This is the second of my posts on Nicholas Nickleby, part of a readalong of the book being organized by Fanda Classiclit over February and March 2021 (master post here). This week we read chapters 12–21. Last week, we met some of our principal characters. After the death of their father, Nicholas and Kate Nickleby with their mother come to meet their unpleasant and unscrupulous uncle Ralph who secures them both (questionable) positions—Nicholas as assistant master in the school of the cruel and greedy Wackford Squeers and Kate as a worker with a milliner, Madame Mantalini who has a rather slimy husband.
This week’s developments: Last week we saw that Wackford Squeers’ daughter Fanny fancied herself in love with Nicholas and invited him to tea with her friend and friend’s fiancé; here she learned that Nicholas has no interest in her making her a little vindictive. Meanwhile, witnessing more cruelty at Squeers’ establishment including against poor Smike who has attempted to run away, Nicholas cannot take it anymore and gives old Squeers a taste of his own medicine. Of course, he then leaves and without his actually realizing it, Smike follows him. They journey back to London where they avail themselves of the offer of help that Newman Noggs had made before Nicholas left for the school in Yorkshire. At the time they arrive, Newman Noggs has been attending an anniversary celebration at one of his neighbours’ in the humble lodgings in which he lives. We witness the proceedings at the party and meet an assortment of curious characters including our hosts the Kenwigses. Nicholas tries to find work and goes to an employment agency, but the opportunity offered turns out disappointing. But while there he chances upon a beautiful young lady (whose name we are yet to learn), whom I’m sure we’ll meet again. His other attempts at finding work having failed so far, the Kenwigses offer him an opportunity to tutor their children in French.
Ralph in the meantime tries to poison Mrs Nickleby’s mind against Nicholas and while Kate is ready to stand by her brother, Nicholas realizes he can be no use to his family until he establishes himself and leaves them in Ralph’s care.
Meanwhile Kate isn’t having a very much better time, for we soon learn as we had suspected that Mr Mantalini is a flirt and seems to profess his love for his wife only for the money she gives him (something the lady blinds herself to). But while he hasn’t made Kate the subject of his attentions so far, Ralph invites his shady business associates to dinner where he has asked Kate to be present, and here she must bear their leers and unwelcome attentions. She does speak her mind and shake her uncle a bit but as one of these sleazy guests, Sir Mulberry Hawk points out, Ralph is not above selling his own family for money. But luckily for Kate, Madame Mantalini’s establishment closes down (having been bankrupted by her husband), and she seems to get what appears so far to be a somewhat better situation.
Thoughts: This was certainly an eventful episode, and one feels for both Kate and Nicholas very deeply—Kate far more so for having to bear what she has to at her age—I think she is only fourteen. Ralph is far more unscrupulous and nasty than any of his associates, and one certainly wants to do to him what Nicholas did to Mr Squeers, for what he put Kate through. One hopes Kate’s new engagement will be turn out somewhat better—since Ralph hasn’t been involved.
Nicholas of course we cheer on when he gives Mr Squeers a taste of the whip that he is so free with on others, and when he says, he deserved much more, we also agree. It’s sad to think as Fanda pointed out in her post, that abominations like this existed, and it was interesting to learn of Dickens’ and this books role and bringing these to a stop. (Other such social impacts of his books that I recall are with regard to the Poor law and workhouses, and I think also nurses like Mrs Gamp, both the norm in their day.)
My opinion of Mrs Nickleby only worsened in this segment. Even if one doesn’t think along the stereotypical mother’s image, for a person to express trust of one who so clearly means her children no good and choose to distrust her children whom she has brought up from childhood doesn’t reflect very positively on her character. And not only that, she is also rather fickle changing her ‘opinions’ to suit her purpose and make herself look good at all times—choosing to shift the blame on her husband for speculating when she was the one who compelled him to do so; then weaving (clearly) idiotic dreams of Kate being made partner in the Mantalinis’ venture and quickly changing her opinion to the choice of employment itself being a wrong one. She has some touches of Mrs Bennett from Pride and Prejudice, though on comparison I like the latter better despite her silliness.
Kate was the character that impressed me most this week, for one so young and in her situation, she is still able to speak up for herself, making Ralph regret or at least question his conduct. And she also has the sense to be able to see her mother for what she is—she recognizes her shallowness and is able to deal with it capably.
Miss La Creevy (whom we still only see little of) is developing into a friend, Nicholas has certainly chosen to rely on her. And Newman is proving himself a true friend as well, though sadly he wasn’t able to predict what his boss would put Kate through.
The various new characters we met in the Kenwignes; Mr Lillyvick, Mrs Kenwig’s uncle; and the (also somewhat fickle) Miss Knagg and her brother were good fun (though not all likeable of course).
Let’s see where Nicholas’ further adventures take him, because some of my favourite characters are still to make an appearance.
Some quotes I liked this time:
Why—dear me, how stupid I am,’ replied Miss Petowker, hesitating. ‘What do you call it, when Lords break off door-knockers and beat policemen, and play at coaches with other people’s money, and all that sort of thing?’
‘Aristocratic?’ suggested the collector.
The blessing seemed to stick in Mr. Ralph Nickleby’s throat, as if it were not used to the thoroughfare, and didn’t know the way out. But it got out somehow, though awkwardly enough; and having disposed of it, he shook hands with his two relatives, and abruptly left them.
Such is hope, Heaven’s own gift to struggling mortals; pervading, like some subtle essence from the skies, all things, both good and bad; as universal as death, and more infectious than disease!
Miss Squeers’ letter is also a good source of fun, though I’m not quoting the whole thing here.