him.’ So, there is humour, but so bitter it feels like something else. Mordant sarcasm, perhaps.

Dickens decides to lighten the tone in Chapter 9. Instead of the hybrid form of clownish sadism we’ve been getting, we get broad farce based on the passion of Miss Squeers. ‘She was not tall like her mother, but short like her father; from the former she inherited a voice of harsh quality; from the latter a remarkable expression of the right eye, something akin to having none at all.’ The farce arises from the fact that she has no idea that she has inherited her parents’ most unprepossessing features and that it isn’t her fault that nobody has asked her to marry her in the 23 years she has been alive. She contrives to borrow a pen from Nicholas, is overwhelmed, and believes his feelings for her must be identical to hers. During the rest of the chapter, in which she invites him to tea with her (younger) best friend and the clownish young man she is engaged to, it goes as badly as can be expected. In his openness – Dickens reminds us that a more calculating young man would have gone along with her foolishness – Nicholas tries to make light of her attentions. Oh dear. The friend, far prettier, flirts with him, to her young man’s annoyance. He ‘flattened his nose, once or twice, with his clenched fist, as if to keep his hand in, till he had an opportunity of exercising it upon the features of some other gentleman.’ Miss Squeers, of course, thinks her failure is due only to her so-called friend’s attempt to take him from her, and they part on bad terms. Hee hee.

Time for a change of scene: ‘How Mr. Ralph Nickleby provided for his Niece and Sister-in-Law.’ You can imagine. We start with Kate, Nicholas’s sister, posing for her portrait by Miss La Creevy, the miniaturist. The painter gives Kate a lesson in how to give the public what it wants: ‘the very essence of a good portrait is, that it must be either serious or smirking, or it’s no portrait at all.’ So now you know. Ralph arrives, having probably overheard Kate talking about how she wants no charity from him. All she wants is ‘to earn, literally, my bread and remain with my mother.’ Readers familiar with Dickens’s later work will recognise the type, and we know that quiet, unassuming young women with unassailable moral values will win through in the end. I would think that the first readers of this instalment in 1837 would have had as few doubts. Kate does not seem to be a complex figure.

Ralph is as brusque as ever, and we see how he has set about doing the very least he can for his sister-in-law and niece. (Miss La Creevy, during the conversation Ralph might have overheard, says how an annuity of £100 would be nothing to him, but would mean all the world to Kate and her mother. Hah.) He has a property that is currently empty, so the rent to La Creevy will stop the next day. And he has found a job for Kate: she will be a milliner. Mrs Nickleby is present for this announcement, and fantasises about the rich milliners she has known in her life, ones who would arrive by carriage. But, when pressed, she finds it hard to be specific. (Is she a figure who will later become another Dickensian type, the irredeemable idiot mother? Or is there for her, unlike for so many of them in later novels, some hope of being saved?) The rest of the chapter is taken up with Kate’s first visit to ‘Madame Mantalini.’ Her premises are all about presentation, but the reality is to be twelve-hour shifts from Monday onwards. As for her husband – ‘his name was originally Muntle; but it had been converted, by an easy transition’ – don’t even ask. Ralph knows him because of his debts, and he definitely likes the look of Kate. She avoids even looking in his direction and leaves as soon as she can.

Newman Noggs, as we know from his letter to Nicholas, is one of the novel’s rare kind-hearted characters. Miss La Creevy might well be another, because she promises she will see more of Kate and her mother after they have left. Noggs takes them to their horrid new dwelling – ‘sullen and dark were the rooms’ – and on the wharf outside is ‘a picture of cold, silent decay.’ Good old Ralph. There are a few bits of furniture – provided by Noggs, although he doesn’t tell them and only Kate guesses. He admits to nothing, and when Kate is certain she saw him at the coach-yard when Nicholas left he says, ‘unblushingly …. It’s the first time I’ve been out for three weeks. I’ve had the gout.’ This despite the fact that he is ‘very, very far from having the appearance of a gouty subject, and so Kate could not help thinking.’ Ok. Some people like to hide their generosity….

We’re into the fourth instalment now, and we might wonder when we’re going to find out how on earth Nicholas can stand by and let the boys be treated so badly. We’ll have to wait a bit longer, because first we get the farce of Miss Squeers’s pursuit of Nicholas, part two. Her maid – Dickens implies Miss Squeers knows it’s nothing but flattery, but is happy to play along – has persuaded her that Nicholas was only taking pity on the friend, and that it’s her he loves. So, reconciled with the friend – who encourages her out of a kind of mischievous spite – they force Nicholas into a corner. He has no more guile about him than before and, with the naïve impulsiveness we’ve met before, he lays it out far too plainly: ‘I have scarcely seen the young lady half-a-dozen times, but if I had seen her sixty times, or am destined to see her sixty thousand, it would be, and will be, precisely the same. I have not one thought, wish, or hope, connected with her….’

Oh dear. The upshot is that from now on it’s Nicholas against all the Squeerses. The parents already hate him, because they can see how he hates their treatment of the boys. Master Squeers is happy to join in… but what can they do, aside from sarcastic remarks? Answer: they can take it out on Smike. From Nicholas’s first arrival he has spoken kindly to Smike who, in his nineteen years, has never known such a thing before. Smike stays near him when he can, and has now just sought him out to ask if the whole world is as bad as his experience of it. Nicholas has told him – as if he knows anything about it – that ‘its hardest, coarsest toil, were happiness to this.’ And when Smike demands, ‘’Should I ever meet you there?’ Nicholas says that he would be sure to find him. Ah. Next day, taking Nicholas’s words literally, Smike runs away.

Mr and Mrs Squeers want Smike back, both because his work would cost them ‘some ten or twelve shillings per week in the shape of wages’ if they had to pay a servant, and because they need to make an example of any runaway. They set off separately, and the preparations are as horrifying and darkly comic as anything before. They know he won’t get far in the January snow, with neither money nor food. And when Mrs Smike returns, Dickens makes the most both of their triumph and the pathos of Smike’s plight. He would clearly rather be dead – Dickens has been explicit on this, with regard both to him and Nicholas at different times – and it’s time for the crisis to be resolved. When Squeers deems that Smike and the rest of the school have stewed long enough, he prepares to beat him. In response to Smike’s plea for him to spare him, we see Squeers at his worst: ‘I’ll flog you within an inch of your life, and spare you that.’

Nicholas – and Dickens has stretched out the agony long enough for it to seem that by remaining silent, he is to share Smike’s humiliation – stands up from where he has been sitting, staring at the wood of his desk, and ‘beat the ruffian till he roared for mercy.’ It’s a perfectly calculated set piece of righteous punishment – but it leaves Nicholas in a quandary. He will have to make his way back to London alone, with only four shillings in the world. On the wintry road, he encounters the man who is to marry Miss Squeers’s friend, and prepares for the worst. He doesn’t get it. The clown is so delighted to hear what Nicholas has done he offers to lend him as much as he will need. Nicholas accepts a sovereign, which we all know – although we can only begin to guess how – he will surely one day be able to pay back. And… what? After a night and a day, who should appear as Nicholas wakes up in a barn? Go on, guess. Nicholas is delighted: ‘the world shall deal by you as it does by me, till one or both of us shall quit it for a better. Come!’

Finally in this instalment, following one of Dickens’s most Fielding-like sub-headings – ‘Having the Misfortune to treat of none but Common People, is necessarily of a Mean and Vulgar Character’ – we join Noggs on an evening visit to the Kenwigs family. Noggs, to his own chagrin, has had to leave an even more impoverished neighbour than he is to warm himself by his fire – Noggs, we are told, has never learnt how to say no – and now he is to make and serve the punch. They all live in tiny apartments in a house in the ‘two irregular rows of tall meagre houses, which seem to have stared each other out of countenance years ago,’ and the Kenwigses are a picture of comically shabby gentility. They treat Mr Lillyvick, a collector of local water taxes, as an elevated personage, and… somewhere in the set-up there’s a satire on middle class snobbery at whatever level.

To his chagrin, again, before the punch can be served – he always eyes any bottle of spirits in a room with a yearning he does his best to disguise – Noggs is called away by the neighbour who has been using  up his coal. But ‘in an exceedingly short time, he burst into the room, and seizing, without a word of apology or explanation, a lighted candle and tumbler of hot punch from the table, darted away like a madman.’ Who, at the very end of the instalment, could have arrived unannounced to ask for him by name? We might guess, but it could be a tease. We’ll just have to wait and see.

29 August
Chapters 15-20 [V-VI]
It isn’t a tease. Newman Noggs’s first visitors in the five years he’s lived there are Nicholas and Smike, exhausted and drenched after their journey from Yorkshire. Subsequently, these two instalments let us know, among other things, how much luck he has in finding work in London. The next chapter’s sub-heading almost gives it away – ‘Nicholas seeks to employ himself in a New Capacity, and being unsuccessful, accepts an engagement as Tutor in a Private Family’ – but here, as so often with these sub-headings, Dickens is playing a game. He’s both warning us not to get our hopes up and wrong-footing us. The ‘New Capacity’ is, he hopes, as the secretary to a Member of Parliament, but that turns into a satire on the complete uselessness of such self-seeking men and Nicholas leaves the interview in disgust. As for the ‘private family,’ we can probably guess how rewarding that is going to be. In fact, the job is as the French tutor to the Kenwigs girls. Nicholas, on being appointed, has to parry Lillyvick’s preposterous objections to the language. The water collector has dismal memories of the French spoken by prisoners during the Napoleonic Wars.

We see much more of Kate Nickleby in these chapters. I’ve said before that she hasn’t struck me as a complex figure, and I haven’t changed my mind now. She’s typical of a particular kind of Dickens heroine: it seems to be the author’s job to place her into almost impossibly difficult situations, and the reader’s job to approve of her behaviour. She may be a ‘country girl’ – did I mention that the Nickleby family is from Devon? – but, during the worst of her trials, Dickens makes it explicit: ‘however fresh from the country a young lady (by nature) may be, and however unacquainted with conventional behaviour, the chances are, that she will have quite as strong an innate sense of the decencies and proprieties of life as if she had run the gauntlet of a dozen London seasons—possibly a stronger one, for such senses have been known to blunt in this improving process.’ She, like Nicholas, might be all innocence, but that doesn’t make her an ingénue.

Orchestrating all their woes, forcing sister and brother to negotiate the corruption and ignorance of the world, is Ralph Nickleby. Now that Squeers is out of the picture – although still a lowering presence by way of a letter to Ralph that is the tissue of lies we would expect from him and his wife – Ralph is growing into his role as the villain of the piece. But it’s more interesting than that. Even while he chooses to pretend that the Squeerses have told only the truth, we know that there are the tiniest of cracks appearing. An incident involving Kate – I’ll get back to that – has left him wondering why his usual granite persona doesn’t seem to be fully in place any more. By the time he is effectively banishing Nicholas – and maybe I’ll also come back to echoes of Tom Jones again – we can believe he is trying to cover something up in himself that he doesn’t know how to deal with.

But to rewind. Nicholas’s arrival allows Dickens to make some more points about presentation. He happens to arrive just as the girl supposedly watching over the baby in a nearby room gives a piercing shriek. It turns out that she has fallen asleep, and set her own hair on fire… and that Nicholas has snatched up the baby and can return it to the Kenwigses. He will always be a hero to them – but, in the same chapter, we get Noggs’s transcript of Squeers’s letter to Ralph. You can imagine. Ralph hasn’t read the letter yet – and won’t until the next instalment – but Nicholas decides not to try to speak to Kate and his mother until he can stand on his own two feet. Mistake – one of many – and when Nicholas tries to get to them before Ralph, he’s too late. The drop in status has rendered Nicholas’s mother silly with mortification and, to Kate’s shock, she says she doesn’t know what to believe. This allows Ralph to go in for the kill, and he does it with a kind of glee: he knows Nicholas’s mother and sister will not renounce him, so he will wash his hands of all of them. He won’t have to think about them ever again.

But he hasn’t quite judged it right. To his mother’s bewilderment and Kate’s horror, Nicholas says that he will quit London. He and Smike – the sixth instalment ends with a sentimentally touching scene between them, Smike having spoken of not being a burden any more – will hit the road together. He will be no burden on his mother, and therefore Ralph will be stuck with them after all.

Meanwhile, Kate’s experiences have been as bad as her brother’s. In the previous instalment we’ve seen how she has been getting on at Madame Mantalini’s. When she arrives on the first day, she doesn’t see behind the closed door of the Mantalinis’ apartment, but we do. It’s like a scene from Hogarth painting, with Mantalini, another comic grotesque, using all the flattery he can to wheedle money out of his wife. It works – almost everybody in the London of this novel is gullible to the point of idiocy – so we have another of Dickens’s comedy marriages to go with the Kenwigses’. (The flashbacks we get by way of Mrs Nickleby’s faulty memories, and both Kate’s and Dickens’s comments on them, are a reminder of another.)

