Monday, February 8, 2016

Nickleby - Chapters 36 - 40

Dear Mr. Dickens,

So that they don’t feel left out, you have continued with your efforts to reach into the past and bring out earlier characters, as we open this section at the Kenwigs household, where the Missus is having a baby.

Mr. Kenwigs, we learn, is taking a pinch of snuff. I have never understood this, but every male in your era seems to be practically addicted to the stuff. Can’t they just sneeze when the natural inclination comes like normal people? Heaven knows they had enough handkerchiefs.

Anyway, Nicholas shows up (as Mr. Johnson) and informs Mr. Kenwigs that Uncle Lillyvick has married and that their inheritance now won’t even be a pair of matching teaspoons. Mr. Kenwigs doesn’t react well and exhibits questionable parental affection by wishing that his children were dead or in an orphanage.

Next we whiz back to Nicholas’s job with the Cheerybles, where a fellow employee named Tim Linkinwater is having a birthday party. I have a feeling Linkinwater will play a role in the second half of the book.

Apparently unable to stand still for very long, Nicholas is once again on the move—this time to his home, where he finds his mother droning on to Smike about her family tree. You have:

Smike sat wondering what it was all about…. 

He’s not the only one, Charles.

Smike runs for the exit (with La Creevy, who just happens to be there, of course), leaving Nicholas alone to listen to his mother discussing his errant method of wearing a nightcap and a story about a neighboring suitor who is wooing her by throwing cucumbers over their shared fence.

This woman needs some professional help, Charles.

We leave Nicholas to catch his breath and there is a brief scene at the home of Hawk, who is recovering from the horsewhipping episode of the previous section. Ralph shows up to let the man know that he has disowned the three Nicklebys, and tells Hawk that he, Ralph, would pay to:

…have (Nicholas) stabbed in the heart and rolled into the kennel for the dogs to tear.

which seriously strains the meaning of the phrase “family estrangement.”

Meanwhile, Smike is on his way home and, via a Dickensian Coincidence, runs into Squeers and his fat son. They force Smike into a coach where the schoolmaster beats the poor young man with an umbrella.

You used a very similar ploy in Oliver Twist, where Oliver just happens upon Nancy and Sikes on the streets of London. You’re repeating yourself, Charles.

Additionally, as it happens, Miss Fanny Squeers is accompanying her friend and her friend’s new husband, the Yorkshire man, on their honeymoon in London. Clearly bringing a third person on a honeymoon is a bit unusual for our times, but maybe it was normal in the 19th century. Although it would seem a bit late for a chaperone at this point. Anyway, Fanny and her friend are fine, but the Yorkshire man still talks like he has a mitten sewed to his tongue:

…thot’un owor the wa’?

But the Yorkshire man is a grand fellow and frees Smike, who hoofs it to the home of Noggs, instead of just going to his own home with the Nicklebys. I don’t know why.

At work, Nicholas sees a young woman whom he briefly glimpsed at an employment agency earlier in the novel. He falls madly in love with this woman he has barely (if ever) spoken to and tells Noggs (who, like La Creevy, just does errands for chance acquaintances for no other reason than he has nothing else to do, although you would think Ralph would notice he is never around) to find out where she lives and her name and to set up a meeting.

Noggs does find out that the young lady is named Cecilia Bobster and Noggs manages to set up a secret meeting between Cecilia and Nicholas. Nicholas shows his elation at the prospect of meeting his beloved in a bizarre manner that borders on psychosis:

He was angry with the young lady for being so easily won….

which just proves that his mother’s mental problems are clearly genetic.

The meeting goes off without a hitch, except for the fact that Noggs has led Nicholas to the wrong house, and, presumably, the wrong woman.

The section ends and I am left wondering: what about Kate? Shouldn’t she be out there earning some money for the family’s coffers? Does she just sit around all day as an earpiece for her mother’s semi-lucid ramblings? I wonder if she hasn’t been gone for days but nobody has noticed. She would be better off trying to swim the Channel and starting life anew in Toulouse.

I hope she turns up soon.



Saturday, February 6, 2016

Nickleby - Chapters 31 - 35

Dear Mr. Dickens,

We start out this section with Uncle Ralph in a subtle and musing mood:

If (Nicholas) were drowned or hanged, and the mother dead…I wish they were, with all my soul.

I can’t help but think that there are more and unrevealed reasons for Uncle Ralph’s hatred for everyone in his family, but it is pretty clear that he won’t be sending them any balloon bouquets soon.

