Nicholas Nickleby

Nicholas Nickleby
"Nickleby" redirects here. For other uses, see Nicholas Nickleby (disambiguation).
Nicholas Nickleby  
Nickleby serialcover.jpg
Cover of serial, Vol. 13 1839
Author(s) Charles Dickens
Original title The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby
Illustrator Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz)
Country England
Language English
Series 20 Monthly parts:
April 1838 -
October 1839
Genre(s) Novel
Social criticism
Publisher Chapman & Hall
Publication date 1839
Media type Print (Serial, Hardback, and Paperback)
Pages 952
OCLC Number 231037034
Preceded by Oliver Twist
Followed by The Old Curiosity Shop

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' third novel.

The novel centers on the life and adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, a young man who must support his mother and sister after his father dies. His Uncle Ralph, who thinks Nicholas will never amount to anything, plays the role of an antagonist.



Nicholas Nickleby is Dickens' 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. 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 had been the workhouse and criminal underclass in Twist.

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

The cruelty of a Yorkshire schoolmaster named William Shaw became the basis for Dickens's brutal character of Wackford Squeers. Dickens visited his school, and based the school section of Nicholas Nickleby on his visit.[1]

Major themes

Like many of Dickens' works, the novel has a contemporary setting. Much of the action takes place in London, with several chapters taking place in Dickens' 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' malevolent Uncle Ralph, and the villainous Wackford Squeers, who operates an extremely abusive all-boys boarding school at which Nicholas temporarily serves as a tutor.


Mr. Ralph Nickleby's first visit to his poor relations

Nicholas Nickleby's father dies unexpectedly after losing all of his money in a series of poor investments. Nicholas, his mother and his younger sister Kate are forced to give up their comfortable lifestyle in Devonshire and travel to London to seek the aid of their only relative, Nicholas's uncle Ralph Nickleby. Ralph, a cold and ruthless businessman, has no desire to help his destitute relations and hates Nicholas on sight. He gets Nicholas a low-paying job as an assistant to Wackford Squeers, who runs the school Dotheboys Hall. Nicholas is initially wary of Squeers (a very unpleasant man with one eye) because he is gruff and violent towards his young charges, but he tries to quell his suspicions. As Nicholas boards the stagecoach for Greta Bridge, he is handed a letter by Ralph's clerk, Newman Noggs, a once-wealthy man who has lost all of his money and has become an alcoholic. The letter expresses concern for the innocent young man and offers assistance if Nicholas ever requires it. Once he arrives in Yorkshire, Nicholas comes to realise that Squeers is running a scam: he takes in unwanted children (most of whom are illegitimate, crippled or deformed) for a high fee, and starves and mistreats his charges while using the money sent by their parents to pad his own pockets. Squeers and his monstrous wife whip and beat the children regularly while spoiling their own son rotten. While he is there, Nicholas befriends a simple boy named Smike, who is older than the other “students” and now acts as an unpaid servant. Nicholas attracts the attention of Fanny Squeers, his employer's plain and shrewish daughter, who deludes herself into thinking that Nicholas is in love with her. She attempts to disclose her affections during a game of cards, but Nicholas doesn't catch onto her meaning. Instead he ends up flirting with her friend Tilda Price, to the consternation of both Fanny and Tilda's friendly but crude-mannered fiancé John Browdie. After being accosted by Fanny again, Nicholas bluntly tells her he does not return her affections and wishes to be free of the horrible atmosphere of Dotheboys Hall, earning her hatred.

Nicholas astonishes Mr. Squeers and family

One morning, Smike runs away, but is caught and brought back to Dotheboys. Squeers begins to beat him, but Nicholas intervenes. Squeers strikes him across the face and Nicholas snaps, beating the schoolmaster violently. Quickly packing his belongings and leaving Dotheboys Hall, he meets John Browdie on the way. Browdie finds the idea that Squeers himself has been beaten uproariously funny, and gives Nicholas money and a walking staff to aid him on his trip back to London. At dawn, he is found by Smike, who begs to come with him. Nicholas and Smike set out towards London.

Nicholas seeks out the aid of Newman Noggs, who shows him a letter that Fanny Squeers has written to Ralph viciously exaggerating the events of the beating. Noggs tells Nicholas, who is intent on confronting his uncle, that Ralph is out of town and advises him to find a job. Nicholas goes to an employment office, where he encounters a strikingly beautiful girl. His search for employment fails, and he is about to give up when Noggs offers him the meager position of French teacher to the children of his neighbours, the Kenwigs family, and Nicholas is hired under the assumed name of “Johnson” to teach the children French.

