Nicholas Nickleby was the third novel of Charles Dickens. The first installment was published on March 31, 1838 and the last installment was published on October 1, 1839.
The original illustrator was Hablot Knight Browne, who was better known as Phiz. When Browne as selecting a pen name he originally thought he might use the name Nemo. However, he changed it to Phiz because it sounded better with Dickens’s pen name, Boz.
Nicholas Nickleby – Dickens’s Life At The Time
- In early 1838 Dickens and Hablot Browne, the illustrator for Nickleby, travel to Yorkshire to see the boarding schools for themselves.
- On March 6th of that year Dickens’s daughter Mary is born.
- The first installment of Nicholas Nickleby is published on March 31, 1838.
- In January of 1839 Dickens begins writing Barnaby Rudge.
- On October 1, 1839 the final installment of Nickleby is published.
- On October 29th of that year Dickens’s daughter Kate is born.
One of Dickens’s goals in writing Nicholas Nickleby was to expose the ugly truth about Yorkshire boarding schools. In the preface to the novel Dickens has this to say about Yorkshire schoolmasters:
Traders in the avarice, indifference, or imbecility of parents, and the helplessness of children; ignorant, sordid, brutal men, to whom few considerate persons would have entrusted the board and lodging of a horse or a dog; they formed the worthy cornerstone of a structure, which, for absurdity and a magnificent high-minded laissez-aller neglect, has rarely been exceeded in the world.
In the novel Nicholas is sent to teach at Dotheboys Hall. It is a school where there are no holidays, no trips home for the abused and neglected pupils of Mr. Wackford Squeers.
Sadly schools like Dotheboys Hall really did exist. In early 1838 Dickens and Hablot Browne, the illustrator of Nicholas Nickleby, visited Yorkshire to get a firsthand look at the situation. It was a very short visit, just two days, but it was enough to gather all the material they needed.
During their visit they called on William Shaw, the headmaster of Bowes Academy. In 1823 Shaw had been prosecuted for neglect after two pupils became blind because of beatings and poor nutrition. The situation improved somewhat after the investigation. However even after the investigation it was common for one pupil to die at Bowes Academy every year.
Dickens got the idea for Smike as he wandered through a churchyard near Bowes Academy. He read the engravings on the tombstones of the boys who died while attending Bowes and the idea sprang into his mind.
Dickens’s own mother, Elizabeth Dickens, was the model for the always-confused, comic Mrs. Nickleby. Luckily for Charles she didn’t recognize herself in the character. In fact, she asked someone if they “really believed there ever was such a woman”.
Theme in Nicholas Nickleby
An issue raised in Nicholas Nickleby deals with the definition of being a gentleman. What exactly does it take to be a true gentleman?
Is it a matter of breeding? Sir Mulberry Hawk, who was determined to ruin Kate Nickleby, was surely not a true gentleman despite his good breeding. Wackford Squeers, the headmaster at Dotheboys Hall, proved that it takes more than position to be a gentleman. Ralph Nickleby illustrated that money alone does not make a gentleman.
However in Nicholas Nickleby himself we see that a man is defined by his acts rather than breeding, money or position.
It was a harder day’s journey than yesterday’s, for there were long and weary hills to climb; and in journeys, as in life, it is a great deal easier to go down hill than up. However, they kept on, with unabated perseverance, and the hill has not yet lifted its face to heaven that perseverance will not gain the summit of at last.
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