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Charles Dickens: a writing lifetime

Nicholas Nickleby 1839

Title page and frontispiece, showing a portrait of DickensTitle page and frontispieceCharles Dickens. The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. With illustrations by Phiz. London: Chapman and Hall, 1839 [Rare Books Collection PR4565.A1 1839]

Dickens began writing the monthly numbers of Nicholas Nickleby when he was still publishing Oliver Twist in monthly parts in Bentley's Miscellany. The main focus of the story is the terrible private school, Dotheboys Hall, where Nicholas Nickleby works as a schoolteacher. It is a school to which 'unwanted' children are sent. The owner, Wackford Squeers, pockets the fees, lets the children go hungry, and treats them with great cruelty.

First page of textFirst page of textThe plot is rather convoluted and concerns the misuse of power within families and workplaces, the fate of dependents, and young love. It ends happily, except for the death of Smike, a poor boy from the school whom the honourable Nicholas tries to save. The book has several memorable characters including Miss LaCreevy, the dwarf miniature painter, the Crummles family – travelling players – and the Cheeryble brothers, beneficent merchants. Mrs Nickleby is said to have been a portrait by Dickens of his mother.

Illustration of the interior of the school showing Mrs. Squeers feeding a spoonful of treacle to a row of haggard boys dressed in torn clothesThe internal economy of Dotheboys HallDickens's own schooling at the Wellington Academy, near Mornington Crescent (Camden Town) had been under a schoolmaster loathed by the schoolboys for his vigorous use of the cane, so it is widely believed that Squeers in the book owes something to him.

Scene showing Miss Kenwigs in the hair dresser's shopGreat excitement of Miss Kenwigs at the hair dresser's shopI have included a view of the sociability of a hair dresser's shop here as a reminder that Dickens was recognised by contemporaries as a superb observer of ordinary life, and also that he was extremely fortunate in his illustrators, especially Cruikshank, famously for the Sketches and Oliver Twist, and 'Phiz' – Hablot KBrowne – who illustrated much of his later fiction.

Detail of signature, Faithfully yours, Charles Dickens, from frontispiece`Detail showing Dickens's signature from frontispieceDickens's signature, reproduced from this volume, was often used as a sort of trademark, an important matter in times when his stories were pirated in other books, journals and plays. Dickens inadvertently made livelihoods for many others, and many of them rascals, because the law of copyright was completely inadequate. He would have been relatively far wealthier today.

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