Nicholas Nickleby

Nicholas Nickleby


A young, compassionate man struggles to save his family and friends from the abusive exploitation of his cold-heartedly grasping uncle. Young Nicholas (Charlie Hunnam) and his family enjoy a comfortable life, until Nicholas' father (Andrew Havill...

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A young, compassionate man struggles to save his family and friends from the abusive exploitation of his cold-heartedly grasping uncle. Young Nicholas (Charlie Hunnam) and his family enjoy a comfortable life, until Nicholas' father (Andrew Havill) dies and the family is left penniless.

Nicholas Nickleby; or, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby is a novel by Charles Dickens. Originally published as a serial from 1838 to 1839, it was Dickens's third novel.

Charles John Huffam Dickens FRSA (7 February 1812 – 9 June 1870) was an English writer and social critic. He created some of the world's best-known fictional characters and is regarded by many as the greatest novelist of the Victorian era. His works enjoyed unprecedented popularity during his lifetime, and by the 20th century, critics and scholars had recognised him as a literary genius. His novels and short stories are still widely read today.


Born in Portsmouth, Dickens left school to work in a factory when his father was incarcerated in a debtors' prison. Despite his lack of formal education, he edited a weekly journal for 20 years, wrote15 novels, five novellas, hundreds of short stories and non-fiction articles, lectured and performed readings extensively, was an indefatigable letter writer, and campaigned vigorously for children's rights, education, and other social reforms.


Dickens's literary success began with the 1836 serial publication of The Pickwick Papers. Within a few years he had become an international literary celebrity, famous for his humour, satire, and keen observation of character and society. His novels, most published in monthly or weekly instalments, pioneered the serial publication of narrative fiction, which became the dominant Victorian mode for novel publication. Cliffhanger endings in his serial publications kept readers in suspense. The installment format allowed Dickens to evaluate his audience's reaction, and he often modified his plot and character development based on such feedback. For example, when his wife's chiropodist expressed distress at the way Miss Mowcher in David Copperfield seemed to reflect her disabilities, Dickens improved the character with positive features. His plots were carefully constructed, and he often wove elements from topical events into his narratives. Masses of the illiterate poor chipped in ha'pennies to have each new monthly episode read to them, opening up and inspiring a new class of readers.


His 1843 novella A Christmas Carol remains especially popular and continues to inspire adaptations in every artistic genre. Oliver Twist and Great Expectations are also frequently adapted and, like many of his novels, evoke images of early Victorian London. His 1859 novel A Tale of Two Cities (set in London and Paris) is his best-known work of historical fiction. The most famous celebrity of his era, he undertook in response to public demand, a series of public reading tours in the later part of his career. Dickens has been praised by many of his fellow writers—from Leo Tolstoy to George Orwell, G. K. Chesterton, and Tom Wolfe—for his realism, comedy, prose style, unique characterisations, and social criticism. However, Oscar Wilde, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf complained of a lack of psychological depth, loose writing, and a vein of sentimentalism.


The term Dickensian is used to describe something that is reminiscent of Dickens and his writings, such as poor social conditions or comically repulsive characters.

Notable works


Dickens published well over a dozen major novels and novellas, a large number of short stories, including a number of Christmas-themed stories, a handful of plays, and several non-fiction books. Dickens's novels were initially serialised in weekly and monthly magazines, then reprinted in standard book formats.


    The Pickwick Papers (The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club; monthly serial, April 1836 to November 1837)

    Oliver Twist (The Adventures of Oliver Twist; monthly serial in Bentley's Miscellany, February 1837 to April 1839)

    Nicholas Nickleby (The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby; monthly serial, April 1838 to October 1839)

    The Old Curiosity Shop (weekly serial in Master Humphrey's Clock, April 1840 to November 1841)

    Barnaby Rudge (Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of Eighty; weekly serial in Master Humphrey's Clock, February to November 1841)

    A Christmas Carol (A Christmas Carol in Prose: Being a Ghost-story of Christmas; 1843)

    Martin Chuzzlewit (The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit; monthly serial, January 1843 to July 1844)

    The Chimes (The Chimes: A Goblin Story of Some Bells That Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In; 1844)

    The Cricket on the Hearth (The Cricket on the Hearth: A Fairy Tale of Home; 1845)