Meanwhile, Kate and her mother are forced by Ralph to move out of their lodgings in the house of the kindly portrait painter Miss LaCreevy and into a cold and drafty house Ralph owns in a London slum. Ralph finds employment for Kate working for a milliner, Madame Mantalini. Her husband, Mr. Mantalini, is a gigolo who depends on his wife to supply his extravagant tastes and offends Kate by flirting with her. Kate proves initially clumsy at her job, which endears her to the head of the showroom, Miss Knag, a vain and foolish woman who uses Kate to make herself look better. This backfires when a client prefers to be served by the young and pretty Kate rather than the aging Miss Knag, who blames Kate for the insult. As a result, Kate is ostracised by the other milliners and left friendless.

Ralph asks Kate to attend a dinner he is hosting for some business associates, and when she arrives she discovers she is the only woman in attendance. The other guests include the disreputable nobleman Sir Mulberry Hawk and his friend, Lord Frederick Verisopht. Hawk humiliates Kate at dinner by making her the subject of an offensive bet. After one too many drinks he attempts to force himself on her but is stopped by Ralph. Ralph shows some unexpected tenderness towards Kate but insinuates that he will withdraw his financial help if she tells her mother about what happened.

Several days later, Nicholas discovers that his uncle has returned. He visits his mother and sister just as Ralph is reading them Fanny Squeers’s letter and slandering Nicholas. He confronts his uncle, who vows to give no financial assistance to the Nicklebys as long as Nicholas stays with them. His hand forced, Nicholas agrees to leave London, but warns Ralph that a day of reckoning will one day come between them.

The next morning, Nicholas and Smike travel towards Portsmouth with the intention of becoming sailors. At an inn, they encounter the theatrical manager Vincent Crummles, who hires Nicholas (still going under the name of Johnson) on sight as his new juvenile lead and playwright with the task of adapting French tragedies into English and then modifying them for the troop’s minimal dramatic abilities. Nicholas and Smike join the acting company and are warmly received by the troupe, which includes Crummles’s formidable wife, their daughter, “The Infant Phenomenon”, and many other eccentric and melodramatic thespians. Nicholas and Smike make their debuts in Romeo and Juliet, as Romeo and the Apothecary respectively, and are met with great acclaim from the provincial audiences.

Back in London, Mr. Mantalini’s reckless spending has bankrupted his wife. Madame Mantalini is forced to sell her business to Miss Knag, whose first order of business is to fire Kate. She finds employment as the companion of the social-climbing Mrs. Wittiterly. Meanwhile, Sir Mulberry Hawk begins a plot to humiliate Kate for refusing his advances. He uses Lord Frederick, who is infatuated with her, to discover where she lives from Ralph. He is about to succeed in this plot when Mrs. Nickleby enters Ralph’s office, and the two rakes switch their attentions from Kate’s uncle to her mother, successfully worming their way into Mrs. Nickleby’s company and gaining access to the Wittiterly house. Kate goes to her uncle for assistance, but he refuses to help her, citing his business relationships with Hawk and Verisopht. It is left to Newman Noggs to come to her aid, and he writes to Nicholas, telling him in vague terms of his sister’s need for him. Nicholas immediately quits the Crummles troop and returns to London.

When he arrives, he searches the city for Noggs, Miss La Creevy and his family to discover what has occurred. This search proves unsuccessful until he accidentally overhears Hawk and Lord Frederick rudely toasting Kate in a restaurant. He is able to glean from their conversation what has happened, and confronts them. Hawk refuses to give Nicholas his name or respond to his accusations. When he attempts to leave, Nicholas follows him out, and leaps onto the running board of his carriage, demanding his name. Hawk attempts to strike him, and Nicholas loses his temper, beating the nobleman and spooking the horses, causing the carriage to crash. Hawk is injured in the crash and vows revenge, but Lord Verisopht, remorseful for his treatment of Kate, tells him that he will attempt to stop him. Later, after Hawk has recovered, they quarrel over Hawk’s insistence on harming Nicholas, and Verisopht strikes Hawk, resulting in a duel. Verisopht is killed, and Hawk flees to France. As a result, Ralph loses a large sum of money owed to him by the deceased lord.

