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.
What is 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’s 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 tranquillity 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’s 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’s 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.