"Wretch," rejoined Nicholas, fiercely, "touch him at your peril! I will not stand by, and see it done. My blood is up, and I have the strength of ten such men as you." — Chap. xiii, p. 80, from the Household Edition of Charles Dickens's The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, illustrated by Fred Barnard with fifty-nine composite woodblock engravings (1875). The framed illustration, 9.3 cm high by 13.4 cm wide (3 ¾ by 5 ⅜ inches). Running head: "Nicholas and Smike become Fast Friends" (81). [Click on the illustrations to enlarge them.]

Nicholas Comes to Smike's Defence: The Textual Background

"You have disregarded all my quiet interference in the miserable lad’s behalf," said Nicholas; "you have returned no answer to the letter in which I begged forgiveness for him, and offered to be responsible that he would remain quietly here. Don’t blame me for this public interference. You have brought it upon yourself; not I."

"Sit down, beggar!" screamed Squeers, almost beside himself with rage, and seizing Smike as he spoke.

"Wretch," rejoined Nicholas, fiercely, "touch him at your peril! I will not standby, and see it done. My blood is up, and I have the strength of ten such men as you. Look to yourself, for by Heaven I will not spare you, if you drive me on!"

"Stand back," cried Squeers, brandishing his weapon. [Chapter XIII, "Nicholas varies the Monotony of Dothebys Hall by a most vigorous and remarkable proceeding, which leads to Consequences of some Importance," 78]

Commentary: Revisiting a Popular Phiz Scene, Nicholas Astonishes Mr. Squeers and Family

The 1910 Harry Furniss frontispiece, clearly based on the 1838 engraving, Nicholas's Vengeance on Squeers (Charles Dickens Library Edition).

The memorable and highly dramatic confrontation between the London usher, Nicholas, and the Yorkshire school-master, Wackford Squeers, occurs in Chapter XIII, "Nicholas varies the Monotony of Dotheboys Hall by a most vigorous and remarkable proceeding, which leads to Consequences of some Importance." Readers of the 1838 serial, like those of the Household Edition, must have welcomed Nicholas's thrashing the brutal Yorkshire schoolmaster, captured melodramatically in Phiz's illustration for the July number. Written as the followup to both the picaresque The Pickwick Papers (1836-37) and the socially realistic Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby (April 1838-October 1839) combines the journeys of a young, picaresque hero with Dickens's journalistic brand of social realism, his brilliant character comedy and satisfying melodrama in a complex narrative in which the exploited triumph over their exploiters. The protagonist, middle-class, educated but poor Nicholas Nickleby succeeds despite poverty and the machinations and indifference of his wealthy uncle Ralph. The romantic hero's first moral triumph is his protecting the helpless Smike and rebelling against the tyranny of the abusive Yorkshire schoolmaster Wackford Squeers. Barnard, who participated in the development of the Victorians' social conscience, depicts Nicholas's assault on Squeers as an attack on the kinds of social injustice that he encounters again and again in the novel.

Necessarily, given Barnard's realistic style, the 1876 composite woodblock engraving departs considerably from the 1838 steel engraving. Instead of setting the principal figures in the midst of a riotous classroom, Barnard focuses on the reasonable Nicholas and his crouching adversary without demonizing or caricaturing the vicious schoolmaster. As he grabs the limp Smike, a mere bundle of rags, by the scruff, Squeers, cowering like a trapped beast, menaces the youthful, upright protagonist with his cane, but Nicholas remains undeterred — although not particularly enraged, despite Barnard's caption. This, then, is not the kinetic moment communicated by Phiz; rather, this is the pregnant moment out of which Squeers's thrashing will momentarily develop. Seeing this illustration, the reader will have to continue with the text to discover the outcome of the confrontation between the binary opposites.

Relevant illustrations from Other Editions (1838, 1875)

Left: The 1875 American Household Edition version of the same by C. S. Reinhart is startlingly dramatic and realistic, although clearly based on the 1838 engraving: Nicholas varies the monotony of Dotheboys Hall by a most vigorous and remarkable proceeding. Right: The original July 1838 Phiz steel-engraving of Squeers's comeuppance, Nicholas Astonishes Mr. Squeers and Family.

Related material, including front matter and sketches, by other illustrators

Scanned image, colour correction, sizing, caption, and commentary by Philip V. Allingham. [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose, as long as you (1) credit the person who scanned the image, and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]


Barnard, J. "Fred" (il.). Charles Dickens's Nicholas Nickleby, with fifty-eight illustrations. The Works of Charles Dickens: The Household Edition. 22 vols. London: Chapman and Hall, 1875. Volume 15. Rpt. 1890.

Bentley, Nicolas, Michael Slater, and Nina Burgis. The Dickens Index. Oxford and New York: Oxford U. P., 1988.

Davis, Paul. Charles Dickens A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts On File, 1998.

Dickens, Charles. The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. With fifty-two illustrations by C. S. Reinhart. The Household Edition. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1872. I.

__________. Nicholas Nickleby. With 39 illustrations by Hablot K. Browne ("Phiz"). London: Chapman & Hall, 1839.

__________. Nicholas Nickleby. Illustrated by Harry Furniss. The Charles Dickens Library Edition. 18 vols. London: Educational Book, 1910. Vol. 4.

__________. "Nicholas Nickleby." Scenes and Characters from the Works of Charles Dickens, being eight hundred and sixty-six drawings by Fred Barnard et al.. Household Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1908.

Created 21 January 2020

Last modified 10 April 2021