Nicholas collects Kate from the Wittiterlys, and with their mother and Smike, they move back into Miss LaCreevy’s house. Nicholas pens a letter to Ralph refusing, on behalf of his family, a penny of his uncle’s money or influence. Returning to the employment office, Nicholas meets Charles Cheeryble, a wealthy and extremely benevolent merchant who runs a business with his twin brother Ned. Hearing Nicholas’s story, the brothers take him into their employ at a generous salary and provide his family with a small house in a London suburb.

Ralph encounters a beggar, who recognises him and reveals himself as Brooker, Ralph’s former employee. He attempts to blackmail Ralph with a piece of unknown information, but is driven off. Returning to his office, Ralph receives Nicholas’s letter and begins plotting against his nephew in earnest. Wackford Squeers returns to London and joins Ralph in his plots.

Smike has the misfortune to run into Squeers on a London street, who kidnaps him. Luckily for Smike, John Browdie is honeymooning in London with his new wife Tilda and discovers his predicament. When they have dinner with Squeers, Browdie fakes an illness and takes the opportunity to rescue Smike and send him back to Nicholas. In gratitude, Nicholas invites the Browdies to dinner. At the party, also attended by the Cheerybles’s nephew Frank and their elderly clerk Tim Linkinwater, Ralph and Squeers attempt to reclaim Smike by presenting forged documents that he is the long-lost son of a man named Snawley (who, in actuality, is a friend of Squeers with children at Dotheboys Hall). Smike refuses to go, but the threat of legal action remains.

While at work, Nicholas encounters the beautiful young woman he had seen in the employment office and realises he is in love with her. The brothers tell him that her name is Madeline Bray, the penniless daughter of a debtor, Walter Bray, and enlist his help in obtaining small sums of money for her by commissioning her artwork, the only way they can help her due to her tyrannical father.

Arthur Gride, an elderly miser, offers to pay a debt Ralph is owed by Walter Bray in exchange for the moneylender’s help. Gride has illegally gained possession of the will of Madeline’s grandfather, and she will become an heiress upon the event of her marriage. The two moneylenders convince Bray to bully his daughter into accepting the disgusting Gride as a husband with the promise of paying off his debts. Ralph is not aware of Nicholas’ involvement with the Brays, and Nicholas does not discover Ralph’s scheme until the eve of the wedding. He appeals to Madeline to cancel the wedding, but despite her feelings for Nicholas, she is too devoted to her dying father to go against his wishes. On the day of the wedding, Nicholas attempts to stop it once more but his efforts prove academic when Bray, guilt-ridden at the sacrifice his daughter has made for him, dies unexpectedly. Madeline thus has no reason to marry Gride and Nicholas and Kate take her to their house to recover.

Smike has contracted tuberculosis and become dangerously ill. In a last attempt to save his friend’s health, Nicholas takes him to his childhood home in Devonshire, but Smike’s health rapidly deteriorates. On his deathbed, Smike is startled to see the man who brought him to Squeers' school. Nicholas dismisses it as an illusion but it is later revealed that Smike was right. After confessing his love for Kate, Smike dies peacefully in Nicholas’s arms.

When they return to Gride’s home after the aborted wedding, Ralph and Gride discover that Peg Sliderskew, Gride’s aged housekeeper, has robbed Gride, taking, amongst other things, the will. To get it back, Ralph enlists Wackford Squeers’s services to track down Peg. Noggs discovers this plot, and with the help of Frank Cheeryble, he is able to recover the will and have Squeers arrested.

The breaking up at Dotheboys Hall

The Cheeryble brothers confront Ralph, informing him that his various schemes against Nicholas have failed. They advise him to retire from London before charges are brought up against him, as Squeers is determined to confess all and implicate Ralph. He refuses their help, but is summoned back to their offices that evening and told that Smike is dead. When he reacts to the news with vicious glee, the brothers reveal their final card. The beggar Brooker emerges, and tells Ralph that Smike was his own son. As a young man, Ralph had married a woman for her fortune, but kept it secret so as to not forfeit her inheritance. She eventually left him after bearing him a son, who he entrusted to Brooker, who was then his clerk. Brooker, taking the opportunity for vengeance, took the boy to Squeers’ school and told Ralph the boy had died. Brooker now repents his action, but a transportation sentence kept him from putting the matter right. Devastated at the thought that his only son died as the best friend of his greatest enemy, Ralph commits suicide.