    Dombey and Son (Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son: Wholesale, Retail and for Exportation; monthly serial, October 1846 to April 1848)

    The Haunted Man (The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain: A Fancy for Christmas-time; 1848)

    David Copperfield (The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery; monthly serial, May 1849 to November 1850)

    Bleak House (monthly serial, March 1852 to September 1853)

    Hard Times (Hard Times: For These Times; weekly serial in Household Words, 1 April 1854, to 12 August 1854)

    Little Dorrit (monthly serial, December 1855 to June 1857)

    A Tale of Two Cities (weekly serial in All the Year Round, 30 April 1859, to 26 November 1859)

    Great Expectations (weekly serial in All the Year Round, 1 December 1860 to 3 August 1861)

    Our Mutual Friend (monthly serial, May 1864 to November 1865)

    The Signal-Man (1866), first published as part of the Mugby Junction collection in the 1866 Christmas edition of All the Year Round.

    Edwin Drood (The Mystery of Edwin Drood; monthly serial, April 1870 to September 1870), left unfinished due to Dickens's death


The novel centres on the life and adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, a young man who must support his mother and sister after his father dies.



Nicholas Nickleby is Charles Dickens's third published novel. He returned to his favourite publishers and to the format that was considered so successful with The Pickwick Papers. The story first appeared in monthly parts, after which it was issued in one volume. The style is considered to be episodic and humorous, though the second half of the novel becomes more serious and tightly plotted. Dickens began writing Nickleby while still working on Oliver Twist and while the mood is considerably lighter, his depiction of the Yorkshire school run by Wackford Squeers is as moving and influential as those of the workhouse and criminal underclass in Twist.


Nickleby marks a new development in a further sense as it is the first of Dickens's romances. When it was published the book was an immediate and complete success and established Dickens's lasting reputation.


The cruelty of a real Yorkshire schoolmaster named William Shaw became the basis for Dickens's brutal character of Wackford Squeers. Dickens visited Shaw's school in Bowes and based the school section of Nicholas Nickleby on his visit.

Major themes


Like most of Dickens's early works, the novel had a contemporary setting. Much of the action takes place in London, with several chapters taking place in Dickens's birthplace of Portsmouth, as well as settings in Yorkshire and Devon.


The tone of the work is that of ironic social satire, with Dickens taking aim at what he perceives to be social injustices. Many memorable characters are introduced, including Nicholas's malevolent Uncle Ralph, and the villainous Wackford Squeers, who operates an abusive all-boys boarding school at which Nicholas temporarily serves as a tutor.

Film and TV adaptations


A two-minute short showing the fight scene at "Dotheboys Hall" was released in 1903. A half-hour film adaptation which attempted to cover most of the novel followed in 1912, featuring Victory Bateman as Miss La Creevey and Ethyle Cooke as Miss Snevellici. The first sound film adaptation, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, was released in 1947, starring Cedric Hardwicke as Ralph Nickleby, Sally Ann Howes as Kate, Derek Bond as Nicholas and Stanley Holloway as Crummles.


In 1957, it was a TV series lasting one season, with William Russell in the title role.


In 1968, it was made into a TV serial starring Martin Jarvis.


In 1977, BBC Television adapted the novel in a production directed by Christopher Barry, starring Nigel Havers in the title role, Derek Francis as Wackford Squeers and Patricia Routledge as Madame Mantalini.


In 2001, ITV produced The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby winning a BAFTA and an RTS award for costume design. It was directed by Stephen Whittaker. It features James D'Arcy, Charles Dance, Pam Ferris, Lee Ingleby, Gregor Fisher, Tom Hollander, J. J. Feild and Tom Hiddleston.


In 2002, Nicholas Nickleby was released. It was directed by American director Douglas McGrath and its cast featured Charlie Hunnam, Anne Hathaway, Jamie Bell, Alan Cumming, Jim Broadbent, Christopher Plummer, Juliet Stevenson, Nathan Lane, Tom Courtenay and Barry Humphries.