Noggs, who hasn’t told Ralph that he sent for Nicholas, is sent on an errand to deliver a package to Miss La Creevy, so I see you are going to drag her back into the story, even though she has no Nicklebys living with her and she doesn’t seem to be painting a lot of miniatures, either.

Pretty much unasked for, in competition with Mrs. Nickleby for the most unrelated dialogue, she tells Noggs about a lengthy visit to her brother’s home out in the country from which she has just returned. They start chatting and Miss La Creevy asks about Ralph’s health and welfare. Noggs shows his stripes as a model employee with a report:

Damn him…like a false hound…cunning scoundrel…I’ll thwart him…the rascal…

and makes other statements alluding to Ralph’s death by his hands that Miss La Creevy threatens to scream if he doesn’t calm down. But soon she is raring to go along with Noggs and expresses her desire to stab Ralph with a lead pencil and a mother-of-pearl fruit knife. I’m guessing that Nicholas also wants to throttle his uncle, so you’ve settled us into a nice little picture where everyone wants to kill each other.

Nicholas and Smike arrive back in London, and then Nicholas goes looking for his mother and his sister and maybe his uncle and for all I know he goes looking for Miss La Creevy, since nobody seems to be able to put on a hat without her. Nicholas goes galavanting around London and finds both Noggs and La Creevy not at home. So he decides to cool his jets at a “coffee-room” which is described as:

…the choicest specimens of French paper, enriched with a gilded cornice of elegant design…a rich carpet…two superb mirrors….

so I am pretty sure this ain’t a Starbucks, at least not a drive-thru.

By a Dickensian Coincidence, also in the place are Hawk and Verisopht and two other men you don’t name but I am betting my lotto winnings are Pyke and Pluck. Before Nicholas has time to get even halfway through a caramel macchiato, Nicholas overhears Hawk talking about Kate in not the politest of terms. This causes Nicholas to rush to defend his sister’s honor or whatever, and, not knowing who Hawk is, demands to know his name. Which is pretty hypocritical of a man who is still known in many places as Mister Johnson.

Nicholas tries, for several pages, to get Hawk to reveal his name, but the society gentleman refuses and exits the place in a horse-drawn cabriolet. Then there is a confusing scene to close out the chapter where Hawk attacks Nicholas with a horsewhip or vice versa or both wallop each other with the same whip at different times—but it is pretty clear that the only one not whipped is the horse.

Nicholas staggers back to where Noggs and Smike are waiting for him and the three chat amiably and Noggs discloses the Wititterly house’s location where Kate is still working and crying. Nicholas goes and rescues her and they both dash off to where Mrs. Nickleby (and, of course, Miss La Creevy) are staying. Once again everybody thinks that Nicholas’s appearance will cause Mrs. Nickleby to have some kind of fit, so Kate has to go break the news to her mother that Nicholas is downstairs. It even says that La Creevy had spent an hour preparing Mrs. Nickleby for the fact that her son will soon be there. I don’t know what they are afraid Mrs. Nickleby will do if she is just told:

Hey, your son is here.

but they apparently fear everything from spree killings to the old lady running naked into a fountain.

The family is reunited and the trio decide to go back and live with La Creevy, but not before Nicholas gives Noggs a letter to give to Uncle Ralph. We soon find that the contents of said letter are not an invitation to a welcome home party for Nicholas:

Your brother’s widow and her orphan child spurn the shelter of your roof with disgust and loathing…you are an old man, and I leave you to your grave.

Before Uncle Ralph has time to send a reply letter of:

Your mother wears an elderberry flak jacket!

you bring in two more people from the past, Mr. and Madame Mantalini, and you have them bounce in at Ralph’s office, where the Mister wants to do some business to get some money. Madame is still peeved about losing her business, due to her husband’s debts, so she doesn’t support him getting a cent. Mister tries to soft talk his way by using “popolorum tibby” as a term of endearment, which I had never heard before. I tried it out by calling my wife that and she slapped me hard across the mouth, so I am thinking the meaning of the phrase has changed.

That duo are no sooner out of Ralph’s office when you resurrect another character from the past, the wretched schoolmaster Squeers, who drops in to chat with Ralph about this and that. Squeers is up in London to try to get more boys into his barbed-wire learning establishment and has brought along his own fat son to show off to prospective parents, as every other pupil in the school looks like a Siberian refugee. We learn that Squeers gets some money from doctor visits to the school, so he has been merrily infecting the students with scarlet fever and whooping cough. The subject of the escaped Smike comes up and Squeers expresses his desire to get him back where his wife:

She’d murder him…she would, as soon as eat her dinner.