In the work-room and shop, Kate is merely patronised at first. She can bear this – but it only lasts as long as she presents no threat. Miss Knag, latest in the ever-lengthening line of grotesques, is another Dickens type – the middle-aged woman who firmly believes she is still young. She has always been the one to display and model the hats and dresses, and when Kate is delegated to help her – because, as everybody complacently agrees, she is good for nothing else – she adores her because, as she is so nervous and awkward, the first customers are vile to her. But we know what’s coming, and can guess why. How does the sub-heading go? ‘Miss Knag, after doting on Kate Nickleby for three whole Days, makes up her Mind to hate her for evermore.’ The reason, of course, is that when a lecherous old lord and his pretty young fiancée arrive, it’s Kate he tries to chase – and Miss Knag the young fiancée refers to both as ‘elderly’ and ‘a fright.’ Oh dear. In this world, every last one of the dressmakers take Miss Knag’s side as she goes into paroxysms of mortified weeping in the workroom.

There’s worse to come in another chapter. Ralph, cluelessly asexual in the way that only a Dickens monster could be, thinks he can use Kate’s beauty to advance his business. (Did I mention she was beautiful? If I didn’t it’s probably because it was always bound to be a given.) She is invited to be the only woman attending a dinner he is putting on, presumably for clients, and the sexual overtones are as explicit as anything I’ve ever read in Dickens. Only Uriah Heep’s shameless pursuit of Agnes comes as close as Sir Mulberry Hawk’s to the very image of the slimy would-be seducer.

He is the leech-like hanger-on of a wet-behind-the-ears young Lord Verisopht – the names are straight out of Restoration comedy or an 18th Century novel – and Ralph, new to a game he doesn’t even seem to realise is a form of pimping, is appalled at the way the evening careers out of his control. Kate, after the most appalling suggestions from Sir Mulberry, runs out of the room and sobs. Later, she hears his voice at her ear and, after more suggestive compliments, she tries to leave. He ‘caught her dress, and forcibly detained her,’ then ‘leaned over, as if to replace her in her chair; but the young lady, making a violent effort to disengage herself, he lost his balance, and measured his length upon the ground.’ This is when Ralph appears, and is forced not only to send him away – amidst threats from Sir Mulberry of how bad this will be for business – but to explain to Kate that he had not planned that things should have ended this way.

This is how the first tiny crack appears. Sir Mulberry has forced him to realise something very ugly – ‘You would sell your flesh and blood for money’ – and, from what he says to Kate, it seems Ralph begins to understand. In response to her outburst – ‘What have I done—what have I done—that you should subject me to this?’ – he tries to explain: ‘’I didn’t know it would be so; it was impossible for me to foresee it.’ But he doesn’t tell her what he had told Sir Mulberry – that Kate was only supposed to ‘make some impression on the silly youth,’ Verisopht, to get him deeper into his debt. Idiot. Kate seems to have more idea of how things work than he does.

But that isn’t all. As though to acknowledge that a young woman’s discomfiture wouldn’t be enough to soften a heart like Ralph’s, Dickens adds something else. Outside, ‘the light from a neighbouring lamp shone upon her face. … the traces of tears yet scarcely dry, the flushed cheek, the look of sorrow, all fired some dormant train of recollection in the old man’s breast; and the face of his dead brother seemed present before him … with the distinctness of a scene of yesterday. Ralph Nickleby, who was proof against all appeals of blood and kindred—who was steeled against every tale of sorrow and distress—staggered while he looked, and went back into his house, as a man who had seen a spirit from some world beyond the grave.’ Ah. Perhaps this is when Dickens had the germ of the idea for A Christmas Carol, which appeared just five years later. Whatever. After Nicholas’s departure at the end of the following chapter, it looks as though Kate will still have to make her way in the horrible atmosphere of Mrs Mantalini’s.

12 December
Chapters 21-26 [VII-VIII]
Two instalments, mainly following Nicholas to his current location, Portsmouth, and his current occupation, writing and acting for Crummles. But framing them, at the beginning of one instalment and the end of the next, are chapters concerning Kate.

Kate’s chapters are much darker than those featuring Nicholas, cast in the same tone of comic nastiness and/or incompetence we’ve seen from the start. The Mantalinis’ business goes bust, largely because of a decision by Ralph to foreclose on the bad debts he seems to have given up on. It opens again, as businesses do – I’m writing this during the weeks following Donald Trump’s elections as President, so we’re all better informed about bankruptcy than we used to be – but it’s in Miss Knag’s name now, so there’s no place for Kate any more. (On the way, there’s some broad comic business between Mr and Mrs Mantalini, so extravagant in its theatrical emotionalism that in hindsight it seems like a preparation for the broad style of Crummles’ actors.) Kate gets a job with a self-styled lady of culture with a tendency to faint away at every opportunity, and Dickens ends the chapter there.

Fast-forward to the end of the eighth instalment, in which Dickens brings back Verisopht and Sir Mulberry Hawk. During a mid-afternoon breakfast at which evidence of the previous night’s debauches are evident – Dickens seems to see no reason for subtlety – Verisopht musters the energy to say that he’s been thinking about Kate. So has Sir Mulberry, often, but he’s had no luck tracking her down. Now Verisopht’s comment offers him an opportunity: the tells the idiot lord that if he asks Ralph Nickleby, he would tell him. No need to tell him, Sir Mulberry, obviously – as if he won’t find out immediately anyway. So they go, Verisopht asks, is told – and they accidentally meet Mrs Nickleby, who arrives on an errand. We see her in idiot mother mode in all its glory – she simpers at the attention, and wonders which of the two Kate favours. (Kate’s having been out of sorts for days after the lunch-party is now accounted for, she decides: she had been struck by the idea of marrying one of them.) The mother likes the lord for his title, but prefers Sir Mulberry for his grace and politeness. How we laughed.

Meanwhile Ralph, who had not been feeling good about putting Kate in harm’s way again – Verisopht has already been worth ‘two thousand’ to him, apparently – comforts himself with the thought that her mother would have told them anyway. Besides, as he has seen, Kate knows how to look after herself. He is sure he isn’t really pimping her – although I’m less sure now that he was as innocent as I made out last time – because ‘what harm ensues? A little teasing, a little humbling, a few tears. Yes…. She must take her chance. She must take her chance.’ Ralph has a soft spot for Kate – ‘there had somehow stolen upon him from time to time a thought of his niece which was tinged with compassion and pity’ – but… he’s got a softer spot for the money.

Time to rewind to the chapter when Nicholas and Smike leave London. We’re back to the picaresque sections of the book, with time spent (in this chapter, anyway) on the road, meeting different characters in different landscapes. But soon Dickens manoeuvres them into an inn where they can meet the actors, if they can be called that. Really, they are a troupe of practitioners of stage business, and Nicholas’s introduction to them is witnessing a hokey sword-fight between the Crummles boys – the more sparks the better, according to their father – followed by affecting scenes performed by the other members of the company. Everything about them, and the scenes they act out, is to a formula. It’s a source of great pride to Mr Vincent Crummles that they have an actor for every possible part that can ever be devised, from the great tragic heroine – Mrs C – to the wise old man to the infant phenomenon herself, the not so young Miss Crummles. She ‘had a comparatively aged countenance,’ having been ‘kept up late every night, and put upon an unlimited allowance of gin-and-water from infancy, to prevent her growing tall.’ Fine.

Once they all get to Portsmouth, Nicholas having been persuaded that an actor’s life is far more secure than the sailor’s life that he had been looking for, it’s all about the absurdities of the theatre. Everything is hyperbole, where nothing could be easier, nothing could be more marvellous, nothing could be… etc. Crummles tells Nicholas that he is to be the author of their next play, and as days (only a few days) pass, he is requested to add in a dance, or a fight, and not to forget the pump and tubs that Crummles bought for a song in Guildford. By the time we get to the end of the three chapters (so far) that are set in the theatre, Nicholas is also acting the part of Romeo, learning his part while also drumming Smike’s lines into the poor youth’s abuse-addled brain. He’s the Apothecary, and is later ‘pronounced unanimously, alike by audience and actors, the very prince and prodigy of Apothecaries.’ You don’t say.

What else in these chapters? There are the actresses, all absurd in their own particular ways. One of them, the preposterously named Miss Snevellicci – we wonder what her real name must have been – is very taken with Nicholas. He, despite his experiences with Fanny Squeers, never considers for a moment the effect he might be having on her, or any of the young women around him. (Even a contemporary reviewer called him a ‘cipher.’ He certainly seems to be no more than an idealised overgrown boy.)

And there are Crummles and his company. A part of me hopes that Dickens isn’t just offering an affectionate caricature of theatre as it was in the 1830s. Crummles explains standard plots and twists to Nicholas, or suggests them to him as he writes his own play (in fact, plagiarised from a French piece that Crummles has had lying around for some time). Isn’t Crummles a bit like Dickens? In this early novel, which might or might not have an overarching structure – it’s hard to tell just now – things just seem to happen to Nicholas. We’ve had the stage villain in the form of Squeers, and Nicholas’s heroic response and act of kindness to an underdog, demonstrating his generosity. We’ve had the sacrifice of his self-exile from London, the can-do attitude he shows when a new opportunity falls in his path…. It’s no wonder that this novel was being adapted for the stage long before the final instalments were even written – and that the novel’s faded popularity was revived following the famous RSC stage adaptation in the 1980s. (In her biography of Dickens, Claire Tomalin is keen for us to understand how close he came to a an acting career. He took lessons in acting, was fond of writing pieces for performance at home, and in 1832, aged 20, he was booked for an audition to become a professional actor. Only a cold prevented him from attending an audition that could have changed literary history.)

One last thing. As if we haven’t seen enough problematic marriages in this novel already – the Squeerses, the Kenwigses, the Mantalinis and the one remembered so unreliably by Mrs Nickleby – we get another. By coincidence, the absurd Mr Lillyvick is in Portsmouth in order to marry an actress he admires. The marriage arrangements are as preposterous as he is: he has come all this way, in secret, because he knows that otherwise the Kenwigses would move heaven and earth to dissuade him from signing away their inheritance. But he is looking at her income, a ‘consolation’ as he calls it. When Nicholas asks him what he means he tries to pretend he hadn’t meant it. But he had, and his mean-mindedness is one of the comic threads of Chapter 25. As are the actress’s pretended reluctance to marry and Crummles’s actorly role as the father giving her away, complete with ‘theatrical wig… and a snuff-coloured suit, of the previous century, with grey silk stockings, and buckles to his shoes.’ He even gives ‘heart-rending’ sobs, as though he really were losing a daughter, although everybody present knows he isn’t.

But, in this universe, you can’t believe anything you see. It’s in the following chapter that Sir Mulberry dupes Verisopht into finding out Kate’s address, then Mrs Nickleby into believing that he ‘is such an attentive gentlemanly creature, so much manner, such a fine man.’ His dupes might be fools, but from the very beginning of this novel we’ve had a lot of characters who are in the business of deceiving others. Crummles’s performance is no more than a preposterous but harmless pastiche.

16 December
Chapters 27-33 [IX-X]
Last time, I was wondering whether ­Dickens might be compared with Crummles. In these next two instalments, I can’t help thinking that he is deliberately presenting Nicholas’s life in a way that would make Crummles proud. I keep getting the impression that he is sending himself up – and, at the same time, poking gentle fun at us, the readers, for lapping it up. There’s another way of looking at it. In this novel, it’s as though he still has a foot in the 18th Century. It’s a point I made when I’d only read the early chapters – ‘really, it’s clear that both authors [Dickens and Fielding] have some other purpose in mind than the creation of an entirely plausible world’ – and this is where the comparison with Crummles comes in. When Dickens has Nicholas, alone in London, just happen to stumble on Sir Mulberry’s drinking party, in an expensive hotel he has no choice but to enter because he is feeling so faint from weariness, we go along with the coincidence. We know it’s preposterous, but it moves the plot along, and brings Nicholas to the next crisis.

I’ll come back to that, because it’s time to rewind. The eighth instalment ended with Dickens having set up a new crisis for Kate. We hadn’t seen her since she got the job with the self-absorbed hypochondriac, the wonderfully named Mrs Wititterly, in the seventh. But we know Sir Mulberry is on her tail, and now he’s sending his toadies Pluck and Pyke – more names – to soften up the already blancmange-like Mrs Nickleby. Soon they are calling for her in the sort of carriage that would turn her head if it needed any more turning, and she’s putty in all their hands. Dickens manages somehow to remind us, in her absence, of Kate’s good sense when he has her mother congratulating herself on how nobody can live as long as she has without learning something of the ways of the world. How we laughed, again.

