The great difference in their genres makes it really difficult to answer the question, "How does Nicholas Nickleby compare with Scott's young men?" After all, Sir Walter Scott's historical novels differ markedly from the variety of genres that make up Charles Dickens's novels. However, taking Waverley as an example, and assuming that the protagonist is typical of Scott's young men, which critical works by James Buzard and Ian Duncan suggest he is, it might be argued that Edward Waverley is a blank slate, a passive hero; however, like Nicholas he has both romantic ideas and a sense of honour (military, family, and personal honour in Waverley's case). Moreover, he is, like Nicholas, capable of violence in defending the latter, although, oddly, Nicholas seems more capable of violence than Waverley, despite the latter's military profession and his involvement in the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. Waverley at times seems to realize his own passivity: for example, when he arrives at the Castle of Doune, having been handed over from one group of characters to another: he contemplates "the strangeness of his fortune, which seemed to delight in placing him at the disposal of others, without the power of directing his own motions" (198); in this case, he wants to read the papers Alice left him but is prevented from doing so (198-99). This is perhaps a trivial example, but a telling one nonetheless, since these papers will later form part of the evidence that incriminates him by implicating him in the Jacobite rebellion. In addition, the narrator explicitly comments on the fact of Waverley's passivity as in I, 7, and the fact that he is influenced by others in III 4 and 5.
In Modern Romance (1992) Ian Duncan sees Waverley's passivity as "a positively feminine characteristic" (65) while in the 2011 Introduction to Penguin edition of the novel he says that it ensures his survival since Waverley's adherence to the Stuart cause is undertaken "largely unwittingly" as he is "swept along by a combination of circumstance, accident, and other people's intrigues" (xviii), all of which means that the Hanoverian regime will have sufficient reason to pardon Waverley when the rebellion fails. This passivity tempts me to compare this aspect of Waverley to Nicholas, a version of the "New Man" of the early Victorian era (as opposed to the violent, cynical and sensual Regency figure of Sir Mulberry Hawk), as Marlena Marciniak suggests, or as a version of the Gothic hero who is often curiously passive, and indeed frequently has to go through being wounded before he can be united with the heroine as Diane Long Hoeveler says (65-66). In all three cases the heroes are "feminized" to some extent. Waverley's passivity is perhaps also reflected in the several aliases which he is forced to adopt towards the end of the novel: Williams, Butler, and Stanley (305, 311) and also in his several changes of costume — English civilian dress, English military uniform, Highland dress, Stuart military uniform, poor English clothes, and the fashionable English dress of a rich man. The apogee of this "dressing up" comes in the portrait painted of him and Fergus which hangs in Tully Veolan at the end.
As for Nicholas, initially he seems much less passive than Waverley, although I suppose he does accept his uncle's more than dubious "patronage" in taking the job at Dotheboys Hall. After this episode he makes his own way in the world (albeit not very successfully) until he is taken under the wing of the Cheeryble brothers, so perhaps he is also passive towards the end of the story. However, he does go with Kate to rescue Madeline Bray from Gride and Bray senior, without asking the Cheerybles' permission and, as I said earlier, he is more ready to use violence to make his points, as with Squeers and Sir Mulberry Hawk, whom he is ready to fight in a duel after the latter has insulted Kate. Nicholas does horsewhip Hawk, although Dickens doesn’t allow his hero to fight a duel — as Scott does not either. Even though Waverley thinks, after the event, "He had received a personal affront, — he, a gentleman, a soldier, and a Waverley" (54) when Balmawhapple has insulted him, the Baron actually fights the duel in his place (66-67). Both Scott and Dickens manage to assert their heroes' sense of honour and also avoid having them fight a duel, an action which would align the heroes with a type of violent aristocratic masculinity of which both Dickens and Scott seem to disapprove.
Also, if we consider the journeys which Waverley and Nicholas make, Nicholas’s are determined by work (Dotheboys, the peregrinations with the Crummles), or to rescue Kate from Ralph or to help Smike to recover (in fact to let him die in peace). Waverley’s are determined by various causes, only the first being dependent on work, when he goes to join his company in the English army. Otherwise he travels with the Stuart army when he has found himself caught up in their cause (which he seems to espouse by default rather than conviction), or he travels as a kind of tourist, and there’s an "internal Orientalism" about his (and the narrator's and Talbot's) comments about the Scots and especially the highlanders.
Another difference is that we are shown and told a great deal more about Waverley's development of a character than we are about Nicholas's: indeed, Nicholas really does not change after he loses his initial naiveté and realizes that Ralph is not the gentleman he seems (though of course he never even seems it to the reader), whereas Waverley does change. We are given long initial descriptions of Waverley's personality and attitudes in chapters 3 and 4 of Volume I, and in Volume II, 4 the narrator again offers a long analysis of Waverley’s character and also shows Waverley indulging in self-analysis in a way which we rarely or never see Nicholas doing. Moreover, this change in Waverley's character and his self-understanding is at times couched in terms of romance versus history, as when the narrator notes: "He felt himself able to say firmly, though perhaps with a sigh, that the romance of his life was ended, and that its real history had now commenced" (301). Shortly after this, the narrator intervenes to confirm the development of Waverley's character: "Now, how changed, how saddened, yet how elevated was his character, within the course of a very few months! Danger and misfortune are rapid, though severe teachers" (315).
There would be more to say about the overlap in Scott with the Newgate novel and the way this possibly influenced Dickens, and more to say also about the relationship between Sir Walter Scott's "Waverly" novels and Barnaby Rudge, in particular, but that will be for another day.
Buzard, James. Disorienting Fiction: The Autoethnographic Work of Nineteenth-Century British Novels. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton UP, 2005.
Dickens, Charles. Nicholas Nickleby. London: Penguin, 2000.
Duncan, Ian. Modern Romance and Transformations of the Novel: The Gothic, Scott, Dickens. Cambridge: Cambridge UniversitynPress, 1992.
Duncan, Ian. "Introduction." Scott's Waverley. London: Penguin, 2011. ii-xxx.
Hoeveler, Diane Long. Gothic Feminisms: The Professionalization of Gender from Charlotte Smith to the Brontës. University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998.
Marciniak, Marlena. "New Man — Nicholas Nickleby as an Example of the Changing Notions of Victorian Masculinity." Paper given at the conference "Reflections on/of Dickens." Olsztyn, Poland, 11-13 April 2013.
Scott, Walter. Waverley. London: Penguin Classics, 2011.
Last modified 8 October 2013