In 2012, the novel was adapted as a modern drama (with several changes to the plot and characters) for the BBC, filmed in Belfast, Northern Ireland, with mainly local actors. The five-part series was titled Nick Nickleby. In this version, the title character is played by Andrew Simpson, with Linda Bassett as Mrs Smike, Adrian Dunbar as Ralph Nickleby, Jonathan Harden as Newman Noggs (also narrating the series), Bronagh Gallagher as Mrs Nickleby and Jayne Wisener (Kat Nickleby) also starring. It was aired on BBC One from 5–9 November at 2:15pm. Each episode was 45 minutes long and produced by Kindle Entertainment Ltd and distributed by Indigo Film and Television.

Mentions in popular culture


    In Roald Dahl's story of The BFG, the Big Friendly Giant learns to write by reading the Dickens novel "hundreds of times".

    Another character of Roald Dahl's, the headmistress Miss Trunchbull from Matilda, advocates Wackford Squeers' method of teaching as one that should be admired.

    In Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust, Nicholas Nickleby is one of several Dickens novels Tony Last is forced to read to the psychotic Mr. Todd as recompense for Todd saving his life.

    Ray Bradbury's Any Friend of Nicholas Nickleby is a Friend of Mine features a man who pretends to be Dickens.

    Laurel McKelva Hand, the main character in Eudora Welty's The Optimist's Daughter, reads Nicholas Nickleby to her father as he recuperates from eye surgery.

    In Star Trek: Enterprise, a 4th season 3-episode arc dealt with Dr. Arik Soong and his augmented test tube "children" who were remnants from the 1990s Eugenics War. An augment named Udar was shunned by his "siblings" because he didn't possess all of the same superior abilities that the rest were engineered with. He was nicknamed Smike by his "siblings" because of his perceived shortcomings and was eventually killed by his "brother" Malik in the episode Cold Station 12. Udar was played by actor Kaj-Erik Eriksen, and Dr. Arik Soong was played by Special Guest Star Brent Spiner.

    The title is parodied as "Knickerless Knickleby" in Monty Python's Bookshop sketch.


Simon Callow

Dickens started writing Nicholas Nickleby only a year after Pickwick, as part of that astonishing trio of novels (of which the middle one was Oliver Twist) that he knocked off in a breathless 18 months, and it partakes of the same ebullient energy and free-wheeling inventiveness as the earlier book. I was initially attracted to the book for obvious reasons: I was an actor, and the glorious celebration of the theatre, not just in the episodes concerning Vincent Crummles and his troupe of down-at-heel showpeople but in the whole form and structure of the book, exhilarated me, and it still does. Despite the bleak and terrible realities Dickens describes – the savagery of the regime at Dotheboys Hall, the depravities of Sir Mulberry Hawk and the implacable destructiveness of Ralph Nickleby – it has the sweep and gusto of a great melodrama. The stage management of events is pretty shameless, but it's as enjoyable as a 1930s Hollywood movie. Dickens's irresistible compulsion to create whole parades of unforgettable grotesques and his magnificent crusading rage against injustice all keep the pages turning.


The central character has often been criticised as being merely functional, but it seems to me that Nicholas is very close to a portrait of the artist as a young man: his passion, impulsiveness, somewhat exaggerated notions of gallantry, occasional priggishness and big embracing spirit are so much shared with his author (who at this stage of his life frequently had to take to horseback in order to work off his undischarged surplus of élan vital) that reading the book puts us in very close proximity to the young Dickens. And in Mrs Nickleby, he has created a savage and wildly funny portrait of his own mother. Dickens's feelings about her were dark and complex: she tried to overrule John Dickens when he withdrew his son from the blacking warehouse in which the 11-year-old Charles languished, and he never forgave her for that.


The young women, in the book, alas, are both inspid and lachrymose. There is in fact a pressing and permanent tension between Nicholas Nickleby's carnival spirit and its morbid sentimentality, a tension highly characteristic of the nascent Victorian era in which it was written, and one that was central to Dickens himself; he never quite resolved it to the end. But for the most part the book is a kind of corybantic frieze of all-too-human mankind, its characters parading unforgettably past us, insinuating themselves permanently into our imaginations, populating our mental landscapes. Its spirit seems to hark back, past Shakespeare, to Chaucer, enabling Dickens to embody something quintessentially and irrepressibly English.


Simon Callow's Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World will be published by Harper Press in February 2012.



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