Squeers exits, leaving Ralph to mull over pleasant ways to make the Nickleby family suffer.

Barely has he set up his sister and mother (and Smike) back in the La Creevy household that Nicholas is out in search of employment again. He considers going back into acting but instead meets an older man in front of an employment agency who takes such a liking to the young lad that he asks Nicholas to go with him to his work establishment. If this happened nowadays, Nicholas would have been whisked away by this stranger and never heard from again until his head was found floating in the Thames and his limbs scattered around Ealing.

But the man is a good guy named Mr. Cheeryble (who we later find has a twin, so we are now dealing with two Mr. Cheerybles and that can’t bode well). The two Cheerybles decide to hire Nicholas, sight unseen and with no discernible work experience, as an employee and give him a rent-free cottage to live in with his mother and sister and Smike. Nicholas was basically searching for a job for a total of eight minutes.

But now all seems jolly for those four and indeed, you end the section with:

In short, the poor Nicklebys were social and happy, while the rich Nickleby was alone and miserable.

I am including Kate in “the poor Nicklebys,” so I am glad to see (although it took half of the book) that she isn’t sobbing and wringing her handkerchief all the time. I have no confidence that the Nickleby happiness will continue, but it’s nice you give them a brief holiday.

You spend so much time bringing back earlier characters for arguably flimsy reasons that I half expect Oliver and Pickwick to show up before this book is done.

Tomorrow is your 204th birthday. Enjoy your cake.



Sunday, January 31, 2016

Nickleby - Chapters 26 - 30

Dear Mr. Dickens,

You really don’t like Kate, do you?

Her life continues to just out and out reek, although you have given her some time to weep and rest offstage, as, although she is the subject of the start of the section, she is only talked about and not actually present.

Sir Mulberry Hawk, from Uncle Ralph’s dinner party, is still quite taken with Kate and she still considers him to be slightly less attractive than a drunken sailor’s knickers. Hawk and his pal Lord Frederick Verisopht are both besotted with Kate, and so they go off to see Uncle Ralph (whom we find out is a “money-lender”) to ask where Kate lives. Ralph, about a century before anti-stalking laws, promptly tells Hawk but not Verisopht.

It all becomes a pretty moot point, though, when Mrs. Nickleby shows up to talk to her brother-in-law and Hawk and Verisopht descend on her like starving buzzards with questions about her daughter. Unfortunately, they spout off open-ended questions, which causes Mrs. Nickleby to talk, something she does more readily than a lifeguard saving a floating kitten. They ask how Kate is doing, and Mrs. Nickleby manages to steer the conversation to a long passage about a former journey in a hackney coach that left her with a swollen face for six weeks.

All of these attentions to Mrs. Nickleby by two men of high society send her back into fantasizing Kate’s marriage to either man (maybe both at the same time, her optimism stops for nothing). 

Uncle Ralph, clearly after Hawk’s money, is quite proud of himself for tossing the two men into Kate’s life against her wishes, and shows that charming familial spirit he exudes so well:

Selling a girl—throwing her in the way of temptation, and insult, and coarse speech…what harm ensues? A little teazing, a little humbling, a few tears….

Once home, Mrs. Nickleby just can’t think of anything other than Kate’s wedding and is in the middle of imagining reception appetizers when two men show up named Pyke and Pluck who, on behalf of Hawk, invite Mrs. Nickleby to a play that evening. Mrs. Nickleby naturally responds by blabbering on about a head cold she had in 1817. Pyke (or maybe it is Pluck) encourage Mrs. Nickleby’s fantasies by proclaiming:

Your daughter has made a conquest—a conquest on which I may congratulate you. Sir Mulberry (Hawk), my dear ma’am…is her devoted slave.

This produces a lengthy monologue about a house she used to live in and the number of steps one had to walk down to go into the garden. When she stops got take a breath, Pyke and Pluck (they are pretty interchangeable) “hastily withdrew,” probably to escape before the old biddy started barfing up stories about knitting patterns or birdbaths.

We are then whisked to the theater and it turns out that Mrs. Nickleby is joined by Hawk and Verisopht—and Pyke and Pluck, who, now that Hawk and Verisopht are there, really having nothing to contribute.