Squeers is arrested and sent to Australia, and, upon hearing this, the boys at Dotheboys Hall rebel against the Squeers family and escape with the assistance of John Browdie. Nicholas becomes a partner in the Cheerybles' firm and marries Madeline. Kate and Frank Cheeryble also marry, as do Tim Linkinwater and Miss LaCreevy. Brooker dies penitent. Noggs recovers his respectability. The Nicklebys and their now extended family return to Devonshire, where they live in peace and contentment.

Major characters

As in most of Dickens’ works, there is a sprawling number of characters in the book. The major characters in Nicholas Nickleby include:

The Nickleby Family

  • Nicholas Nickleby: The hero of the novel. His father has died and left Nicholas and his family penniless. Nicholas is not a typical hero: he can be violent, naïve, and emotional. In his preface to the novel, Dickens writes "There is only one other point, on which I would desire to offer a remark. If Nicholas be not always found to be blameless or agreeable, he is not always intended to appear so. He is a young man of an impetuous temper and of little or no experience; and I saw no reason why such a hero should be lifted out of nature." He devotes himself primarily to his friends and family and fiercely defies those who wrong the ones he loves.
  • Ralph Nickleby: The book’s major antagonist, Nicholas’s uncle. He seems to care about nothing but money and takes an immediate dislike to the idealistic Nicholas, however; he does harbour something of a soft spot for Kate. Ralph’s anger at Nicholas’s beating of Wackford Squeers leads to a vow to destroy the younger man, but the only man Ralph ends up destroying is himself. When it is revealed that Smike was his son, and that the boy died hating him, he takes his own life.
  • Kate Nickleby: Nicholas's younger sister. Kate is a fairly passive character, typical of Dickensian women, but she shares some of her brother’s fortitude and strong will. She does not blanch at hard labour to earn her keep and defends herself against the lecherous Sir Mulberry Hawk. She finds well-deserved happiness with Frank Cheeryble.
  • Mrs. Nickleby: Nicholas and Kate’s mother, who provides much of the novel’s comic relief. The muddleheaded Mrs. Nickleby does not see the true evil her children encounter until it is directly pointed out to her. She is stubborn, prone to long digressions on irrelevant or unimportant topics and unrealistic fantasies, and displays an often vague grasp of what is going on around her.

Associates of Ralph Nickleby

  • Newman Noggs: Ralph’s clerk, who becomes Nicholas’s devoted friend. He was once a businessman of high standing but went bankrupt. He is an alcoholic, and his general good nature and insight into human nature is hidden under a veneer of irrational tics and erratic behaviour.
  • Sir Mulberry Hawk: Is a lecherous nobleman who has taken Lord Verisopht under his wing. One of the most truly evil characters in the novel, he forces himself upon Kate and pursues her solely to humiliate her after she rejects him. He is beaten by Nicholas, and swears revenge, but nothing comes of it. He kills Lord Frederick in a duel and must flee to France, where he lives in luxury until he runs out of money, eventually returning to England and dying in debtors prison.
  • Lord Frederick Verisopht: Hawk’s friend and dupe, a rich young nobleman. He owes both Ralph and Sir Mulberry vast sums of money. He becomes infatuated with Kate and is manipulated by Hawk into finding her whereabouts. After Nicholas confronts them in a coffeehouse, Lord Frederick sees the error of his ways and threatens Hawk if he attempts retaliation for the injuries Nicholas caused him. This quarrel eventually leads to a physical fight, which ends to a duel in which Lord Frederick is killed.
  • Mr. Pluck and Mr. Pyke: Hangers-on to Hawk and Verisopht. They are never seen apart and are quite indistinguishable from one another. Pluck and Pyke are intelligent, sly and dapper, perfect to do Hawk’s dirty work for him.
  • Arthur Gride: An elderly associate of Ralph. Miserly to a fault, he lives in a large, empty house extremely frugally, despite his vast wealth. He gains possession of the will of Madeline's grandfather, and attempts to cheat her out of her fortune by marrying her. He is cowardly, servile and greedy, with no redeeming characteristics whatsoever.
  • Peg Sliderskew: Gride’s elderly housekeeper. Very deaf and going senile, she ends up playing a large part in the denouement when she steals Madeline’s grandfather’s will.
  • Brooker: An old beggar. A mysterious figure who appears several times during the novel, we eventually find out that he was formerly Ralph’s clerk. He was responsible for bringing Ralph’s son (Smike) to Dotheboys Hall. An ex-convict, he returns to extort money from Ralph with the information his son is alive. When that fails, he goes to Noggs, and eventually brings his story to light.