Kate knows nothing of this, and is shocked to the core when, at the theatre, she recognises Sir Mulberry’s voice in the next box. And… Mrs Wititterly and her indulgent husband are soon as putty-like as Mrs Nickleby, besotted by the prospect of the admiration they are sure will come their way for being seen with such men as him and Verisopht. Meanwhile Kate has to suffer a whole evening of being verbally fondled by Sir Mulberry in Verisopht’s box in the theatre… and at the beginning of the next chapter, Dickens decides to clarify matters for his innocent readers regarding the mind-set of men like his hawk-like villain: ‘the pursuit [of Kate] was one which could not fail to redound to his credit, and greatly to enhance his reputation with the world. And lest this last consideration—no mean or secondary one with Sir Mulberry—should sound strangely in the ears of some, let it be remembered that most men live in a world of their own, and that in that limited circle alone are they ambitious for distinction and applause. Sir Mulberry’s world was peopled with profligates, and he acted accordingly.’ Ok, got it.

Soon, the four rakes (or the three rakes and Verisopht, their willing victim) have become regulars at the Wititterlys’, and Kate is completely trapped. She’s such an asset in the drawing-room that her presence is compulsory – but Mrs Wititterly starts to become jealous of the way this so-called companion of hers is getting all the attention. In her own way, she is as obtuse as Mrs Nickleby – or considers it politic to pretend that Kate is throwing herself at Sir Mulberry. ‘You needn’t suppose … that your looking at me in that way, Miss Nickleby, will prevent my saying what I am going to say, which I feel to be a religious duty. You needn’t direct your glances towards me….’ In short, she disguises her jealous anger as righteous concern, and Kate holds her peace as long as she can. But then she speaks plainly: ‘Is it possible… that anyone of my own sex can have sat by, and not have seen the misery these men have caused me? Is it possible that you, ma’am, can have been present, and failed to mark the insulting freedom that their every look bespoke?’ Dickens knows that the reader is cheering as much as when Nicholas finally told Squeers what he thought of him. Mrs Wititterly is as shocked by Kate’s anger as Squeers was by the beating he got, and the doctor has to be called.

What is Kate to do? She calls on her uncle who does… nothing. Dickens lets us know that he isn’t untouched by her pleas for him to help her – the scene begins with his musing about her, despite his best efforts not to – but he uses the same justifications to her that he’d used with himself earlier: she’s a sensible young woman, so she won’t be in any danger. Bastard. Kate, again, is left desperate, with seemingly no-one to turn to. But Newman Noggs is outside the door, has been listening to every word, and has already been putting a plan in motion: ‘Don’t cry any more…. I shall see you soon. Ha! ha! ha! And so shall somebody else too. Yes, yes. Ho! ho!’ Can we guess who he’s written to? Of course we can. Meanwhile, ‘although Ralph felt no remorse at that moment for his conduct towards the innocent, true-hearted girl… still he hated them for doing it, from the very bottom of his soul.’ Conflicted? I couldn’t possibly say.

Time to shift back to Portsmouth for the rest of the ninth instalment – we haven’t been there since the middle of the eighth – and… what? More slapstick. If these theatre scenes serve any serious purpose running alongside the opportunity they offer Dickens to present some more comic episodes, I suppose it’s to sound some kind of echo to the main action of the novel. We’ve already had those burlesque versions of how people present themselves, chiming with the dark events and deceptions being staged in London at the same time. These carry on now, and more of them run on into the next instalment. Off the top of my head: a comedy version of a challenge, made to Nicholas by another actor, leading to a mock-heroic response on Nicholas’s part and general hilarity; the father of Miss Snevellicci, a jobbing actor for whom the stages of inebriation are as formulaic as everything else performed by the company; Lillyvick’s priggish reaction to the way the drunken Snevellicci flirts with his new wife, and his amazement at her mockery of his outrage; and, when Nicholas leaves – this interlude in Portsmouth has a shelf-life no longer than the one in Yorkshire, it seems – we are given Crummles’s textbook stage presentation of the grief of parting friends.

Along the way, Dickens is also able to bolster Nicholas’s heroic stature and supply him with some ready cash. In the weeks or months since his arrival in Portsmouth – he’s been there for the length of three instalments by the time he leaves – he has become a popular author and performer. Even before the arrival of Noggs’s first warning letter (sent just before the real crisis that engulfs Kate) he announces he will be leaving, and a ‘benefit’ show is put on that nets him £20. He sends to the Yorkshireman, John Browdie, the pound he lent him and sends ten pounds to Newman Noggs to help Kate and his mother. Then Noggs’s second, urgent letter prompts him to leave before any more final farewell performances can be contemplated. He is about to re-join the main action of the novel – the Portsmouth chapters seem far more of a merely entertaining interlude than the Yorkshire chapters – and Dickens needs to set up that next crisis for him.

That coincidence I mentioned comes into it, but Dickens cleverly incorporates it into a lesson on what can happen to the best-laid plans. We’re prepared for it by the heading of Chapter 31, which includes a dark hint of ‘some wise Precautions, the success or failure of which will appear in the Sequel.’ The precautions are those taken by Noggs and Miss La Creevy. She points out to him – he’s contacted her as the only other person in London who is on Kate’s side – that when Nicholas arrives, if Noggs tells him straight away about Sir Mulberry, he will certainly do something rash. Being the kind of characters they are – somebody must have written a thesis on Dickens’s comedy good guys – their plan is ridiculous. Nicholas will arrive in the early evening, and if Noggs meets him then he knows he won’t be able to stop himself telling all. Nicholas will immediately find Ralph and – who knows what he’ll do? And what if he finds Sir Mulberry…?! Both Noggs and Miss La Creevy, as his first and second ports of call in London, decide that it will be a good idea to pretend that urgent business has taken them away until midnight…

…so when Nicholas really does arrive, he is left in an ever more unbearable stew of anxiety over the danger that Kate might be in. He can’t eat anything offered by Nogg’s neighbour, dragooned into the stratagem to stall him. Hah. Instead Nicholas, finding Miss La Creevy out as well, wanders around aimlessly. In the upmarket hotel, he overhears an insolent toast to ‘Little Kate Nickleby!’ echoed by drunken voices. Then: ‘The jade! … She’s a true Nickleby—a worthy imitator of her old uncle Ralph—she hangs back to be more sought after—so does he…. Oh! infernal cunning.’ Nicholas responds exactly as we would expect, confronting the man and demanding to know who he is. Sir Mulberry reacts just as predictably, refusing to say his name and treating Nicholas with all possible disdain as a member of the lower orders. The confrontation only ends when Nicholas, attempting to prevent Sir Mulberry’s carriage from leaving, only terrifies the horse. It bolts and crashes while Nicholas is able to slip away. The instalment ends with him realising only after some time that he is ‘reeling like a drunken man, and aware for the first time of a stream of blood that was trickling down his face and breast.’

There’s only one short chapter left of this instalment. After Newman Noggs has patched Nicholas up, comically – he’s bashing him about, clearly imagining it’s Sir Mulberry he’s ministering to as he listens to Nicholas’s story – a man has to do what a man has to do. Nicholas gets to the Wititterlys early next morning, takes Kate away, moves his mother out of her sparse little apartment back into Miss La Creevy’s, and writes the stiffest of stiff letters to his uncle. Along the way, we are shown how Kate – quite rightly, obviously –  never doubted Nicholas for a moment; that Mr W will always ‘owe’ her the unpaid salary; that Mrs Nickleby is now willing to see Ralph for what he is, and how money-grabbing – ‘he is a brute, a monster; and the walls are very bare’ – and that Ralph is only momentarily given pause when he reads the letter. He drops it abstractedly: ‘but he clasped his fingers, as if he held it still.’ Then: ‘Suddenly, he started from his seat, and thrusting it all crumpled into his pocket, turned furiously to Newman Noggs….’ But the chapter ends as Noggs makes himself busy tinkering with columns of figures.

Meanwhile, neither we nor anybody else knows what has happened to Sir Mulberry. Oh dear.

10 February 2017
Chapters 34-39 [XI-XII]
There are a few plot developments in these instalments, but Dickens seems far more interested in confirming for us who the main characters are and what they are like. We can see him, step by step, setting things up for the rest of the novel, starting with Ralph Nickleby. If Ralph had appeared to be discovering something like a human heart inside him, he’s now decided he can do without it. Dickens has him playing an ever more calculating villain in three separate scenes, with characters we know who are now shown in the worst possible light. Mantalini, in the first chapter, is still a comic turn – but Dickens makes it explicit to us that he feels only contempt for the woman he married for her money. The returning Squeers in the next chapter is as grotesquely villainous as he always was, although we only see the full extent of his cruelty later, when he happens upon Smike by chance. Meanwhile, the slowly recovering Sir Mulberry, late in the second instalment, has absolutely no redeeming qualities. Ralph is interested in Squeers and Sir Mulberry because they can help him bring down Nicholas, who has come to represent everything he hates. Like Iago – his methods of using lies and innuendos are very similar – he seems to have thrown in his lot with the dark side.

Meanwhile, the good characters just keep getting better. There’s Kate, instinctively considerate when faced with Smike’s self-esteem problems; there’s the ever more helpful Miss La Creevy; and, of course, there’s Nicholas himself. None of them ever puts a foot wrong. Nicholas, just once, behaves impulsively enough for him to recognise his own impetuosity – but it’s only to launch himself into the search for another job at the same agency that offered him a dud last time. He is rewarded through the heavenly-seeming intervention of not one, but two fairy godfathers, the Cheeryble twins. And when Smike is abducted by Squeers… his rescue is brought about by another chance event. John Browdie, the bluff Yorkshireman who loved the way Nicholas had stood up to Squeers all that time back, is in London for his honeymoon. He’s a comic grotesque, but on the side of the angels. So that’s all right.

But to rewind to the beginning of these instalments, and Ralph. He remains the most interesting character, maybe not so much like Iago as like Macbeth, denying what he knows to be true in himself. Maybe. The letter from Nicholas has clearly pierced him, and later, we see how he has torn it ‘into atoms; and… scattered it in a tiny shower about him.’ (I remember Emma Bovary famously scattering the remnants of a letter, this time symbolising her own best intentions, in a novel written a dozen years later.) Only Newman Noggs sees the effect it has had on him, because Ralph is so careful to hide from the world any human feelings he might have. At this point in the novel, he has decided his only recourse is revenge against the young man who wrote it. Dickens only shows us the external workings of Ralph’s soul, the obsessive clasping at the letter after he has dropped it at the end of the previous instalment, the crumpling of it and, much later, the tearing to shreds. But it’s enough. Once he’s destroyed it, he seems to have given himself licence to do whatever is necessary to destroy Nicholas.

He’s bad enough long before his symbolic gesture, as we see in the first chapter of the instalment. When the grotesque Mr Mantalini arrives with credit notes purloined from his wife’s desk, we see Ralph totally in his element. He smiles knowingly at Mantalini, now caught in the act by his wife – she arrives minutes after he does – as he reveals with a wink how all this talk of suicide is no more than play-acting. We’d always known it, obviously, but this little episode helps to confirm Ralph for what he is. He’s a shark, for whom the victims like Mrs Mantalini are as beneath consideration as their errant spouses. They bring it on themselves.

Still on the dark side, in the next chapter Dickens not only reintroduces Squeers for plot reasons of his own, but reminds us just how horrible he is. As Ralph works on drafting him into the anti-Nicholas faction, he begins by making a carefully worded remark: ‘I am not to suppose… that you are dolt enough to forgive or forget, very readily, the violence that was committed upon you, or the exposure which accompanied it?’ It works, of course, not so much for the personal injury as for the money Nicholas lost him by taking Smike away – he could have sold him on to one of the local farmers who had shown an interest. ‘I only wish Mrs. Squeers could catch hold of him. Bless her heart! She’d murder him.’ We see Ralph in Iago mode for the first time, able to manipulate this villain easily – there’s something childishly callow about Squeers – and preparing us for the chapter with Sir Mulberry much later.

It’s this meeting with Sir Mulberry, who has been nursing a broken leg for weeks by now, that reveals Ralph in incorrigible villain mode. Dickens reports the conversation verbatim, showing Ralph’s pitch-perfect presentation of a story he is blowing up out of almost nothing. Ralph had not known anything of the part played by Nicholas in Sir Mulberry’s accident, because (it becomes clear later) Sir Mulberry had been hushing it up. But Mantalini has told Ralph a sensational version: ‘your nephew met him at a coffeehouse, fell upon him with the most demneble ferocity, followed him to his cab, swore he would ride home with him, if he rode upon the horse’s back or hooked himself on to the horse’s tail; smashed his countenance…’ and so on.