Kate gets into the scene at the theater, where she is accompanying her boss Mrs. Witterly and said woman's husband. By somebody’s intent (could be Hawk or Uncle Ralph or Pyke but not Pluck) they are seated in the box next to Mrs. Nickleby and entourage. Rabid introductions abound, and suddenly all eight of them are crammed into one of the theater boxes, which miraculously doesn’t collapse under the combined weight. Mrs. Nickleby, apparently feverish at having such a large audience, regales the assembly with a memory about being carted around Stratford-upon-Avon by a driver with an eyepatch. Why nobody flings themselves down into the orchestra as soon as Mrs. Nickleby revs up her mouth is beyond me.

The Witterlys are pleased as punch to meet a Sir and a Lord and everyone chatters away and then we sit down to the play which you ignore completely. I don’t know if it was a comedy or a drama or a classic or what. Because it involves a play and actors, I was thinking that Nicholas and troupe might be the performers, which would have been a Dickensian Coincidence, but no.

After the show, in a private moment, Kate, possibly taking playing hard to get to an extreme, admits to Hawk:

I hold you in the bitterest detestation and contempt….

But Hawk isn’t getting it and still thinks Kate is just being coy.

Kate decides to enlist the help of Uncle Ralph in getting rid of Hawk, perhaps by stones and a burlap sack and a river, but he tells her to suck it up and she leaves, bumping into Noggs on the way out. 

I got down on my knees and thanked the heavens that in the next chapter we leave Kate behind and switch over to Nicholas in Portsmouth. He continues to get rave reviews, and so another of the actors gets jealous and asks if Nicholas can meet with him in order for the other actor:

for the purposes of having his (Nicholas’s) nose pulled in the presence of the company.

I have a feeling the other guy intends more than a slight grasping of Nicholas’s nose, and I am right. You then increase the anticipation of this skirmish-to-be for several pages and many paragraphs until the two meet and, with the anxious tension mounting:

(Nicholas) knocked him down.

That’s it??? After all that build up? Sheesh.

Nicholas then gets asked to dinner by two actresses who have an odd way of behaving when extending invitations:

Miss Snevellicci beat Miss Ledbrook, and Miss Ledrook beat Miss Snevellicci.

The dinner takes place and ends up with two of the male guests beating each other up.

Honestly, Charles, I don’t know what was happening in your life when you were writing this part, but there are a lot of fisticuffs at this point. Try some St. John’s Wort.

A letter comes from Noggs saying that Kate’s a mess and so Nicholas and Smike head back to London faster than Mrs. Nickleby can be prompted to prattle on about thimbles.

And the section ends.

Nicholas has at least had a happy time with the actors, but Kate just can’t get a single break. I hope you write her a scene where something cheerful happens, like she gets shoved into a barrel. 

Due to some unforeseen circumstances, I may not be writing you as often as I have in the past, but, rest assured, I will write when I can.



Thursday, January 28, 2016

Nickleby - Chapters 21 - 25

Dear Mr. Dickens,

You are just going along at breakneck speed.

Just as I was looking forward to Kate having some drama with her fellow employees at Madame Mantalini’s, you have debt collectors come in and yank the place from Madame’s hands because of her bum of a husband’s debts. For some reason, instead of the collectors taking it over themselves or giving it to cronies, Miss Knag takes over and, not surprisingly, gives Kate the boot and fast. Instead of letting us digest that bit of plot, only three paragraphs later you have Kate on the path to becoming a companion to a rich society matron. And only three paragraphs after that, she is being interviewed by such a society matron, a Mrs. Witterly. Come on, Charles, let the ink on the poor girl’s resume dry.

To avoid your writing yet another scene of Kate and her mother sliding gloomily into poverty, Mrs. Witterly hires her. 

Because Mrs. Witterly is of fragile health (she spends her entire scene lying around on a sofa), Mrs. Nickleby daydreams eagerly about Kate’s prospects of marrying the widower Mr. Witterly in the future:

…she had freed Mrs. Witterly’s soul from all bodily restraint; married Kate with great splendour at St. George’s…

and starts picking out furniture. This is not only before the body is cold, but also before there even is a body.

Kate being hired to the job was:

…not to (her) very great joy…

So we’re prepared (by grasping firmly to the arms of our chairs) that Kate’s next appearance in the book won’t be a laugh-riot.

But then you sort of pull a quick change of tone that almost gives me whiplash by making the next four chapters of the section kind of humorous.

We are suddenly with Nicholas and Smike leaving London to go to Portsmouth where neither of them have a job or a place to live. OK, that’s not the funny part. This seems to happen very soon after they were lodging above the Kenwigs family, who had employed him to teach French to the children, but Nicholas leaves so soon that I doubt they even conjugated a verb yet.