  • Smike: A poor drudge living in Squeers’s "care". Smike is a pathetic figure, perpetually ill and somewhat dim-witted, who has been in Squeers’s care since he was very young. Nicholas gives him the courage to run away, but when that fails Nicholas saves him again and the two become best friends. He falls in love with Kate, but his heart is broken when she falls in love with Frank Cheeryble. After Smike dies of "a dread disease " (tuberculosis), it is revealed that he is Ralph Nickleby’s son.
  • Wackford Squeers: A cruel, one-eyed, Yorkshire schoolmaster. He runs "Dotheboys Hall", a place where unwanted children can be sent. He mistreats the boys horribly, whipping them regularly. He gets his comeuppance at the hands of Nicholas when he is beaten in retaliation for the whipping of Smike. He travels to London after he recovers and partakes in more bad business, fulfilling his grudge against Nicholas by becoming a close partner in Ralph’s schemes to fake Smike’s parentage and later to hide the will of Madeline Bray. He is arrested during the last of these tasks and sentenced to transportation to Australia.
  • Mrs. Squeers: Squeers' formidable wife. She is even more cruel and less affectionate than her husband to the boys in their care. She dislikes Nicholas on sight and attempts to make his life at Dotheboys Hall as difficult as possible.
  • Fanny Squeers: The Squeers’ daughter. She is 23, unattractive and ill-tempered, and is beginning to feel the pressure to find a man to settle down with. She falls in love with Nicholas until he bluntly rebuffs her affections, at which point she does an about-face and openly hates him. Tilda Price (later Browdie) is her best friend, but the relationship is strained by Fanny’s pride and spitefulness. She is full of bluster and is under severe delusions about her own beauty and station.
  • Young Wackford Squeers: The Squeers' loutish son. His parents dote on him, and he is very fat as a result of their spoiling him. He is mainly preoccupied with filling his belly as often as he can and bullying his father’s boys, to his father’s great pride.
  • John Browdie: A bluff Yorkshire corn merchant, Tilda’s fiancé, later her husband. Although he and Nicholas get off on the wrong foot, they become good friends when John helps Nicholas escape from Yorkshire. He later rescues Smike from Squeers again, proving himself a resourceful and intelligent ally. He is not, however, well-schooled in manners and his rough and rowdy personality provides a good source of comic relief.
  • Matilda Price (Browdie): Fanny’s best friend and Browdie’s fiancée; she goes by the name of Tilda. A pretty girl of 18, she puts up with Fanny’s pettiness because of their childhood friendship, but later breaks with her. She is rather coquettish, but settles down happily with John Browdie.

