Edward Stirling's play adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby


Edward Stirling’s dramatization of Nicholas Nickleby opened at the Adelphi Theatre, London on 19 November 1838, when just eight of the monthly instalments had been published. It ran for almost 100 performances, with the producer Frederick Yates playing Mr Mantalini and the well-known actress Mary Keeley as Smike. Charles Dickens himself saw the production at least twice, surprising his friend John Forster with his approval of the ‘skilful management’ of the boys, the ‘capital manner and speech’ of Fanny Squeers and the ‘exceedingly good’ tableaux based on Hablot Browne’s illustrations. 

What does this tell us about Dickens’s popular appeal? 

The astonishing success of Dickens’s early novels prompted a stream of cheap imitations, dramatizations, illustrations, songs and other merchandise. It has been estimated (The Oxford Reader’s Companion to Dickens, p. 199) that at least 60 stage versions of The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby had appeared by 1840, often long before completion of the original novel. Many poorer people, who did not read or could not afford the shilling monthly parts, knew Dickens’s work from these crude adaptations staged at popular theatres. 

What was Dickens’s attitude to these dramatizations? 

Despite his great love of the theatre, Dickens was infuriated by unauthorised and premature dramatizations of his work. Being ‘badly done and worse acted,’ he told Frederick Yates, they ‘tend to vulgarize the characters, to destroy or weaken ... the impressions I have endeavoured to create, and consequently to lessen the after-interest in their progress.’ The Adelphi production of Nicholas Nickleby, however, was so ‘admirably done’ that he withdrew all objection to its publication. Another contemporary version fared less well, provoking a satirical attack in Chapter 48 on a ‘certain literary gentleman’ who had dramatised ‘two hundred and forty-seven novels as fast as they had come out – some of them faster than they had come out’.

Full title:
Nicholas Nickleby. A Farce, in Two Acts.
estimated 1838, London
Playscript / Illustration / Image
Edward Stirling, Charles Dickens
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library

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