But off the two go and, when spending the night at an inn along the way, they meet Mr. Vincent Crummles, also heading to Portsmouth. He is going back to his home where he and his wife manage a small theater company and where his three children perform in the same. Crummles is suddenly fond of our young hero and soon (again without any experience whatsoever—jobs just fall from the sky in your books) hires Nicholas to translate plays from French to English, to write announcement posters for current shows, and to star in the productions. This without knowing if Nicholas can even say the word “boxcar” in front of an audience without stuttering.

We then go to Portsmouth and the Crummles’s theater, which you describe as:

…among bare walls, dusty scenes, mildewed clouds, heavily daubed draperies, and dirty floors.

In this novel every building seems to be as inviting as a dark alley behind a butcher’s shop. Perk it up a little, Charles.

Next you introduce Mrs. Crummles, which is fine. You even introduce the three Crummles children: two boys and a daughter, Ninetta. Great. Then you go off your crock completely and introduce Mr. Folair & Mr. Lenville & Tommy & Miss Snevelicci & Mrs Grudden & Mrs. Lenville & Miss Gazingi & Miss Bravassa & Miss Ledrook & Jeremy Diddler.

You gotta be kidding, Charles. How do you expect the reader to remember even two of them, considering you have already filled the novel with a population greater than that on the Queen’s Christmas Card list? And I won’t even mention Nicholas’s fake name of “Mr. Johnson” that he picked up for some reason back at the Kenwigs abode. I have never encountered a book where I felt more inclined to issue name tags.

Fortunately, from subsequent chapters, it seems that the only ones who will play principal parts are Miss Snevellicci and the Crummles and their daughter Ninetta (often referred to as “the infant” or “the phenomenon” in honor of her great talent at such a young age).

Nicholas jumps right in to the merry theater life and Smike even gets bit parts to play. Along with translating and acting and doing P.R. for the acting troop, Nicholas has to accompany Ninetta and Miss Snevellicci to go to wealthy people in Portsmouth and try to drum up ticket sales.

When does he have time to attach his spats or whatever?

But the show must go on and apparently Nicholas does a fine job and the theater company are all very happy indeed.

You finish the section with a Dickensian Coincidence when one of the female friends of the Kenwigs family happens to be a famous actress in London and is apparently slumming it in Portsmouth. Actually, she isn’t there to perform, but to marry the Kenswigs’s wealthy Uncle Lillyvick in secret, so that the London relatives won’t know that their much-anticipated inheritance is going to a new bride.

The section ends with the marriage ceremony and a performance of Romeo & Juliet with Nicholas in the lead and Smike as the apothecary.

I know from biographies that you were quite a participant in amateur dramatics, so I presume that you are drawing on your own experiences here. Overall, the theater scenes were quite amusing—but Kate is on yet another downward spiral.

I worry about that girl.



Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Nickelby - Chapters 16 - 20

Dear Mr. Dickens,

Nicholas is now in London, as are his sister and his mother, but he doesn’t go and tell them this very pertinent fact. I’m not sure why not.

He and Smike now have a room in Mr. Crowl’s house upstairs from the Kenwigs’s apartment and he knows he needs to find employment and fast. He goes out in search for a job and stumbles across a job placement agency. With no qualifications or work history whatsoever, he has his heart set on being a secretary or an amanuensis (a person who takes dictation or copies documents—I learn something new from you every day). It’s his lucky day: a member of Parliament, a Mr. Gregsbury, has just such an opening.

You use Nicholas’s job interview as a way to pointedly comment on the state of 19th century politicians. A group of men question Gregsbury about campaign promises he did not keep, but he basically gives them a big No Comment. After his constituents are dismissed, he gives Nicholas a brief job interview, which Nicholas backs away from due to the low pay and high expectations.

He ambles home in a sulk and is in his room when Noggs shows up and says that the Kenwigs (and their Uncle Lillyvick) want to offer him a job teaching their children to speak and read French. Nicholas accepts promptly and this cheers him up immensely, but it still doesn’t enter his head to go see his sister and mother. 

Speaking of Kate, she is now at work at Madame Mantalini’s fashion emporium. Madame takes her down to the workroom where Kate meets Miss Knag, the supervisor of the workers. Knag takes a disturbingly fast liking to Kate and Kate settles in. She is assigned to work on the main floor, helping wealthy women in and out of bustiers or whatever Madame sells. On her third day, however, a customer asks specifically to be served by Kate instead of Knag, who is described by the customer as:

…frights or elderly persons…

Madame makes Kate stay and dismisses Knag to go back to the workroom and we vaguely ascertain a small change in Knag’s feelings for Kate:

…I hate her…I detest and hate her…Never let her speak to me again; never let anyone who is a friend of mine speak to her; a slut, a hussy, an impudent artful hussy…

Had there been laws about Hostile Work Environments back then, Kate would have had an easy case.