Around London

  • Miss La Creevy: The Nicklebys' landlady. A small, kindly (if somewhat ridiculous) woman in her fifties, she is a miniature-portrait painter. She is the first friend the Nicklebys make in London, and one of the truest. She is rewarded for her good-heartedness when she falls in love with Tim Linkinwater.
  • Mr. Snawley: An oil merchant who puts his two stepsons in Squeers's "care". He pretends to be Smike’s father to help Squeers get back at Nicholas but, when pursued by the Cheerybles, cracks under the pressure and eventually confesses everything.
  • Mr. and Madame Mantalini: Milliners, Kate’s employers. Mr. Mantalini (real name Alfred Muntle) is a handsome man, with a large bushy black mustache, who lives off his wife. He is not above stealing from his wife and threatens to dramatically kill himself when he does not get his way. Madame Mantalini is much older than her husband and equally prone to dramatics. She eventually gets wise and leaves him, but not until he has ruined her with extravagant spending and she is forced to sell the business to Miss Knag. Mr. Mantalini is seen again at the end of the book living in much reduced circumstances, romantically tied to a washerwoman, but still up to his old tricks.
  • Miss Knag: Mrs. Mantalini’s right-hand woman and the chief assistant in the showroom. Miss Knag is well into middle age but is under the impression that she is exceptionally beautiful. When Kate begins her employment with the Mantalinis, Miss Knag is quite kind to her because the younger woman is clumsy, making herself look more accomplished. When her age is insulted by a disgruntled customer who prefers Kate, she blames Kate and ostracises her. She takes over the business when the Mantalinis go bankrupt, immediately firing Kate. A spinster, she lives with her brother Mortimer, a failed novelist.
  • The Kenwigs family: Newman Noggs’s neighbours. Mr. and Mrs. Kenwigs are dependent on the latter’s wealthy uncle Mr. Lillyvick, and everything they do is designed to please him so he will not write their children (including their baby, named Lillyvick) out of his will. Their daughter Morleena, is an awkward child of 7. The family and their acquaintances are described by Dickens as "exceptionally common".
  • Mr. Lillyvick: Mrs. Kenwig’s uncle. He is a collector of the water rate, a position which gives him great importance among his poor relatives. They bend over backwards to please him, and he is completely used to getting his way. He falls in love with Miss Petowker, and marries her to the Kenwigs' great distress. But when she elopes with another man, he comes back to his family a sadder but wiser man.
  • Henrietta Petowker: Of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. A minor actress with a prestigious company, though a major star with the less well-known Crummles troop. Mrs. Crummles' protégée. She marries Mr. Lillyvick after meeting him at the Kenwigs’s wedding anniversary, but leaves him within a year for another man.
  • Henry and Julia Wittiterly: A wealthy, social-climbing couple who employ Kate as a companion to Mrs. Wittiterly. Mrs. Wittiterly is a hypochondriac who acts as if a feather would knock her over, but she has a fierce temper when she does not get her way. Mr. Wittiterly flatters his wife and toadies to her every whim. They are oblivious to the degradation Kate is submitted to under their noses, only concerned that they are being visited by noblemen.
  • Charles and Ned Cheeryble: Twin brothers, wealthy merchants who are as magnanimous as they are jovial. They give Nicholas a job and provide for his family, and become key figures in the turning about of the happy ending. Like Pluck and Pyke, they are fairly interchangeable.
  • Frank Cheeryble: Ned and Charles’s nephew, who is just as open-hearted as his uncles. He shares Nicholas’s streak of anger when his sense of chivalry is roused. He falls in love with Kate and later marries her.
  • Madeline Bray: A beautiful but destitute young woman. Proud and dutiful to her father, she is willing to throw her life away for him. Nicholas falls in love at first sight, and she comes to feel the same way.
  • Walter Bray: Madeline’s father, formerly a handsome gentleman. He is an extremely selfish man who has wasted his wife’s fortune and is dying in a debtor’s prison, owing vast sums of money to both Ralph and Gride. He fools himself that he is acting for the benefit of his daughter by agreeing to her marriage with Gride, but when he realises what he has done, he dies of grief before the marriage goes through, freeing Madeline from her obligations.
  • Tim Linkinwater: The brother Cheeryble’s devoted clerk. An elderly, stout, pleasant gentleman, he is jokingly referred to by the Brothers as "a Fierce Lion". He is prone to hyperbole. He finds happiness with Miss La Creevy.

The Crummles Troupe

  • Mr. Vincent Crummles: Head of the Crummles theatre troupe, a larger-than-life actor-manager who takes Nicholas under his wing. He takes great pride in his profession, but also sometimes yearns for a quieter life settled down with his wife and children. Eventually, he and his family take their act to America to pursue greater success on the theatrical stage.
  • Mrs. Crummles: Mr. Crummles's wife, a glamorous dowager. A formidable but loving presence in the company, she is a great diva, but Dickens leaves the question of her actual ability up to question.
  • Miss Ninetta Crummles, The "Infant Phenomenon":, Mr. and Mrs. Crummles daughter. She is a very prominent member of the Crummles troupe, and a dancing part is written for her in every performance, even if there is no place for it. She is supposedly ten years old, but is actually closer to eighteen, having been kept on a steady diet of gin to keep her looking young.
  • Mr. Folair: A pantomimist with the Crummels company. He is an apt flatterer, but does not hesitate to say exactly what he thinks of people once their back is turned.
  • Miss Snevellicci: The talented leading lady of the Crummles troupe. She and Nicholas flirt heavily, and there is a mutual attraction, but nothing comes of it. She eventually leaves the troupe to get married.
  • Mr. Lenville: A melodramatic, self-centred tragedian, who becomes jealous of the attention Nicholas is getting as an actor, and attempts to pull his nose in front of the company, an act which results in the actor himself being knocked down and his cane broken by Nicholas.