By the time he finally decides Sir Mulberry will be well enough at least to hear him out, Ralph has honed his story for maximum impact. ‘Every club and gaming-room has rung with it. There has been a good song made about it, as I am told… I have been told it’s even printed—for private circulation—but that’s all over town, of course.’ His voice is all quiet solicitude – ‘Ralph’s manner was one of profound humility and respect’ – but Dickens shows us the contemptuous sneer on his face whenever he knows the invalid Sir Mulberry can’t see it. It’s a tour de force, showing Ralph at the Iago-like peak of his powers, and soon, he hears what he’s been waiting for: ‘I’ll put a mark on him that he shall carry to his grave. I’ll slit his nose and ears, flog him, maim him for life. I’ll do more than that; I’ll drag that pattern of chastity, that pink of prudery, the delicate sister, through—’ How does Ralph react to this threat against Kate? Dickens leaves it ambiguous. Something stops Sir Mulberry going any further, which ‘might have been that even Ralph’s cold blood tingled in his cheeks at that moment.’ (My italics.) Or, Dickens writes, it might have been something else. Whatever, nothing more is said about it and Ralph has got the result he came for. He wants to break the man who wrote that damnable letter, and he’s got Sir Mulberry on his side.

But that’s not all he gets from the meeting. One person bucks the usual trend, in which Dickens reinforces the angelic or villainous nature of every main character. Instead of being confirmed as passively useless, Lord Verisopht comes over to the side of the angels. To the astonishment of both Ralph and Sir Mulberry, he tells them not only that he has overheard the last part of the conversation from the next room, but that he is most definitely not on-side: ‘upon my honour I do believe, that the sister is as virtuous and modest a young lady as she is a handsome one; and of the brother, I say this, that he acted as her brother should, and in a manly and spirited manner. And I only wish, with all my heart and soul, that any one of us came out of this matter half as well as he does.’ It’s a cheering from the gods moment – I can’t help picturing most of the set pieces as stage performances – to go with Nicholas’s beating of Squeers and Kate’s verbal mauling of the appalling Mrs Wititterly. The villains, of course, assume that he’ll buckle under their bullying ways. They don’t know they’re in a Dickens novel.

Neither does Squeers when he accidentally bumps into Smike later in the same chapter. Smike never usually goes out alone, but just this once he has done, and Squeers is able to recapture him. Dickens is able to add to and reinforce what we know about his worst nature. It starts with some playful slaps across the face, progresses to boxes on the ears, and by the time they are in a cab he is really having fun. ‘I never threshed a boy in a hackney coach before…. There’s inconveniency in it, but the novelty gives it a sort of relish, too!’ I remember a chapter in Yorkshire, all those months ago, in which the dark comedy stops being comic any more. I think that’s how these two instalments have moved on – there’s a lot of nastiness around, and Dickens clearly wants us to recognise that there are real threats to the fragile happiness of the Nicklebys.

On the subject, as I had been, of being on the side of the angels…. Nicholas, the now almost implausibly saintly hero, continues to say lovely, supportive things to Smike. Meanwhile, his selfless rescue of him has given Smike an almost visionary insight into the best that the world might offer. He can imagine no life without his mentor, only hoping that Nicholas will visit his grave when he’s dead. (I can only imagine why Dickens has planted such a thought at this moment.) Nicholas hopes that his family – really, his mother, of course, because Kate’s approval is a given – will accept him. d Mrs Nickleby is fine with him once she realises he’ll be no drain on them. She isn’t sensible enough to be on any side – I remember how she didn’t leap to Nicholas’s defence the way Kate did on hearing of Squeers’s allegations – but Smike is astonished all over again by what wonders there are in the world.

By this time, the family has moved into a little cottage in Bow, rented to them by the Cheerybles for a nominal sum. We’ve had Nicholas, all-round lovely man, musing on them until he decides ‘there was no time to moralise.’ Oh, no? There’s little else but moralising when certain characters are around, as Dickens shamelessly forces the reader into making judgments about absolutely everybody. Nicholas, object of that unsolicited encomium from Verisopht, had immediately been recognised for what he is by Charles Cheeryble, who happens to be looking in the jobs agency window at the same time. Result: Nicholas has a job, the old retainer of almost 44 years has nodded his approval and the family, albeit surrounded by dark clouds, seems settled. (I’m going to pass over the smiles and happy thoughts of the Cheerybles’ employees. I wonder if they were the models for the Oompa Loompas in Willy Wonka’s factory.)

Later, before his temporary abduction by Squeers – I really hope it is temporary – it’s Miss La Creevy’s turn for a moral make-over. She’s always been on the right side, but now she proves her worth by being a tireless helper and a surprisingly perceptive mentor for Kate. It’s the miniature painter who notices that Smike’s behaviour has changed over the three weeks since he and Nicholas moved in, and she can’t account for it. She tries to explain: ‘It gives him greater pain to know that he wanders sometimes, and cannot understand very simple things. I have watched him when you have not been by, my dear, sit brooding by himself, with such a look of pain as I could scarcely bear to see, and then get up and leave the room: so sorrowfully, and in such dejection, that I cannot tell you how it has hurt me.’ I don’t know what that’s about, but it will be about something. Maybe – I’m not joking – he’s lovesick for Kate….

Meanwhile, in comic contrast, in a stand-alone chapter… the Kenwigses. Mrs K has just succeeded in bringing forth their sixth child, and Mr K reminds whoever is listening that there are high hopes of expectations from a ‘certain quarter’ that he couldn’t possibly name. It’s just after this that they receive the news of Lillyvick’s marriage – how we laughed – and it’s Nicholas who tells them, having had no time before. Their collective grief at the loss of their hopes is… as you would expect. The eldest daughter faints into the chair as she has seen her mother do, only to forget she’s fainted once she realises nobody is paying any attention. Mr K sounds off against the machinations of the woman who is now Mrs Lillyvick… and so on. Nicholas doesn’t need to pass comment, but Dickens has pushed the reader into another judgment. The Kenwigses, like Mantalini, want something for nothing, and we don’t like that, do we?

Anything else? Only that Dickens ends the twelfth instalment on a kinder note than usual, as John Browdie tries not to laugh out loud at his own trick on Squeers. He and his new wife (and her friend Fanny Squeers, accompanying them on the honeymoon trip) have been invited to Squeers’s lodgings, and Browdie has pretended to be ill. He knows all about Smike’s abduction and unlocks the door to the room where he is held. It takes some time, but he is able to persuade Smike that he is a free man if he runs for it. Back on his supposed sick-bed, he can be seen to ‘dive down convulsed with the laughter which came bursting forth afresh’ every time he thinks about what he has done. Alleluia – Dickens knows when to throw in a comic chapter, and some good news.

13 March
Chapters 40-45 [XIII-XIV]
The comedy continues into the next instalment. Chapter 40 is rom-com that descends, for now, into farce. Chapter 41 is like a comic commentary on romantic fiction. Chapter 42, after a lot of life-affirming geniality, is, to quote the chapter title, ‘Illustrative of the convivial Sentiment, that the best of Friends must sometimes part.’ What we really get is a hugely enjoyable comic set piece involving the unspeakable Fanny Squeers. There’s been a lot of darkness in recent instalments, and it will return in the next, but Dickens is giving his readers a rest for now, and the monsters are kept firmly in their place. (Except, now I think about it, at the very end of the instalment. I’ll get back to that.)

The rom-com episode involves Nicholas. At last, well over half-way through the novel, he gets to set eyes on the young woman who immediately becomes ‘the fair unknown.’ She is unknown because, despite (he thinks) further visits to the Cheerybles after the one at which he accidentally sees her on her knees in supplication, everybody scrupulously fails to tell Nicholas who she is. He recognises her from the employment exchange nearly half a novel ago, when she had been looking for work as a governess or lady’s companion, and now decides that he is in love with her. No doubt in three or four hundred pages’ time they’ll be married, but for now Dickens has to put obstacles in their way. Tim Linkinwater’s shameless changing of the subject when Nicholas asks him about her sets the comic tone, and this continues when Newman Noggs is tasked with following the woman’s servant home after visiting the office again. The chapter title has given us a clue regarding the outcome: ‘Proceedings are crowned with unexpected Success, excepting in one solitary Particular.’ That particular is that the woman Noggs has been following is the wrong servant, and Nicholas finds himself face-to-face with the wrong unknown.

There is one monster in this chapter, the father of the young woman Nicholas meets, but he remains firmly offstage. Besides, he has the comic name of ‘Bobster’ (which Nicholas had not relished as the name of the fair unknown), and it seems unlikely that we will have to meet him again. In the next chapter a different monster, if he had really ever been such a thing, is now a harmless lunatic. We already know him as the offstage neighbour who throws the cucumbers and other vegetables that surprise and shock the younger Nicklebys but delight their mother. Then, she had told Nicholas that however flattering these attentions might be, she wouldn’t dream of re-marrying. Nicholas had been astonished: ‘Surely, mother, such an idea never entered your brain for an instant?’ After all these years, he still doesn’t know his mother…

…and, in Chapter 41, neither does Kate. We get to meet the neighbour and hear the lunatic free association that Mrs Nickleby decides is ‘poetic.’ While Kate urges her to leave the garden and get away from the man looking down over the wall at them, her mother admonishes her for her lack of insight. How we laughed. After the man has been summarily dislodged by somebody behind him at the end of the episode, we get a different view. This ‘keeper’ tells the story: ‘Broke his poor wife’s heart, turned his daughters out of doors, drove his sons into the streets; it was a blessing he went mad at last.’ Mrs Nickleby, inevitably, decides that this is the shameful attempt of the man’s family to extort his fortune from him. (There’s another romantic thread that continues in this chapter. Through Mrs Nickleby’s comments about how Smike carefully arranges things in the garden for her, Dickens makes it clear that he is doing exactly that for Kate. This is something we’ve known, kind of, for some time.)

To end the instalment, Dickens establishes once and for all the link between Nicholas and a man who, I assume, will eventually prove to be a powerful ally. (I can’t remember if I’ve already remarked on how Dickens often assembles a fellowship of right-minded characters who bring down the forces of darkness. Judging by what happens in the next instalment – tell you later – Nicholas will need all the help he can get to fight Squeers.) The ally is John Browdie, assisted by his new wife. Nicholas has gone to see them at the inn, and Browdie proves to be as right-minded on every score as Nicholas himself – and everything about him is big and strong. You need somebody like the Hulk on your side, and when roused – as we see now, and even more clearly in the next instalment – John Browdie is unstoppable.

But for now he is the bluff, hard-drinking Yorkshireman with the big appetite. After laughing uproariously – how else would he laugh? – about his first meeting with Nicholas in Yorkshire, they are the best of friends. The conversation turns, naturally enough, to Fanny Squeers and the promises she said Nicholas had made to her. She’s gone out for the night – hence their invitation to Nicholas – and some fairly satirical things are said about her in her absence… except she has come back early with her father, and has heard their comments. Cue comic set piece. I kept wanting to read aloud the pompous nonsense that Fanny Squeers comes out with: ‘“This is the hend, is it?” continued Miss Squeers, who, being excited, aspirated her h’s strongly; “this is the hend, is it, of all my forbearance and friendship for that double-faced thing—that viper, that—that—mermaid?” (Miss Squeers hesitated a long time for this last epithet, and brought it out triumphantly at last, as if it quite clinched the business.)’

It doesn’t end here, and the chapter doesn’t end with her flouncing out. Squeers is there, too, and rages impotently at John Browdie for allowing Smike to escape. And he lets Nicholas know that he hasn’t finished with him, leaving with a threat: ‘see if I ain’t down upon you before long. You’ll go a kidnapping of boys, will you? Take care their fathers don’t turn up—mark that—take care their fathers don’t turn up, and send ‘em back to me to do as I like with, in spite of you.’ Alert readers might notice his warning to ‘mark’ that fathers sometimes turn up. I didn’t.

The next instalment is darker, but not at first. In fact, Dickens takes things to new levels of sentiment – I genuinely find it hard to read some of it – whilst introducing a new good guy. We’re still at the inn, and there’s a commotion. Some young gentleman has kicked a young man who insulted a woman of his acquaintance – shades of Nicholas, as we can’t help noticing – and has thrown his shoes at him for good measure. The gent turns out to be the Cheerybles’ nephew Frank, on an overnight stay so as not to arrive a day early and cause any upheaval for his uncles. The young man he has kicked is someone Nicholas recognises as the ugly clerk at the employment office. And before the reader has time to object to yet another of this novel’s outlandish coincidences, Nicholas does it for us: ‘“That’s odd enough!” said Nicholas, ruminating upon the strange manner in which the register-office seemed to start up and stare him in the face every now and then, and when he least expected it.’