Kate is still reeling from the new venom at her job when her Uncle Ralph requests her presence at a dinner party he is giving for business associates. He wants Kate to “keep house for me,” although subsequent scenes show that she is not to clean windows or anything, but he just wants her to sit around as silent eye candy.

The dinner does not go well, with the men salivating over Kate and saying enough inappropriate things that she:

...rose and hurried from the room. She restrained her tears by a great effort until she was alone upstairs, and then gave them vent.

One of the men, with the appropriately named Sir Mulberry Hawk, follows her and says unseemly things and tries to restrain her from leaving the room. But Uncle Ralph comes in and surprisingly comes to Kate’s rescue and throws the bounder out. Finally he turns into a nice guy.

We come near the end of the section with Miss La Creevy, the miniature portrait painter and former Nickleby landlady, rushing off to Madame Mantalini’s business to let them know that Kate will be out ill that day. This is odd. Apparently Kate went to all the trouble to go and tell La Creevy that she was ill and then charged the former landlady for delivering that message, when Kate herself could have told Madame or just sent a note by a passing errand boy or something. It seems like a round-about way of keeping La Creevy in the novel, although she hasn’t served a lot of purpose for the last few chapters.

La Creevy passes on the information to Krag, who shows great support of her former friend and current fellow employee:

So far as I am concerned…I could spare Miss Nickleby for evermore.

which makes me think Kate isn’t going to get that plaque for Employee of the Month anytime soon.

Nicholas finally decides to show himself to his family so, of course, he goes to see La Creevy. This woman has become the hub of the wheel of Nickleby family communications, but there’s no real reason why. Nicholas wants the woman to go to his mother and sister and:

…prepare them for my coming. They think me a long way off, and if I went wholly unexpected, I should frighten them.

La Creevy, who apparently has nothing better to do than run errands for former tenants, just blindly agrees and so she hauls her paintbrushes out into the streets again to run yet another errand for the Nicklebys.

La Creevy shows up at Kate and her mother’s house only to find Uncle Ralph there, telling the two women all about Fanny Squeers’s letter proclaiming Nicholas to be just short of Nero, and you have La Creevy enter and take a seat and she never says another word for the entire chapter so I am not sure why the hell you bothered to put her in this scene.

Nicholas bursts into the room and proclaims Fanny’s letter and Uncle Ralph’s insinuations as lies. Neither Kate nor her mother seem even slightly alarmed or afraid by his sudden appearance, which just adds another question into the necessity of La Creevy.

Uncle and nephew argue back and forth while Kate voices support for Nicholas and his mother, fearing that Uncle Ralph will no longer pay for the house, predicts a cheery future for herself and Kate:

We can go to the Workhouse, or the Refuge for the Destitute, or the Magdalen Hospital….

Nicholas agrees to leave and not communicate with his family if it means that Uncle Ralph will not toss the two women out into the street. Actually, to be honest, it’s not clear what Nicholas really intends or what Uncle Ralph’s possible next move will be.

Nicholas goes back to his room and finds Smike ready to leave him forever, as he has caused Nicholas nothing but trouble to date. Nicholas convinces the young man to stay and the section ends.

At least Nicholas has a job and a place to live and a work commute of going downstairs. Kate has a job where everybody hates her. Mrs. Nickleby just flusters around and impacts nobody. Uncle Ralph seems to loathe his family again by the end of the section. But if it wasn’t for La Creevy, there would be no novel at all.



Monday, January 25, 2016

Nickelby - Chapters 11 - 15

Dear Mr. Dickens,

This section covers a lot of ground, and there is much sobbing, even for you.

We start off with Noggs, Uncle Ralph’s lackey, escorting Kate and her mother to their new home that Uncle Ralph obtained for them. It sounds charming:

a large old dingy house…the door and windows of which were so bespattered with mud…

Mrs. Nickleby is as slow as her son and thinks it’s just great, but Kate gets it right:

This house depresses and chills one…as if some blight had fallen on it.

but the two stay and Noggs leaves them in their new abode, where they can cheer up the place with splintered furniture and funeral wreaths.