Literary significance & criticism

While some consider the book to be among the finest works of 19th century comedy, Nicholas Nickleby is occasionally criticised for its lack of character development.[2]

Theatre adaptation

The novel has been adapted for stage, film or television at least seven times. Perhaps the most extraordinary version (from playwright David Edgar) was created in 1980 when a large-scale stage production of the novel was performed in the West End by the Royal Shakespeare Company. It was a theatrical experience which lasted more than ten hours (counting intermissions and a dinner break - the actual playing time was approximately eight-and-a-half hours). The production received both critical and popular acclaim. All of the actors played multiple roles because of the huge number of characters, except for Roger Rees, who played Nicholas and David Threlfall who played Smike (due to the large amount of time they were on stage). The play moved to Broadway in 1981. In 1982 the RSC had the show recorded as three two-hour and one three-hour episodes for Channel 4, where it became the channel's first drama. In 1983, it was shown on television in the United States, where it won an Emmy Award for Best Mini-Series. This version is currently available in the DVD format. December 2007 saw not only a full re-broadcast of the TV version on BBC Four, but also a two-month London transfer to the Gielgud Theatre for a Chichester Festival Theatre production of the original play (directed by Jonathan Church and Philip Franks, and with Daniel Weyman as Nicholas and David Dawson as Smike).

Other theatre adaptations include the musical Smike, the 1838 Nicholas Nickleby; or, Doings at Do-The-Boys Hall (premièred at the Adelphi Theatre and City of London Theatre, and featuring Mary Anne Keeley as Smike), an 1850s American version featuring Joseph Jefferson as Newman Noggs, and another in the late-19th century featuring Nellie Farren as Smike.

An early theatrical version actually appeared before publication of the serialised novel was finished, with the resolution of the stage play wildly different from the finished novel. Dickens' offence at his work being put onstage without his consent in a version he hated prompted him to have Nicholas encounter a "literary gentleman" in chapter forty-eight of the novel. The gentleman brags that he has dramatised two hundred and forty-seven novels "as fast as they had come out - in some cases faster than they had come out", and claims to thus have bestowed fame on their authors. In response Nicholas delivers a lengthy condemnation of the practice of adapting still-unfinished books without the author's permission, going so far as to say:

If I were a writer of books, and you a thirsty dramatist, I would rather pay your tavern score for six months, large as it might be, than to have a niche in the Temple of Fame with you for the humblest corner of my pedestal, through six hundred generations
—chapter 48.

Film and TV adaptations

In 1977, the BBC Television adapted the novel, directed by Christopher Barry and starring Nigel Havers in the title role, Derek Francis as Wackford Squeers and Patricia Routledge as Madame Mantalini. In 2001, a new version for British television was directed by Stephen Whittaker, as The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.[3]

An American silent version was made in 1903, and another silent film adaptation followed in 1912, featuring Victory Bateman as Miss La Creevey and Ethyle Cooke as Miss Snevellici. The first sound film adaptation 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 2002, another feature-length film of the story 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.

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 compensation for having his life saved by the latter.
  • 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" that 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.


Nicholas Nickleby was originally issued in 19 monthly numbers; the last was a double-number and cost two shillings instead of one. Each number comprised 32 pages of text and two illustrations by Phiz:

  • I - March 1838 (chapters 1-4);
  • II - April 1838 (chapters 5-7);
  • III - May 1838 (chapters 8-10);
  • IV - June 1838 (chapters 11-14);
  • V - July 1838 (chapters 15-17);
  • VI - August 1838 (chapters 18-20);
  • VII - September 1838 (chapters 21-23);
  • VIII - October 1838 (chapters 24-26);
  • IX - November 1838 (chapters 27-29);
  • X - December 1838 (chapters 30-33);
  • XI - January 1839 (chapters 34-36);
  • XII - February 1839 (chapters 37-39);
  • XIII - March 1839 (chapters 40-42);
  • XIV - April 1839 (chapters 43-45);
  • XV - May 1839 (chapters 46-48);
  • XVI - June 1839 (chapters 49-51);
  • XVII - July 1839 (chapters 52-54);
  • XVIII - August 1839 (chapters 55-58);
  • XIX-XX - September 1839 (chapters 59-65).


  1. ^ Wilkinson, David N. & Emlyn Price “Charles Dickens's London”, The International Dickens Fellowship, London, 2009. ISBN 780955 494339
  2. ^ Goodwin, Sue (2004). "Assignment Guide for Charles Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby". Kingwood College Library. Retrieved 12 February 2007. 
  3. ^

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