After that, it’s all sweetness and light. I’ll draw a veil over it – Frank’s reunion with his uncles, the all-round delight, the immediate fellow-feeling between Nicholas and the nephew…. Frank and one of his uncles visit the Nicklebys, and it’s the best time any of them have ever had. And so on. Nicholas had been worrying that Frank might have a claim on the fair unknown, but after some urgent calculations he decides she must have been far too young when Frank went to live in Germany four years before. Besides, by the end of the chapter, ‘Mr. Frank Cheeryble offered his hand to Kate twice over, quite forgetting that he had bade her adieu already.’ The uncle sees this as proof that Frank is thinking of a (mythical) sweetheart in Germany, but an unnamed observer doesn’t make the same mistake. Poor Smike must be the one who, later, has ‘sunk upon his knees to pray as his first friend had taught him, and folding his hands and stretching them wildly in the air, fell upon his face in a passion of bitter grief.’

It’s a key-change that signals the dark tone of the rest of the instalment. There are comic moments, but Dickens is determined to correct any hopeful impression that we might have received earlier concerning Ralph’s eternal soul. As far as he is concerned, he hasn’t got one: ‘Ralph cared for nothing in life, or beyond it, save the gratification of two passions, avarice …  and hatred.’ Worse, in a way, is his view of the rest of the world: ‘He knew himself well, and choosing to imagine that all mankind were cast in the same mould, hated them.’ Having heard that Sir Mulberry has left the country, he decides he’ll be back soon enough, and sets out on his rounds – where we see another unattractive aspect of his character: he presents whichever persona suits his immediate purpose: harsh, fawning, worldly….

And then he encounters another character new to us, Brooker, who used to work for him. He is back after years as a convict in the colonies, and he bears a grudge. He starts off mildly enough, appealing to him ‘in the name of humanity.’ ‘Of what?’ says Ralph. I love that: the Ralph of the second half of the novel doesn’t seem to know what humanity is, and it’s something else to file away for later. Brooker changes tack: he tells Ralph he has information that would ruin his name. Ralph is unimpressed: ‘Whatever you gleaned, or heard, or saw, when you served me, the world knows and magnifies already. You could tell it nothing that would surprise it.’ Desperate now, Brooker makes a final effort: ‘Are those of your own name dear to you?’ Ralph, inevitably, replies ‘No, they are not,’ and sends him on his way. But during their conversation, he has thought fit to give advice to Brooker about presenting himself more carefully to potential alms-givers – he is no more than a beggar now. He had better not try the high moral tone – Ralph might have given him sixpence himself (yeh, sure) if he hadn’t gone for that.

Ralph has other business, and it takes him near the Mantalinis’. He doesn’t go in, but muses on how he will soon need to tie up his business with them. Suddenly – it’s the way of events in this novel – a maid comes shrieking through the front door: Mr M has poisoned himself! Ralph goes up, sees that Mrs M has finally seen her husband for what he is – Miss Knag, who knows what will move her former boss, shows her letters she has discovered in which he describes Mrs M as ‘old’ and ‘ordinary.’ Ah. It’s the unforgivable sin, and Ralph realises it’s all up for Mantalini. He tells him – the poisoning, the seventh attempt in a fortnight, is only a ruse – that he will need to find some other source of money.

And finally in this chapter: Squeers is waiting for him – Ralph has deliberately kept him waiting – and there’s another man with him. The encounter is described from Newman’s point of view, so we don’t know who the man is. But that mythical alert reader might remember Squeers’s warning to Nicholas about returning fathers…

…because that’s who he proves to be in the final chapter of the instalment. There’s been another of those convivial evenings at the Nicklebys’ cottage, this time with Browdie and his wife. They are off back to Yorkshire, but wouldn’t miss an evening with their new friends. Dickens confirms their status, somehow, by comparing Kate with Tilda Browdie, whose ‘rustic beauty contrasted very prettily with the more delicate loveliness of Kate, and without suffering by the contrast either, for each served as it were to set off and decorate the other.’ It’s the highest compliment he could possibly pay a female character. Sometimes I can see why some people hate Dickens. (I routinely say I hate his female characters. Tilda might be a rare exception)

But I’m not telling you the plot. Ralph has brought Mr Snawley, the man we first met in an early chapter when he was delivering two hapless boys to Squeers, and at whose house Squeers now stays when in London. He has proof, supposedly, that he is Smike’s father: a deathbed letter from his estranged wife that the son she pretended was dead was in fact sent to Dotheboys Hall… etc. The handwriting of the letter tallies with a verified document in her hand ‘exactly, (making proper allowance for its having been written by a person in extremity.)’  Neither Nicholas nor Browdie dispute it, but I’m assuming that some possible future doubt might lie in that parenthesis. Such a connection, discovered just now, is highly convenient, and… we’ll see.

Nicholas won’t let Smike go, of course, and Ralph pretends it’s only because he hopes to gain financially from the ‘kidnap.’ Maybe he believes it – it would be the only motive he can think of, and we know what he thinks of ‘humanity.’ Except he will use the word if he thinks it will win him a point, as when he announces the existence of a father: ‘I have another motive in coming: a motive of humanity. I come here,’ said Ralph, looking round with a biting and triumphant smile, and gloating and dwelling upon the words as if he were loath to lose the pleasure of saying them, ‘to restore a parent his child.’ The truth of it lies in that ‘biting and triumphant smile’: he just wants to make Nicholas and the rest as uncomfortable as possible.

So, with six instalments left, the forces of darkness and light are ranged against each other. The threat of legal action is hanging in the air, and Sir Mulberry undoubtedly will return someday soon. It’s a good job Dickens has been stacking up the forces of light in opposition. The Cheerybles (uncles and nephew), the Browdies, even little Miss La Creevy…. My money’s on them, and a double wedding in celebration.

But poor old Smike.

25 March
Chapters 46-51 [XV-XVI]
What must it have been like for Dickens, fourteen instalments into a 20-instalment novel but with months’ worth of planning and writing yet to go? It’s unimaginable – so we mortals can only look on and admire. He clearly knows where he is going, as new situations arise that will help to confirm what we know about these now very familiar characters and set up resolutions (or new perils) several instalments ahead. Nicholas will marry the unknown, Kate will marry Frank, the wicked characters will be thwarted – and we, the appreciative readers, will be grateful that such a master is in charge of confirming the eternal truth that, at bottom, humanity is on the side of the angels. How can it not be so if a writer this good tells us it is, one who has looked deep into the souls of wicked men as well as good – and into the souls of ordinary people like us?

It’s all nonsense, of course. We might wish the world to be like this, but we know it isn’t – which means that whenever I read a novel by Dickens I always reach a point when I wonder how he is managing to break down our sophisticated defences, again. There aren’t really any young women as selfless as either Kate or Madeline Bray, or young men as unswervingly principled as Nicholas – and (spit) only tabloid newspapers characterise wrongdoers as monsters to the core. (As I write, Britain is having to come to terms with the back-story of a very ordinary boy from Kent, liked by his schoolmates but who in adult life found it difficult to manage his anger. He is the man who killed four innocent people in London three days ago in what is being called a terrorist attack.) We accept it from Dickens not because any of it is plausible but because he creates a world in which it isn’t about plausibility. It seems not to matter at all whether any of it is feasible outside one of his novels, how characters we like are placed in jeopardy, or how solutions are to be worked out. All we know is that he’ll do it, and we’ll love it when he does.

The particular plot element that made me pause is a character new to us, Gride. He is, more than usual in Dickens, a character from stock – the wrinkled old lecher who wants to marry the ‘delicate morsel’ of a young wife. He’s visiting Ralph – ‘there’s a liquorish devilry’ in him that Ralph notices – and we guess who the morsel is before he mentions her name: we only heard it in the previous chapter, together with the back-story and a set-piece scene to show us the utterly selfless care Madeline lavishes on her worthless father. During that earlier scene I had already been making a mental note about how crude Dickens can be sometimes, and then along comes this threat to her: just as Nicholas has found out who she is, Gride and Ralph put together a plan that will snatch her away to a life of squalid misery. What is needed, of course, will be… well, we know. We might not know the details, but we know the planned marriage will be stopped somehow. The old man will be humiliated, I guess, and Ralph will hate Nicholas even more: only if the wedding goes ahead will Gride pay off Ralph’s share, and more, of the hundreds of pounds of debt owed by the worthless Bray.

Whatever. Given that Dickens has shamelessly made use of an off-the-shelf character in Gride, and given that the reader knows perfectly well that he won’t get what he wants because that isn’t how things work in this universe, the chapter is a wonderful set piece. This is how it so often is with Dickens. The set-up might be preposterous, but the way that the pieces fall into place is so perfect we’re fine with it. While having a lot of fun with the grotesque old man and his equally grotesque appetites, he is also able to confirm, again, Ralph’s status as a bona fide monster. Readers can’t fail to notice the parallels between Madeline’s plight and Kate’s earlier in the novel – I’m sure Dickens wants us to suspect that Kate might be the one that Gride has his eye on for the page or so before he reveals Madeline’s name – but not for a moment does Ralph stop to think about the rights and wrongs of what he is contemplating for a selfless, innocent (etc.) young woman. We know he doesn’t care about the after-life, and it’s a good job he doesn’t.

It goes without saying that according to his own twisted values, Ralph is behaving in the most rational way possible. He will get his money, Gride will get his young wife, and Madeline will get a life that is no worse than the one she leads already. Dickens doesn’t need to take a big moral stand on the way we make justifications for whatever is to our advantage – because he’s already done it, with a touch so light it’s comic, in the previous chapter…

…when Nicholas has to weigh up the rights and wrongs of whether he should be the one to represent the Cheerybles in dealing with Madeline and her father. They have set up a charitable scheme to buy her drawings and other art at a generous price, but want it to look like a business deal. They want Nicholas to be the front-man, because they themselves can’t be seen to be the ones buying; Tim wouldn’t be able to keep his angry thoughts under control; and Frank might fall in love with her and, ‘before he knew well his own mind, carry pain and sorrow into that innocent breast.’ It’s a dilemma for Nicholas. Shouldn’t he confess his own love, and tell them that he might well inflict on Madeline exactly what they fear from Frank? He wrestles with this, but not for long: he ‘mentally answered with great emphasis “No!” and persuading himself that he was a most conscientious and glorious martyr, nobly resolved to do what, if he had examined his own heart a little more carefully, he would have found he could not resist.’ He does the thing that will bring him regular meetings with the woman he has decided he loves.

So, in bringing Nicholas into closer contact with Madeline, Dickens has also drawn our attention to how we decide on what we consider to be the right course of action. And it brings him to the next set-piece scene: Madeline and her father. It demonstrates his monstrousness – he’s a nastier version of Mantalini, having brought his wife to an early grave by ruining her and making her go begging to the Cheerybles on his behalf – and it demonstrates Madeline’s unswerving dutifulness and unconditional love. Pass me the sick-bucket. His treatment of Nicholas is so like that of Sir Mulberry that I’m sure we’re supposed to make the link. There might be members of the upper classes who aren’t appalling snobs, but we’ve only met one, Verisopht – and he isn’t long for this world. In the next instalment, Sir Mulberry kills him. It’s a duel, but it’s as good as murder – and I can only speculate on the horrid death eventually awaiting the frankly evil Hawk.

But I’m jumping the gun. The last chapter in instalment XV is trumpeted as ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr. Vincent Crummles, and positively his last Appearance on this Stage’ and, for once, there is no irony in the announcement. Maybe Dickens was being pestered for more scenes with the preposterous troupe of actors, and this is his riposte. Nicholas, by chance (obviously) sees a poster outside a theatre and, inside, he meets almost all of them, one by one. They are all as absurdly posturing as ever and, whatever his feelings about having to dredge them up for this last time, Dickens has a lot of fun with them. But he isn’t going to give us the final performance itself – Nicholas is sick for love of Madeline, whose angelic status is now confirmed, and can’t face it – so we get the farewell dinner-party instead. Fine. And…

…two things. One, Dickens puts into Nicholas’s mouth, in conversation with one of them, a tirade against the men who were plagiarising this very novel: ‘you take the uncompleted books of living authors, fresh from their hands, wet from the press, cut, hack, and carve them to the powers and capacities of your actors, and the capability of your theatres, finish unfinished works, hastily and crudely vamp up ideas not yet worked out…’ and so on, and on. Two… Dickens doesn’t want our last view of Crummles to be like the actorly farewell we remember from months back. So Nicholas ‘could not but mark the difference between their present separation and their parting at Portsmouth. Not a jot of his theatrical manner remained; he put out his hand with an air which, if he could have summoned it at will, would have made him the best actor of his day in homely parts.’ And, even if ironic – he will never be able to do it like this on stage – there’s no higher praise than that.