Next we are back in Dotheboys where Fanny and the friend she argued with meet up and their friendship is rekindled, as they both decide to blame Nicholas for the previous evening’s bust up. While walking around the place they run into Nicholas who:

…looked as confused as might be…

proving once again he’s got more styrofoam than brain cells between his ears. Somehow they get him to apologize for the recent argument, even though he also claims that it wasn’t his fault. It soon dawns on him that Fanny is ready to accept his marriage proposal, but he makes it quite clear that that ain’t gonna happen. Fanny doesn’t react well to this news:

…she hated and detested Nicholas with all the narrowness of mind and littleness of purpose….

So he has pissed off the only one of the Squeers family who actually liked him.

Back at the school we discover that Smike has hoofed it to parts unknown. This angers both Mr. and Mrs. Squeers, who set off in opposite directions to find him and drag him back. Mr. Squeers comes back empty-handed and soused to the gills on liquor, but his wife found Smike and brought him back to the school, ankles tied to the chaise.

There is much talk about a subsequent beating that will be the entertainment event of the year at the school. Smike is paraded into the schoolroom before the assembled boys and Mrs. Squeers outlines the runaway lad’s good points:

A nasty, ungrateful, pig-headed, brutish, obstinate, sneaking dog….

Squeers strikes one blow on Smike and Nicholas finally snaps, and (to the cheers of all the readers) busts a can of whoopass on the schoolmaster and manages to whip the man many times and knock him down, despite the fact that the other three members of the Squeers family attempt to save their Pa.

Nicholas correctly senses that he should probably leave the school and he does, heading out on foot to walk 250 miles to London. Again, not the greenest leaf on the tree. On his way he runs into the Yorkshire man from the previous evening. The man seems less angry at Nicholas than before, although he still talks like he has a sock in his mouth. The two make up and the man lends Nicholas a sovereign (which according to one definition I found seems to be worth a pound sterling, so why there need to be two names for the same amount is irritating), and Nicholas starts off on his way.

I was initially delighted in the sound beating of Mr. Squeers, but then I wondered what was in store for all of the schoolboys who were left behind, as I imagine they will be the target of some beatings themselves.


Our hero finds shelter in an empty barn where, in a Dickensian Coincidence, Sikes is curled up asleep. They both decide to head to London together, and I hope they have shoes with decent soles or else they are going to get a lot of blisters.

Estimates say that a young man can walk 36 miles in a day, if they walk 12 hours a day, which would make a seven-day journey for our two pedestrians, and they might walk slower, what with being starved and impoverished. So I can only presume that it is roughly a week later that we encounter Noggs again, this time at his hovel.

He rents a room from a landlord named Mr. Crowl, and the other occupants of the house are a family named Kenwigs, all of whom cry frequently. The Kenwigs are hosting a dinner that includes Noggs but excludes Crowl, which seems not only a slight of manners but a good way to get your rent raised. Also invited is an uncle of Mrs. Kenwigs named Mr. Lillyvick, who collects money for people using water.

I only mention these people because you mention them thoroughly, but at this point I am not sure if they will ever come up again. I hope they do, as I have taken great pains to commit them to memory.

Noggs is called away from the feast by Nicholas and Sikes at the front door, who aren’t exactly ready for a cotillion:

…footsore and nearly shoeless, wet, dirty, jaded, and disfigured with every mark of fatiguing travel….

Now you shove a lot of plot into Chapter 15 and we find out Fanny Squeers wrote to Uncle Ralph and made it sound like Nicholas was a raving lunatic; the guests at the dinner wonder what the hell is going on with Noggs—his rushing out and all; Mr. Crowl shows up at the dinner he was not invited to and regales the guests with the information that Noggs has two men in his room who have fled something or someone (Crowl was eavesdropping through a shared wall); and the assembled dinner guests start to believe that Noggs and the two men are up to no good until Nicholas saves the Kenwigs’s baby from a fire, leaving one of the dinner guests to call Nicholas “aristocratic,” which she defines as:

...when Lords break off door-knockers and beat policeman, and play at coaches with other people’s money, and all that sort of thing….

Houses that are dumps, broken marriage engagements that never were, escaped and retrieved house slaves, near-beatings and deserved-beatings, week-long journeys on foot, dinner parties, overheard conversations, and a baby almost burned to a crisp.

Good heavens, Charles, I am overwhelmed and my eyeballs hurt. I was going to read another section today, but I think I will devote myself to a more leisurely and mindless recreation like insulting rugby players.



Friday, January 22, 2016

Nickleby - Chapters 6 - 10

Dear Mr. Dickens,

I was busy the last couple of days and didn’t get to dive back into Nickleby as soon as I had hoped. Please excuse me.

