Mr. Ralph Nickleby's First Visit to His Poor Relations by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne), initial serial illustration for Charles Dickens's Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, Containing a Faithful Account of the Fortunes, Misfortunes, Uprisings, Downfallings and Complete Career of the Nickleby Family, edited by "Boz", Part 1 (April 1838), Chapter III, "Mr. Ralph Nickleby receives Sad Tidings of his Brother, but bears up nobly against the Intelligence communicated to him. The Reader is informed how he liked Nicholas, who is herein introduced, and how kindly he proposed to make his Fortune at once," facing page 28. Steel-plate etching; 3 ¾ by 4 inches (9.9 high x 10.1 cm wide), vignetted.

Passage Illustrated: Introducing the Wicked Uncle

"What name?" said the girl.

"Nickleby," replied Ralph.

"Oh! Mrs. Nickleby," said the girl, throwing open the door, "here's Mr. Nickleby."

A lady in deep mourning rose as Mr. Ralph Nickleby entered, but appeared incapable of advancing to meet him, and leant upon the arm of a slight but very beautiful girl of about seventeen, who had been sitting by her. A youth, who appeared a year or two older, stepped forward and saluted Ralph as his uncle.

"Oh," growled Ralph, with an ill-favoured frown, "you are Nicholas, I suppose?"

"That is my name, sir," replied the youth.

"Put my hat down," said Ralph, imperiously. "Well, ma'am, how do you do? You must bear up against sorrow, ma'am; I always do."

"Mine was no common loss!" said Mrs. Nickleby, applying her handkerchief to her eyes.

"It was no uncommon loss, ma'am," returned Ralph, as he coolly unbuttoned his spencer. "Husbands die every day, ma'am, and wives too."

"And brothers also, sir," said Nicholas, with a glance of indignation.

"Yes, sir, and puppies, and pug-dogs likewise," replied his uncle, taking a chair. "You didn't mention in your letter what my brother's complaint was, ma'am." [Chapter III, "Mr. Ralph Nickleby receives Sad Tidings of his Brother, but bears up nobly against the Intelligence communicated to him. The Reader is informed how he liked Nicholas, who is herein introduced, and how kindly he proposed to make his Fortune at once," p. 28]

Michael Steig's incisive Commentary in Dickens and Phiz

Harry Furniss's Mr. Ralph Nickleby makes the acquaintance of his Relations (1910).

Mr. Ralph Nickleby's first visit to his poor relations" (ch. 3), is a palpably theatrical scene which Browne had trouble handling. The characters are caught at a crucial moment, Ralph gruffly asserting his opinion of Nicholas' prospects, Nicholas making a gesture of protest, and Kate comforting their flustered and self-pitying mother. But except for Ralph, the figures have no life — Nicholas' face has little expression and his body is puppetlike, while the faces of his mother and sister are at best ambiguous. There is more to be said for the cramped, claustrophobic effect of the room, which reflects the family's barely shabby-genteel status and its dim future. Nicholas' figure.seems to be an attempt at the style of George Cruikshank which is lacking in that artist's symmetry and grace, while Kate's face here and elsewhere recalls the sentimental and idealized mode of the Keepsake or Friendship's Offering. Although Phiz's virtuous women remain somewhat idealized throughout his career, they soon lose both the vapidity of expression and the raven tresses etched so that they look like hairpieces.

The peacock feathers displayed prominently over the mirror resemble those which appear so often in Phiz's work that it is tempting to dismiss them as mere space fillers. They may have been a common Victorian household ornament, but an artist with Phiz's evident knowledge of graphic traditions could hardly have been unaware of the symbolic meanings of such feathers. In [42/43] addition to pride, peacock feathers in a home are commonly associated with bad luck, perhaps because of the feathers' "spying eyes." (For a fuller discussion, see my 1973 article in ARIEL.) In the Nickleby plate they reflect the bad fortune that has hit the Nickleby family and foretell the worse fortune that is coming with Nicholas' employment by Squeers.

There is also an important technical aspect to this plate. At some point between the completion of Pickwick (October 1837) and the commencement of Nickleby (March 1838), Browne added to the crosshatch and other kinds of line and dot shading the use of a device known as the roulette, a small wheel at the end of a handle which, when rolled across the etching ground, produces a continuous series of dots, dashes, and the like, depending on the type of roulette. In the first plate of Nicholas Nickleby, its use can be seen in the carpet and on the lighter part of the ceiling; virtually every plate following has similar areas (The first use of the roulette by Browne that I have found is in Dickens' Sketches of Young Gentlemen, published in February 1838.). Although it is primarily a time-saver and Browne often uses it mechanically, this technique introduces a new smoothness of tone into his shading and is often employed in careful combination with other, less mechanical techniques (See Harvey, pp. 183-85, for a discussion of Cruikshank's and Browne's use of the roulette.). [Chapter 2, 42-43]

Relevant Illustrations from the Household Editions (1875)

Left: Fred Barnard's British Household Edition realisation of the confrontation between Nicholas and his uncle: The uncle and nephew looked at each other for some seconds without speaking (April 1838). Right: C. S. Reinhart's American Household Edition realisation of the scene in which Ralph hopes to dispatch Nicholas: And Looking for a Short Time among the Advertisements (1875).

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

Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham. [You may use these images 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.]


Dickens, Charles. The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. Illustrated by Phiz (Hablot Knight Browne). London: Chapman and Hall, 1839.

Dickens, Charles. The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. Ed. Andrew Lang. Illustrated by 'Phiz' (Hablot Knight Browne). The Gadshill Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1897. 2 vols.

Steig, Michael. Chapter 2. "The Beginnings of 'Phiz': Pickwick, Nickleby, and the Emergence from Caricature." Dickens and Phiz. Bloomington & London: Indiana U. P., 1978. 24-50.

Vann, J. Don. "The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, twenty parts in nineteen monthly installments, April 1838-October 1839." New York: Modern Language Association, 1985. Page 63.

Created 9 April 2002

Last modified 2 April 2021