The next instalment puts to bed the thread of the cucumber-throwing neighbour, moves the Gride/Madeline Bray thread along, and brings back Sir Mulberry Hawk. I think I’ll call him Hawk from now on.

The lunatic neighbour makes one last stand, and… and I’m never sure why Dickens has made Mrs Nickleby quite so narcissistically obtuse. First, when she notices that Frank is paying more visits than might be expected, she remarks on how considerate he is being to her. In this universe, perceptive adult daughters don’t find the words to warn their mothers of how they are in constant danger of making themselves ridiculous, so she says nothing. Mrs N also doesn’t notice, obviously, how many evening moments Kate and Frank spend quietly together when he visits, or why Smike always takes himself to bed just as Frank arrives. Fine. There’s a comic set piece, complete with the neighbour’s crazy patter, when he hides up the chimney and eulogises Mrs Nickleby again. Again, she remonstrates with Kate when she hints that the man might not be fully compos mentis – until he is pulled down from the chimney and he turns his loving attention to Miss La Creevy instead. Mrs Nickleby can account for this. Her rejection of him has sent him mad. Can we move on now? Yes we can – but only after Dickens has made it clear that Smike isn’t long for this world. Consumption, we gather, and that broken heart of his won’t be helping.

The next chapter ‘Involves a serious Catastrophe.’  Dickens takes us to the racecourse, and into the world he warned us innocent readers about all those instalments ago. We’re in a gambling-den with Hawk and his dupe – except that Verisopht is beginning to see his ‘Mentor’ – it’s a word Dickens uses – for what he really is. Hawk has arranged for something nasty to happen to Nicholas next day – not murder, ‘but it shall be something very near it if whipcord cuts and bludgeons bruise.’ Verisopht is so direct in his disapproval that Hawk responds aggressively, and he is cowed for a moment. But then he builds up enough courage to remind Hawk what he said when he was still nursing his broken leg: ‘with my knowledge or consent, you never should do what you threaten now.’ Hawk takes this exactly as you would expect, but what happens over the next few hours is wonderfully worked through. They go from one luridly described den of debauchery to another – what happens in them beyond drinking and gambling is never specified, of course – until an incident disturbs the ‘orgies’ of the assembled rakes. Verisopht, no doubt under the influence of the general ‘savage intoxication of the moment,’ lands a blow on the man he now knows to be utterly worthless.

Was Hawk looking for this? We assume so. He is well known to be a good shot, he instantly calls on his cronies to bear witness to the assault, and a duel is arranged for the next morning before anybody is able to look coolly at how things stand. It’s almost dawn by now anyway, and… less than three pages later, Verisopht is dead. Hawk is hurried away to France, everything will be done to hush up the affair, and the reader wonders how Nicholas will deal with whoever Hawk has sent to beat him, we assume, to within an inch of his life.

In fact, that isn’t what is worrying Nicholas at all in the final chapter of the instalment. But we aren’t with him yet. First we’re with Gride, making his preparations for the wedding. The appalling Bray must have chosen, as we always knew he would, to go along with the scheme – the way we saw Ralph persuading him in the previous instalment was an object lesson both in shameless temptation and bogus moralising – and we see the kind of life Madeline can look forward to. Gride is a textbook miser as well as a textbook lecherous old cradle-snatcher, and we see him looking for an outfit that isn’t too threadbare. A bottle-green suit brings back happy memories of finding a shilling in the pocket overlooked by the pawnbroker he bought it from, and that’s the one he chooses. In the same scene, in conversation with his equally appalling housekeeper, he says how he will polish up a gold necklace, ‘clasp it round her charming little neck myself—and take it away again next day. He, he, he!’ He is always imagining himself in close contact with some part of Madeline’s attractive young body…. A meeting with Ralph confirms it all: the wedding will take place early in the morning in two days’ time.

What exercises Nicholas is this very thing. Noggs, in a farcical scenario dreamt up by Dickens in order to have him overhear the hideous plot to buy Madeline from her father, has no idea of who ‘Madeline Bray’ is. He feels terrible pity for her, but such things happen in his boss’s squalid world, and what can Noggs do? He seeks out Nicholas after the final wedding arrangements have been made, not to discuss this but Brooker. He thinks Brooker is going to be very important in some way – he has been downplaying to Ralph the persistence of the man’s demands to see him properly, in private – and he wants to run it past Nicholas. ‘I couldn’t help coming up, tonight. I say, I think I am going to find out something…. it’s some secret in which your uncle is concerned.’ No doubt Brooker will be important later, but now…

…a different secret finally explodes into view. Noggs casually asks the name of the fair unknown, and is appalled when Nicholas tells him. ‘Can you stand idly by,’ demands Noggs, ‘and let that unnatural marriage take place without one attempt to save her?’ A drinking man, he hasn’t thought it through, and finally tells Nicholas the whole story. As he does, Nicholas’s reaction is unsurprising: ‘Rage, astonishment, indignation, and a storm of passions….’ And instantly, ‘trembling in every limb, he darted from the house.’ The instalment ends with Noggs’s pathetic attempts to prevent some catastrophe: ‘He’ll be doing something desperate; he’ll murder somebody. Hallo! there, stop him. Stop thief! stop thief!’

21 April
Chapters 52-58 [XVII-XVIII]
For a while now, there’s been a sense of things being wound up. Even before these instalments we’ve had the final farewells of Crummles and Verisopht, the disappearance, we assume, of Hawk – there has been no mention either of him or the assailants who were to teach Nicholas a lesson – and the tying-up of the slender thread that was the story of the cucumber-throwing neighbour. During these two instalments there are a lot more resolutions and endings, including a key one before the end of the seventeenth and the long-heralded death of Smike by the end of the eighteenth. It means that before the final double instalment all the decks are cleared for a showdown between Nicholas and his two great enemies – and for the little matter of getting Nicholas and Kate married to the people they love despite the obstacles that remain. (I’ll tell you later about the obstacles. Nothing to worry about.)

Almost all of the seventeenth instalment is taken up with the satisfactory foiling of the plot against Madeline Bray. It opens where the previous one left off, with ‘Stop, thief!’ ringing in Nicholas’s ears. We already know that he is learning to curb his own hot-headedness – half a novel ago, he was very careful indeed not to give way to his urge to thrash Sir Mulberry. Now, rather than letting Noggs’s shouts lead to ‘a disagreeable predicament,’ he slows down to let him catch up. He was on his way to remonstrate with Bray, and tells Noggs he would have gone on to Ralph’s if that hadn’t worked…. But what would that have achieved? Noggs convinces him that Bray is beyond feeling even the ‘spark of consideration for his own child’ that Nicholas hopes for, and Ralph will be in bed by now. ‘I will drag him from it,’ cries Nicholas. Noggs’s reply – ‘Tut-tut. Be yourself’ – is enough to make him realise that he needs a ‘true friend’ like him.

This has taken less than half of the first page of the chapter – and Dickens only needs another couple of pages for Nicholas and Noggs to explain to one another, and to the reader, how impossible the situation is. In ‘utter dejection,’ Nicholas says there is ‘no way’ he can resolve this: ‘Not one. The father urges, the daughter consents. These demons have her in their toils; legal right, might, power, money, and every influence are on their side. How can I hope to save her?’ Dickens doesn’t leave it there. He spends a full paragraph on the hopelessness of it all: ‘a few hours would place Madeline Bray for ever beyond his reach, consign her to unspeakable misery… . Every hope … Every charm … Every feeling … [etc.] swelled his heart almost to bursting.’ The Cheerybles can’t help him – they’re away on a trip – and he can’t go back on his word not to mention anything to Frank or Tim. In desperation, he decides he will visit Madeline next day. Maybe he will be able to persuade her at least to delay the wedding for a few days. However…

…Dickens decides that we’ve had enough for now, and offers the only episode of comic relief in the whole instalment. Some preposterous plot business – sometimes I get the feeling that Dickens is happy for us to see his working – leads to an unexpected encounter. Mrs Kenwigs, in an effort to tidy up her daughter for an event at which someone marriageable will be present, asks Noggs to accompany her to have her hair done. At the barber’s is… Lillyvick, with a week’s growth of beard and looking terrible. It’s Dickens’s way of tying up another thread: Lillyvick’s wife, the one who caused all that anguish for the Kenwigses, has left him for another man, taking twenty sovereigns with her. So, at the Kenwigses, following a frankly absurd amount of protestation from them including the usual comic hypocrisy – ‘“Was it money that we cared for?” said Mr. Kenwigs. “Was it property that we ever thought of?” “No,” cried Mrs. Kenwigs, “I scorn it.”’ – all is sweetness, light, and forgiveness.

Back to the main business. Having cranked up the sense of jeopardy at the start, Dickens keeps it up until the very last pages of the instalment… but that isn’t all he’s doing. He creates set pieces that force Nicholas to keep raising his game, confirming his hero status as much through his powerfully persuasive arguments as by his actions. However – and here’s a thing – none of his words have the desired effect. It makes me think that this is the point. Nicholas never puts a foot wrong, but it isn’t enough – until the very end, the obstacles really do appear to be insurmountable – and it takes a death to scupper the plot. Meanwhile, Dickens is also able to confirm the moral stature of both Madeline and Kate, whilst Ralph is not only the consummate villain but also a traitor to all the ties of family. My goodness.

Those set pieces don’t happen immediately. Already, at the age of only 27, Dickens is confident enough to stop the action for two whole pages in order to offer a painstaking description of a psychological experience most readers would recognise. Nicholas suffers all the misgivings that the morning brings at times of stress, so that ‘with that dark and silent gap between us and yesterday; with every link in the brittle chain of hope, to rivet afresh … doubt and misgiving revive.’ It’s one of those moments that have gained Dickens the reputation for psychological truthfulness despite, say, the caricature of ludicrous venality we’ve just witnessed from the Kenwigses. In the middle of what is essentially a melodrama, this is something different – and Nicholas’s strength in overcoming his morning terrors is another confirmation of his heroic resolve.

He goes to the Brays’ apartment. First he is subjected to Bray’s insultingly triumphant tone, which he patiently bears. Only once, unseen, does he let his face show his true feelings… and then he gestures to Kate that he needs to speak to her. Everything about her behaviour, from the triumph of the will represented by her mask-like expression that shows no sign of tears to her determination to allow her father this final hope of recovery, establish her once and for all as a worthy heroine. Job done – but not for Nicholas. Dickens has presented to us, verbatim, every stage in Nicholas’s vain attempt to persuade her to delay the wedding. After she leaves him, he staggers hopelessly from the house – but, such is his heroic determination that in the next sentence ‘he issued forth again.’ There’s no stopping him.

Next is Gride. There’s a long description of him alone, rejoicing in the money represented by his most precious possession, his box of bonds. File that away for later. As Dickens lets us inside his thoughts Gride’s monster status is confirmed, again. He doesn’t notice when Nicholas is shown up to his ill-lit room – it’s night now, which is appropriate for the darkness of his soul – and Nicholas has been watching him. But it’s another hopeless errand. Persuasion obviously won’t help, so he tries another tack: he tells Gride he knows he wouldn’t pay off everything Bray owed to Ralph Nickleby if there were nothing to gain but a pretty wife. He is sure the marriage will make Gride a lot of money, and tells him that he has the idea that evidence will soon come to light to that effect. He even offers to raise enough money to match whatever Gride will gain from the marriage.

Gride feels only relief at this. He had begun to suspect, with Nicholas knowing so much about the financial arrangements with Ralph, that his so-called partner was doing the dirty on him. But Nicholas knows nothing of the bond that proves Kate will inherit a small fortune on her marriage – Dickens describes the workings of this man’s mind mind as he pieces together the facts even as Nicholas speaks – so he calls his bluff. He opens the window and screams for help, so Nicholas has to leave in a hurry. Gride is left to gloat over both Nicholas’s failure and the way he will later use his knowledge of his existence to ‘break her spirit.’ Something else to file away for later too is his clear contempt for his ancient housekeeper, Peg Sliderskew, and his intention to sack her once he’s married. Her name might be enough to tell him she was never to be trusted….