This section picked up right where the last one left off, with everybody recovering from the coach turning over. Everybody is more or less fine, and they retire to a “public room” to wait for a new coach. Since they don’t have a jigsaw puzzle or an Xbox, they have to while away their waiting hours somehow, so two people of the company decide to tell stories to the rest. Remembering all too well the stories-within-the-story that popped up in Pickwick, I had an uneasy feeling in my stomach, as in those earlier tales corpses piled up like split logs on a stack.

I was right to be wary. The first tale, “The Five Sisters of York,” details five sisters who are minding their own business when a monk arrives and urges them impolitely to become nuns. They refuse. That’s pretty much the whole plot. You end the story with all five sisters dead, along with their husbands, who didn’t even show up in the story. I am guessing that the monk also died, but you don’t mention it. 

One of the audience claims that the story is “melancholy” and promises to:

I’ll tell you a story of another kind.

He’s a big, fat liar, and I won’t go into his tale in depth, but I think just mentioning that there is a character in it called “the Genius of Despair and Suicide” gives you a hint that this story isn’t going to win the People’s Choice award for best comedy.

Finally a new coach comes and Nicholas and Squeers arrive at the school which you describe as:

a long, cold-looking house, one story high, with a few straggling outbuildings behind…


Nicholas finally begins to sense that his new job is going to be somewhat dismal, a conclusion we reached a few chapters ago. Nicholas discovers in his pocket a letter from Noggs, his uncle’s clerk or whatever, promising Nicholas lodging in London if he ever needs it. I don’t know if Noggs knows about the school or he just knows that Uncle Ralph wasn’t going to send his nephew to anything resembling Yale.

The Squeers family consists of Mr. and Mrs. and daughter Fanny and son Wackford. All of them are horrible and we meet them all over time, but I thought I would get their introductions out of the way.

Before we even get into the building, we meet a boy in his late teens named Smike. We get the impression pretty soon that Smike is kind of neglected, but he is an Adonis compared to the rest of the boys. Your description of them goes on for a very long paragraph, so I’ll just pick a few of your choice phrases:

…pale and haggard faces…lank and bony figures…stooping bodies…every ugliness or distortion…sullen, dogged suffering…

They make plague victims sound like runway models. Only Wackford, Squeers’s son, looks like a happy and healthy boy. He entertains himself by taking other boys’ boots and then stepping on their toes.

There is then a scene where Squeers beats several boys and then reads their private letters aloud to the room and takes any of the money sent in the epistles. We also find out that Smike is a virtual slave of the Squeers family, since his family stopped paying the tuition money several years ago but he has nowhere else to go . You really bring the mood down when you have Smike, with apparently nothing else to chat about, tell Nicholas that he is afraid that when he (Smike) dies, there will be nobody kind to meet him on the other side:

Pain and fear, pain and fear for me, alive or dead. No hope, no hope!

which is so depressing that I felt that I was having my own visit from the Genius of Despair and Suicide.

Then there is a knot of a plot I think will develop with the daughter Fanny Squeers seeing Nicholas as husband material. This is probably because Nicholas is the only male person present (family excluded) who doesn’t look like a zombie that crawled out of a sewer. She invites him to tea along with a friend and the friend’s betrothed, whom you describe as coming from Yorkshire, and you give him such a harsh dialect as to be practically incomprehensible. For some reason not entirely clear—probably jealousy but it might just be for fun or both—the tea breaks up with the other three all angry and Nicholas, as expected, not knowing what the hell is going on.

We end the section with a pretty straightforward chapter where Uncle Ralph finds Kate a job with a milliner and dressmaker named Madame Mantalini.  Uncle and niece march off to her new employer, and along the way Kate tells her uncle she will be happy with any old job, cat groomer, whatever, but she wants to continue to live with her mother. Ralph agrees.

In this chapter Ralph continues to be fond of his relations:

…had a more than commonly vicious snarl lurking at his heart…looking comtemptuously…interposed tartly…

and thus we leave the section with Nicholas now knowing that he works in a charnel house of “education” and Kate getting ready to sew those hems with a song in her heart. She’s plucky, that girl.

This is pretty dark stuff, Charles. I harken back to the humorous Chapter 2 with the “United Metropolitan Improved Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking and Punctual Delivery Company” and I not only wonder if I am reading the same book but also wonder if you are writing the same book.

I already hate the Squeers family. I want them to get their comeuppance, and I believe they will, but not soon enough for my taste.