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Charles Dickens' 'Nicholas Nickleby'

Image from Charles Dickens' 'Nicholas Nickleby'

Charles Dickens: draft, with corrections, from cha
British Library Add. MS 57493, f.10
Copyright © The British Library Board
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This is the handwritten draft of ‘Nicholas Nickleby’, penned by Charles Dickens around July 1838. Dickens was not only a master of storytelling; he was also foremost among 19th-century novelists in confronting his middle-class readers with the human face of social deprivation. In doing so, his writings smoothed the path of reform. Through his sharply drawn characters and compelling plots, Dickens created an evocative and enduring image of the Victorian underclass, tempering poverty with hope and wringing humour from despair.

Who was Charles Dickens?

He was born in 1812 at Portsmouth on the English south coast and came to London at the age of 10. Two years later, he was working in a boot-blacking warehouse in Charing Cross, a three-mile walk from his home in Camden Town. The young Charles was well acquainted with the working-class world of London, which would provide the setting for many of his novels.

Dickens’s father was a government clerk, but mismanagement of his financial affairs led his family into poverty. For a short time he was imprisoned for debt. Despite this, Charles managed to attend school. He worked as a solicitor’s clerk, then as a reporter of Parliamentary debates for the Morning Chronicle.

His literary career was launched in 1835 by a series of cameos of London life, written for the Evening Chronicle and other periodicals, and published the following year as Sketches by Boz, Illustrative of Every-Day Life and Every-Day People. The same year his Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club was issued in 20 monthly parts. The humorous adventures of Mr Pickwick and his companions was an instant success, achieving literary recognition for Dickens and providing new financial security.

Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby soon followed. In 1842 he made the first of two trips to America, where he spoke passionately against slavery and in favour of international copyright. He set up the weekly periodical Household World in 1850, succeeded by All the Year Round nine years later. Both provided vehicles for the publication by instalments of his later novels.

He died suddenly in 1870, shortly after his second speaking tour of America, leaving Edwin Drood unfinished. In its obituary, the Penny Illustrated Paper described Dickens as “one of the chief literary glories of the Victorian era”. “Prematurely dead at fifty-nine!” the paper exclaimed, but “where was there a man with more of a life?”

What’s Nicholas Nickleby about?

The long and involved novel was published in parts between 1838 and 1839. It tells the story of a family left destitute by the death of their father, Mr Nickleby. Nicholas, his mother and his sister, turn in desperation to his uncle, Ralph Nickleby, who proves to be a disreputable tyrant.

Angered by Nicholas’ rebellious spirit, Ralph sends him to work as a schoolmaster at Dotheboys Hall, a brutal Yorkshire school run by the evil Wackford Squeers. Nicholas is appalled by the treatment of the school’s orphans, in particular a frail and simple-mined boy called Smike. After giving Squeers a taste of his own medicine in the form of a severe thrashing, Nicholas and Smike run away from the school and join a troupe of travelling entertainers.

Meanwhile, in London, Uncle Ralph is planning to deliver his niece into the clutches of the despicable Sir Mulberry Hawk. News of his plan reaches Nicholas, who returns to London to rescue his sister and make a home for her and their mother. Smike dies of consumption and is revealed as the son of Ralph Nickleby. The disgraced uncle hangs himself; justice is done; and the Nickleby family finds tranquility at last.

What does the manuscript reveal?

Like the handwritten drafts of other authors, the main fascination of the autograph copy of ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ lies in the corrections and alterations that reveal his creative process at work.

This page comes from the first part of Chapter 15 and begins in the middle of a letter written by Fanny Squeers, daughter of Dotheboys Hall’s violent headmaster. She is giving Nicholas’ uncle an exaggerated account of her father’s beating by his ‘nevew’. The letter is full of such spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, so some of Dickens’ corrections are actually ‘incorrections’!

For example, Fanny writes that Nicholas “not having been apprehended by the constables is supposed to have been took up by some stage-coach.” Dickens instinctively used the correct grammar, “to have been taken up…”, but changes it to fit Fanny’s character. Why he also substituted ‘constables’ for ‘officers’ is not so clear.

The pages from ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ are bound in a volume with two very relevant letters. They were written from the Bowes Academy, a school in Yorkshire. Both are to the parents of George Brooks, one from the boy himself and the other from the headmaster, William Shaw. In 1823, Shaw had been prosecuted for beatings and neglect that led to the blinding of two of his pupils. Dickens visited the school in 1838. He found matters little improved and used William Shaw as his model for the hateful Wackford Squeers.

How did this manuscript come to the British Library?

These pages were originally in the possession of Charles Hicks, a foreman at the printing works of Bradbury and Evans, who printed the monthly instalments of Nicholas Nickleby. The British Library purchased the manuscript at auction on 22 November 1971 from Sotheby’s. Other pages from Dickens’ draft of the novel are owned by the Charles Dickens Museum in London, the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York and the Rosenbach Foundation in Philadelphia.

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