What’s a hero to do? We don’t know yet, and Dickens doesn’t tell us as the last chapter of the instalment opens. Instead, we’re with Gride next day, the morning of the wedding. Ralph arrives to accompany him to the Brays’ – he never lets Gride go there alone – and Gride has ‘favours’ for them both to wear, much to Ralph’s disgust. (They become grotesque details in the illustration that appears later in the chapter.) And from now on, as in every chapter in this instalment, a lot happens in a series of short scenes. Ralph is contemptuous of the misgivings Bray tells him about – but it’s the voice of Dickens’s narrator that points out a cynical truth: ‘When men are about to commit, or to sanction the commission of some injustice, it is not uncommon for them to express pity … and to feel themselves, at the time, quite virtuous and moral, and immensely superior to those who express no pity at all.’ Ralph lets him talk himself out, and dismisses as an uncomfortable sleeping position the dream from last night that Bray remembers at that moment. It had begun with Bray going to fetch Madeline for the wedding and ends with him sinking through the floor, ‘falling from … an indescribable and tremendous height,’ and landing in his grave. Ah.

Next. Bray leaves to fetch Madeline, the villains chat on… and hear the sound of a man’s steps and a woman’s dress on the stairs. It’s a tease: Nicholas has brought Kate to help persuade Madeline. But that never gets to happen. Instead, Ralph and Nicholas do their best to out-face each other. Ralph’s usual string of false accusations sounds weak – nobody is listening now – and Nicholas is able to summarise Ralph’s failings, one by one. (It’s here that Dickens reminds us of the family ties that Ralph has turned his back on: ‘As the brother and sister stood side by side, with a gallant bearing which became them well, a close likeness between them was apparent…. More striking still was some indefinable resemblance, in the face of Ralph, to both.’ He could have been noble like them, but has chosen the dark side.)

Ralph, rather ineffectually, threatens to have them both physically removed. That he contemplates having a young woman man-handled from the house is further confirmation of his villainy, but it never goes so far because – well, we know why: ‘a heavy body fell with great violence on the floor above,’ and there are a series of awful screams. And, in this instalment packed with incident and fizzing with possibilities, there is more to come. Nicholas has become more than just a hero. Suddenly, he is the man who knows things. He has guessed that Madeline is entitled to some legacy or other, and has tried to use his hunch both in his argument for delaying the marriage and when he threatens Gride with repercussions. Before he leaves now, with Madeline lying unconscious in his arms, he tells Ralph of the crash of a finance house. ‘Your day is past, and night is comin’ on…. this very day, ten thousand pounds of your hoarded wealth have gone in one great crash!’

How on earth could he know? Whatever, moments later, he has whisked Madeline from the house, not only with his heroic stature confirmed beyond doubt, but with a new role as heavenly messenger sent to warn the wicked. It’s looking as though the final instalments are turning into a battle between good and evil, and Nicholas is fearless: ‘Whence will curses come at your command? Or what avails a curse or blessing from a man like you?’

The next instalment clears some more decks, and clarifies some of the issues. Really, I see it all as a preparation for the final double instalment, opening with a chapter focused on the Nickleby household. Madeline is established as a natural addition to the family, largely through the way that Kate selflessly throws herself into nursing her following the trauma of recent times. It becomes the basis of a close friendship – ‘What wonder that days became as years in knitting them together!’ – and, along the way, Dickens reminds us how Kate’s good qualities are just like Nicholas’s…. Frank is also mentioned as a frequent visitor and, for the first time in her life, Mrs Nickleby draws a correct conclusion from the behaviour of other people. But this raises a difficulty: Nicholas, when he realises that his mother regards a marriage between Kate and Frank as a certainty, explains that this cannot be: ‘we should be acting a most dishonourable and ungrateful part…. Remember how poor we are.’ Ah – and, I suppose, when Madeline’s legacy comes to light – which is in the process of being brought about a couple of chapters further on – the same obstacle will apply to his marrying her. We know it will be sorted, but rom-com plots need obstacles.

Meanwhile, Smike’s illness is confirmed. The doctor says that the best hope is for him to be taken to the very part of Devon where the Nicklebys are from. You couldn’t make it up…. The Cheeribles give Nicholas permission to take him there until, as one of them says, he starts to get better. The other makes no comment, which seems like final confirmation that Smike is not long for this world. In fact, he bids it farewell in the final pathos-laden sentences of the eighteenth instalment: ‘“Now,” he murmured, “I am happy.” He fell into a light slumber, and waking smiled as before; then, spoke of beautiful gardens, which he said stretched out before him, and were filled with figures of men, women, and many children, all with light upon their faces; then, whispered that it was Eden—and so died.’

But before this, there’s been a sighting that might hold the key to the final denouement. We don’t know how yet, but that ragged-looking man that Smike sees the last time he is able to go out – this is in Devon, remember, so it really does seem bizarre – must be Brooker. Has he followed them 200-odd miles? Why on earth would he do that? We begin to guess that this isn’t one of Dickens’s chance encounters, like the comic one between Noggs and Lillyvick. It’s starting to look like a plot thread stretching from long before the beginning of the novel to the very end. Why else would Dickens make Smike so utterly certain that of all the people in the world, he has seen the man who first took him to Dotheboys Hall all those years ago? ‘He was dusty with walking, and poorly dressed—I think his clothes were ragged—but… I have thought of him by day, and dreamt of him by night. He looked in my sleep, when I was quite a little child, and has looked in my sleep ever since, as he did just now.’

Nicholas can do what he likes to try to convince Smike that this is no more than a waking dream but, as I’ve said before, he doesn’t know he’s in a Dickens novel. We do, and we know how often there are strange ties between characters who could have no possible connection. We don’t know for certain that this is Brooker, the man who has tried to convince Ralph Nickleby that he has a secret that could floor him…. But who else would it be? And why does Smike notice that when ‘he knew I saw him, he looked frightened; for he started, and shrunk away.’ Could Brooker’s secret possibly be…? No, surely not. Not even in a Dickens novel. But, in an earlier chapter in this instalment, there’s been definite confirmation that Smike’s supposed father is no such thing.

Between these two chapters are two others which, really, confirm Ralph not only as a villain but as Voldemort. His cynicism is complete, and he has no respect either for people like him – we see his utter contempt for Gride – or for the feckless people who have made his fortune for him. The curse he aims at Nicholas – the one he is able to rebuff, just as Harry Potter can rebuff Voldemort’s – is as much to do with the loss of money as personal animosity. And when he chooses to behave as though Nicholas had been responsible for the crash, rather than just the bringer of bad news, his detestation is approaching monomania. ‘If he had brought it about,—I almost feel as if he had,—I couldn’t hate him more. Let me but retaliate upon him, by degrees, however slow—let me but begin to get the better of him, let me but turn the scale—and I can bear it.’ These are the battle-lines that are being drawn in preparation for that last double instalment….

There’s important plot business to be got through. As ever, Dickens is able to hang a lot of other things on to it, as when we witness not only Gride’s utter mortification at the loss of his all-important box of deeds but also Ralph’s total lack of sympathy or fellow-feeling. (The thief, of course, is Mrs Sliderskew, taking revenge on a man who deserves no better after his treatment of her and his intention, as she rightly suspects, to throw her on to the street.) There’s only one thing in that box that interests Ralph, and he acts to retrieve it without any reference to Gride. It’s the will containing the legacy to be made over to Madeline when she reaches the age of 21 or marries. I can’t remember if we already knew that these are the terms, confirmed when the will is eventually recovered. As was always bound to happen.

The man who finds it, following a lot of behind-the-scenes leg-work by some of Ralph’s spies, is – guess. Ralph needs somebody who is unknown in London, so he uses what he knows about Squeers – that he hates Nicholas almost as much as Ralph himself, and that he is just as fond of money – to persuade him to trick Sliderskew into letting him have it. The set-piece scene in which Ralph does what he does best – he can read Squeers like a book and play him for a fool, as we saw him doing with Gride and Bray – reminds us of how vicious Squeers can be. It isn’t only about the money, either in this chapter or the one in which we see how he finally manages to break Sliderskew’s defences. We see his ignorance, dissolute habits and, most strongly of all, hear how proud he is of treating his charges at Dotheboys Hall with as much contempt as Ralph treats his victims. Together, they are the axis of evil Nicholas will have to face.

Luckily, he isn’t on his own. At the decisive moment when Squeers is able to pocket the will – he is posing as a legal expert, and gleefully rejoices to himself under his breath how easy it is to dupe ignorant people like this – Noggs brings a pair of bellows down on his head. He and Frank Cheerible have been waiting in the back of the room for just this moment, and Dickens ends the scene, and the chapter, with Squeers on the floor, ‘flat and senseless.’ So with him in that state and Brooker skulking in the background, maybe we could have predictied what the chapter heading at the start of the next instalment tells us: ‘The Plots begin to fail, and Doubts and Dangers to disturb the Plotter.’

12 May
Chapters 59-65 [XIX-XX – the final double instalment]
Marvellous. Dickens gives us everything we want – but, with regard to the fight between good and evil, not at all in the way I had been expecting. I should have seen it coming, I suppose. When Ralph’s death brings to a close the main plot thread of the novel three full chapters before the end, I realised I’d got the dynamic of these final chapters entirely wrong: I had been predicting the final showdown between Nicholas and his two great enemies, but there is no showdown. In the battle between good and evil there are enough people on the side of the angels to get the work done without any help from Nicholas. This is a surprise. Between Chapters 56 and 60 we only see him in the chapter set in Devon – and it turns out that his face-off with Ralph at the Brays’ all that time ago is their last encounter. He never sees Squeers again either.

Which leaves the other plot thread, the one that was much easier to get right – what I was calling the little matter of getting Nicholas and Kate married to the people they love in spite of the obstacles. The final chapters are a festival of feel-good resolutions that end with everybody getting exactly what they deserve. Dickens has somehow made us believe that it doesn’t really matter how he has brought it all about, but he’s done it: impossible-seeming coincidences and the results of decisions in the distant past combine with at least four different characters (outside the Nickleby family) who want to do the right thing… and everything comes together in a series of denouements that leave the reader thinking how lovely it would be if life was really like this.

Three of the first four chapters in the double instalment describe not only the end of all Ralph Nickleby’s schemes, but also the gruesomely satisfying conclusion of his repudiation of family values. It doesn’t matter that the latter comes about as the result of the most outlandish revelation in the whole novel. The point is, Ralph deserves this. It’s why we sophisticated readers are willing to accept the impossibility of the chain of events, just as we had been willing to accept the timely death of Madeline’s father. Nobody is looking for plausibility any more. The chapter subtitles describe the arc of Ralph’s defeat with a tolling inevitability. Chapter 59: The Plots begin to fail, and Doubts and Dangers to disturb the Plotter. Chapter 60: The Dangers thicken, and the Worst is Told. (This, immediately after Ralph has defied his enemies to do their worst.) Chapter 62 (following an interlude in which Nicholas and Kate discuss their unmarried futures together): Ralph makes one last Appointment—and keeps it. We are able to guess by now what the appointment is likely to be.

At the opening of these instalments, it’s one of the Cheeryble brothers who comes to warn Ralph that there are things he needs to know. But Ralph won’t hear him, treating him as contemptuously as ‘brother Charles’ treats Ralph with courtesy. With the dripping sarcasm that is his usual tone now, Ralph reminds Charles that ‘you are not an angel yet, to appear in men’s houses whether they will or no, and pour your speech into unwilling ears.’ It might be the first time the word ‘angel’ has appeared in these final instalments, but it won’t be the last. And it comes as no surprise that when Ralph is at rock-bottom, just before his suicide, he wonders ‘Is there no devil to help me?’ Dickens couldn’t make it any more black-and-white. But, in these chapters, Ralph is like Macbeth. He can’t help recognising goodness even as he scorns it – and, more seriously for his peace of mind, something is preventing him from sleeping.

So, Ralph dismisses Charles Cheeryble’s friendly overture. But in spite of his ‘derisive and contemptuous manner, it was plain that, the more Ralph pondered, the more ill at ease he became.’ Doing his best to shake off the lethargy that has been plaguing him, he goes out into the city. He tries to see Snawley, the man who posed as Smike’s father. No joy – his wife won’t let him in the house. So he tries Squeers, both at his usual lodging and at the place where he had been pursuing Sliderskew. He doesn’t know what we know… and then he gets his first inkling. A fellow-lodger tells him that Squeers went off with two men the previous night, and they came back for Sliderskew as well. Ralph suspects Squeers has been caught and arrested, and goes to see if Gride knows anything. But Gride won’t let him in his house either. Ralph is bemused. ‘How is this … that they all fall from me, and shun me like the plague, these men who have licked the dust from my feet? is my day past, and is this indeed the coming on of night?’

I think it might be, Ralphie-boy – and he realises he has no choice but to go and see the Cheerybles. At this first visit he finds out about the failure of his plot to defeat Nicholas by stripping Madeline of her inheritance. It’s Noggs who tells him, following the sarcastic dismissal of him that Ralph attempts when he sees who is being held up as a witness. ‘I always knew the real worth of such characters as yours! To tamper with a fellow like this, who would sell his soul (if he had one) for drink, and whose every word is a lie.’ Like his false accusations of Nicholas at the Brays’, these words carry no authority… and nobody is listening now, either. Newman confirms that he is on the side of the angels as much by his words as by the services he has performed; speeches, and the moral authority they carry, have been as important as deeds for a long time in this novel now. He explains how his motive for carrying on working for Ralph was to do something about his ‘cruel treatment of his own flesh and blood, and vile designs upon a young girl who interested even his broken-down, drunken, miserable hack.’

Noggs explains the care he took, after Squeers’s meeting with Ralph, to follow him wherever he went. Nothing had come of it, and only renewed vigilance set them on to Squeers again…. Gride wouldn’t help them shed any light on why Squeers was in the same lodging-house as his former housekeeper, but there’s enough suspicion for a warrant to be issued. After his arrest Squeers has no explanation for the will he has hidden about his person, and Snawley has confessed his part in the paternity sub-plot. Unsurprisingly, Ralph scorns ‘a hundred canting speeches full of oily words’ that might be spoken against him. And, inevitably, he uses some more words of his own. He reaches new heights of verbal defiance – perhaps because he suspects that’s all he has left. ‘I spit upon your fair words and false dealings, and dare you—provoke you—taunt you—to do to me the very worst you can!’ He’s becoming more like Macbeth every time we see him, and the final, single-sentence paragraph of the chapter confirms that the game is very nearly up. It ends with the warning that ‘the worst had not come yet.’

When it does come, the new information proves to be too much for Ralph to bear. He doesn’t show it, obviously, because that would look like a defeat. What he does instead is disappear into the darkness. Literally: ‘the lamp, which stood upon the table close to where Ralph was seated, and which was the only one in the room, was thrown to the ground, and left them in darkness. There was some trifling confusion in obtaining another light; the interval was a mere nothing; but when the light appeared, Ralph Nickleby was gone.’

Before this in the same chapter, two things. Ralph goes to find Squeers, who confirms that he will no longer do any of his bidding: ‘I an’t a-going to have any stories made for me, and I an’t a-going to stick to any. If I find matters going again me, I shall expect you to take your share, and I’ll take care you do.’ Worse, for Ralph, is Squeers’s taunt regarding the purloined will: ‘If you had let me burn it, and taken my word that it was gone, it would have been a heap of ashes behind the fire.’ Ralph mutters that he is ‘Beaten at every point’ – but Dickens is reminding us that he has beaten himself.

Squeers carries on with a long series of self-justifying complaints about the way Ralph deceived him into pretending there was ‘no danger’ – demonstrating at the same time that he is happy to do wrong if he can avoid the consequences – and only ends when he is taken away to be held on remand. In the meantime, he has been doing exactly what Ralph does, building up an edifice of words to prove his own probity and respectability. At one point he even begins to quote, to Ralph of all people, the advertising publicity we recognise from the very first instalment: ‘at the delightful village of Dotheboys near Greta Bridge in Yorkshire, youth are boarded, clothed, booked, washed, furnished with pocket-money, provided with all necessaries, instructed in all languages living and dead….’ Does he think Ralph is listening? Does he think that anybody else is?

The second thing is that Ralph finds out about Smike. He can’t gauge why the Cheerybles look at him so pityingly as they tell him about the death, and adds an even ghastlier layer to his usual sarcastic tone. He has already let them know how delighted he would be to hear of the death of Nicholas. Now, hearing of Smike’s, he revels in it: ‘Is this your dreadful news; this your terrible intelligence? You see how it moves me. You did well to send. I would have travelled a hundred miles afoot, through mud, mire, and darkness, to hear this news just at this time.’ But then Brooker emerges from the shadows and, not for the first time, Ralph seems to begin to understand something before he realises he understands. It’s another of those moments of psychological insight, in amongst the melodrama. Maybe it’s the Cheerybles’ repeated ‘Hear what he has to tell you,’ spoken so earnestly, that brings something about in Ralph that we can only guess at: ‘Ralph again gazed at him: as it seemed mechanically….’

He is beyond normal responses, and can only repeat words spoken by Brooker: ‘That boy … Who is now in his grave….’ But he doesn’t respond at all to the end of Brooker’s sentence: ‘—Was your only son, so help me God in heaven!’ All that Ralph can do is sit down, ‘pressing his two hands upon his temples. He removed them, after a minute, and never was there seen, part of a living man undisfigured by any wound, such a ghastly face as he then disclosed.’ And, during the three pages of Brooker’s explanation of the labyrinthine circumstances leading to this, there is no response from him…

…and what an explanation it is. We learn of Ralph’s secret marriage to a woman whose fortune depended on an inconvenient clause in one of those wills you get in novels. We learn of the birth of a son that Ralph knew all about but had never met, in order to prevent any chance of the marriage being discovered. (His wife lives a hundred miles away, literally.) When, tired of waiting for Ralph for seven long years, his wife had run off with another man – ironically, as Brooker is happy to remind Ralph, just before the death of the brother that would have released her fortune – Ralph had placed Brooker in charge of the sickly six-year-old son. Brooker brought him to London but, with Ralph away and with a righteous sense of grievance against him, he decided to pretend the sickly child was dead. He could use the truth of the existence of the boy as a bargaining tool later. Unluckily, the nasty trick Ralph played on him six years after this, the one we already know about, resulted in his being transported when the boy was twelve years old. The annual payments to Squeers came to an end….

Only at the end of the story does Ralph throw the lamp to the floor and disappear. He disappears from the novel for a chapter too, during the interlude with Nicholas and Kate. And then he’s back, preparing for the ‘Appointment’ promised in the subtitle of the chapter that follows. It’s only now that we truly begin to understand the implications of Ralph’s comment about the desertion of his former associates. He is alone, and with nowhere to hide because the cynical world-view that Dickens has repeatedly demonstrated to be wide of the mark is no longer of any use to him. And now, it seems, the Cosmos isn’t going to stand for it any more. There’s been something almost uncanny in the air since the beginning of the instalment when, after we’ve heard all about his ‘haggard face, jaded air, and hollow languid eyes,’ Ralph wonders ‘What is this … that hangs over me, and I cannot shake off?’ Both in his disturbed dreams and when awake, he is ‘constantly haunted by this heavy shadow of—I know not what—’

This is on the opening page of the instalment, and now, after Ralph has been brought face-to-face with the consequences of his sacrifice of marriage and fatherhood in his pursuit of money, he feels the shadow more heavily than ever. Dickens unashamedly lays on the Gothic details: ‘The night was dark, and a cold wind blew, driving the clouds, furiously and fast, before it. There was one black, gloomy mass that seemed to follow him: not hurrying in the wild chase with the others, but lingering sullenly behind, and gliding darkly and stealthily on.’ It is like a ‘funeral train’ and, the next moment, Ralph finds himself passing a ‘poor, mean burial-ground….’ It is the darkest of dark nights of the soul as he makes his way to his lonely house.

He finds himself in the same garret in his house where Smike was briefly lodged, during Ralph’s absence, when Brooker first brought him to London. There are bound chests, a hook in the ceiling…. Someone calls to him from outside, but he puts them off until next day. When? ‘At any hour, at any minute. All times will be alike to me.’ He’s alone again, and that cloud isn’t going away: ‘I know its meaning now … and the restless nights, the dreams, and why I have quailed of late. All pointed to this. Oh! if men by selling their own souls could ride rampant for a term, for how short a term would I barter mine tonight!’ He isn’t Macbeth any more, he’s Marlowe’s Dr Faustus. Except he doesn’t seem to realise that he has no soul to bargain with. He sold it long time ago.

We aren’t present as he prepares for his own suicide, or at the moment of death. Next day, as the chapter ends, he is merely ‘the body’ being cut down from where it hangs from ‘an iron hook immediately below the trap-door in the ceiling—in the very place to which the eyes of his son, a lonely, desolate, little creature, had so often been directed in childish terror, fourteen years before.’ Ah. I might come back whether Ralph is finally defeated by a plot twist more than by the hard work of the good characters. I bet dissertations have been written about how Dickens does this, but makes it feel like cosmic justice.

But now it’s happy endings time. In Chapter 61 – Wherein Nicholas and his Sister forfeit the good Opinion of all worldly and prudent People – we’ve had Nicholas and Kate independently and preposterously reach the conclusion that they can’t possibly marry the people they love. We’ve known this would happen, that scruples about being seen to benefit from too-advantageous marriages would make them both resist, because Dickens prepared us for it in Nicholas’s conversation with his mother in Chapter 55. We also know that the ‘worldly and prudent People’ mentioned ironically in the subtitle are right, and that common sense will prevail. It does prevail, but first there have to be enough play-acting and games-playing not only to spin out the story, but to add yet another layer of gilding to Nicholas and Kate’s saintly status. Separately, they do what no lovers in reality ever do. Not only do they sacrifice their own happiness on a point of principle, they confirm each other’s decisions after they have made them independently. It’s as implausible as the undermining of every last one of Ralph Nickleby’s reasons to live.

But that isn’t where the play-acting comes. The Crummles emigrated nearly five instalments ago, so Dickens needs somebody else to stage-manage a series of rom-com revelations that will leave us all feeling as happy as Brooker’s left us disgusted. He prepares for the great reveal at the end of the chapter in which Kate and Nicholas confirm each other’s forever-single status. Nicholas, as he must, confesses to one of the Cheerybles – are we supposed to be able to tell them apart when they’re both identically tiresome? – that he should have told them that he had taken an interest in Madeline before and shouldn’t have taken on the role of representative. And he requests that she be removed from the Nicklebys’ for all their sakes. The Cheeryble – it’s Charles, as if it matters – reassures him: ‘you did not violate the confidence I placed in you, or take an unworthy advantage of it. I am sure you did not.’ But – and this is where Dickens, if not the Cheeryble, has the wit to start thinking about how things need to be organised – he confirms that Nicholas was right to confess. ‘I was wrong to expose a young man like you to this trial. I might have foreseen what would happen. Thank you, sir, thank you. Madeline shall be removed.’

We find out later that the will is not straightforward, and that an alternative beneficiary needs to be assured of its validity. But this is no more than a detail added by Dickens in order to justify the delay the Cheerybles bring about. And it is the Cheerybles, the scamps, with help from Tim and Frank, who decide to make a game of it. They let Nicholas believe that there’s a little coolness between them, and make sure that Madeline only writes one letter to Kate during weeks of separation….

Are we nearly there yet? Yes. The Cheerybles invite the Nicklebys – and, unaccountably as far as Mrs N is concerned, Miss La Creevy – to dinner. They try to delay the happy outcomes, but just can’t do it: ‘You didn’t keep ‘em in suspense as long as you said you would,’ Tim says ‘archly.’ How we laughed. And… do I really need to describe any more? Only, perhaps, that Tim proposes to La Creevy, who paints portraits of both of them that everyone recognises because, well, who else are they likely to be? And Nicholas is made a partner, and he and Frank are the best of friends, and the Nicklebys move back to their old house in Devon, and…

…enough. Except all loose ends are properly tied up. Squeers has been sentenced to transportation, and at Dotheboys Hall it’s John Browdie who confirms to the boys that they are free to leave. (Dickens glosses over the chaos this brings about. There are boys with no homes to go to, and these ‘were taken back, and some other stragglers were recovered, but by degrees they were claimed, or lost again; and, in course of time, Dotheboys Hall and its last breaking-up began to be forgotten by the neighbours, or to be only spoken of as among the things that had been.’ So that’s all right.) And Mantalini is spotted working a mangle for his new ‘demnebly enslaving chick-a-biddy,’ Hawk survives, but not into old age, and Gride avoids conviction for his frauds only to be murdered in his bed by robbers. The final scene is of Newman Noggs, retired to a cottage in Devon near to Nicholas, Madeline and their beautiful children, and of the children playing – but with ‘feet so small and light, that not a daisy drooped its head beneath their pressure,’ at the grave of their ‘poor, dead cousin.’

But never mind that. I’ve been looking for the final reference to an angel, and I’ve found it. It’s a thought that Ralph has in extremis, and it refers to Nicholas’s treatment of Smike: ‘His own child, his own child! He never doubted the tale; he felt it was true; knew it as well, now, as if he had been privy to it all along. His own child! And dead too. Dying beside Nicholas, loving him, and looking upon him as something like an angel. That was the worst!’ He never says it, but we know that Ralph knows that in choosing the dark side, he made the wrong choice.


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