“… the wayfarer in the toilsome path of human life sees, with each returning sun, some new obstacle to surmount, some new height to be attained” (Nicholas Nickleby, Chapter 53).

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icholas Nickleby’s great picture combines realism, clowning and abstract energy, and into this vista characters come to learn about life. This London is conjured from the many worlds Dickens knew, the one before the warehouse, the one in the warehouse, and the one he lived and walked through for the rest of his life. Characters pass from one sub-world to another, and each world is charged with emotion, from Newman’s cramped alcove to the drawing room where Mulberry Hawk lies in wait for Kate. The dominant world of London is capitalism, so Ralph Nickleby’s wealth gives him the right to be called a man of the world because the title encompasses everything. For Dickens though, Ralph represents “brutality” (247). When Nicholas shows up after pummeling the sadistic schoolmaster with whom Ralph is in collusion, the youth’s world collides with Ralph’s. Nicholas will not send Smike back to the school nor will he apologize. Therefore Ralph has no choice but to ostracize him, and he turns away from Nicholas to deliver this message to Mrs Nickleby because she “knows the world” (though she responds “Ah! I only too dearly wish I didn’t!” (256)). In the street Nicholas’s feelings are understandable. At first he walks with confidence, but “would lag again” and “give way to the melancholy reflections which pressed thickly upon him …. his quickly shifting thoughts presented every variety of light and shade before him.” Dickens calls this being “entirely alone in the world” (259).

Kate walked sadly back to their lodgings in the Strand, with her uncle Ralph Nickleby, having learned how her uncle has "provided" for her (Household Edition, 1875, illustrated by Fred Barnard).

In support of this novel’s emphasis on personality development, Jacqueline Banerjee cites Rousseau’s statement that the challenge for a young adult is that he “knows what is done in society; it remains for him to see how one lives in it,” so after Nicholas and Smike leave for Portsmouth, Dickens offers a portrait of 14-year-old Kate Nickleby’s “real, hard, struggling work-a-day life” (221) and shows her learning how one lives in the world, specifically Ralph Nickleby’s world. Kate’s life is one of those “of much pain, hardship, and suffering, which, having no stirring interest for any but those who lead them, are disregarded” (221), and when readers see a character disregarded, they should expect Dickens to take interest. Kate is among the novel’s most vulnerable characters. Yet in Charles Dickens: An Introduction to His Novels [whole text], E.D.H. Johnson does not grant importance to her sexual harassment by an aristocrat, saying “Ralph Nickleby's plot to betray Kate to Sir Mulberry Hawk, which only tangentially involves Nicholas, is a stock situation to create additional suspense” (89). Critics will often dismiss Kate as “two-dimensional” as Jill Muller does in her introduction to the Barnes and Noble Classics Edition (xxvii) and, echoing many scholars, Maev Kennedy calls her an “infuriatingly meek and virtuous heroine.” The celebrated writer and editor Robert Gottleib mocks her as one of the “submissive sexless-seeming wifelets and nymphs and half-child-brides, who tiptoe through [Dickens’s] pages.” But these rejections are stereotypes of their own. Dickens takes Kate seriously. The announcement that attention will be given to her is “I would rather keep Miss Nickleby herself in view just now” (222), the only time the narrator speaks in the first person which emphasizes that, for the author, the depiction of the injuries inflicted on her by “profligate” men (353) is especially important. By allying himself with Kate and carefully portraying the behavior of her abusers, Dickens shows the fallacy of Lewes’s contention that “I do not suppose a single thoughtful remark on life or character could be found throughout the twenty volumes” (151).

It is difficult to find critical analysis of Kate’s harassment, but a recent development in Victorian scholarship shows this could change. Just as the narrator steps out of character for Kate, female scholars are stepping over traditional lines when they write about Victorian sexual abuse by adding the context of reports from the #MeToo movement. And frighteningly, many twenty-first century accounts duplicate Kate’s experience. In the Summer 2020 issue of Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies scholars show the importance of using personal experience to reinforce Victorian accounts of victimization. Editors Lana L. Dalley and Kellie Holzer say “the #MeToo movement could provide a fruitful framework in the Victorian literature classroom for teaching students about the longue durée of rape culture, its subtleties and complexities, and the ways that we have all internalized its norms.” And in her conclusion to the issue, noted Victorianist and university president Marlene Tromp takes a professional risk to connect “Victorian gendered violence and contemporary gendered violence” and so “bridge time and space.” One of these bridges could stretch back to Kate Nickleby. Tromp’s statement that “inhabiting our professional genres has typically been a tailoring process of disciplining the personal” out of scholarship which she terms “ejecting experience from our work,” evokes Dickens’s choice when he introduces Kate to un-discipline the personal and break the wall separating him from his readers. Tromp’s title and her first sentence are also relevant. The title is “What Does it Take to Say 'Me' in Victorian Studies?” and her first two words are “Me too” both of which echo Dickens’s sense of urgency.

"Oh, Miss Knag," said Madame Mantalini, "this is the young person I spoke to you about." Kate in the milliner's shop. (New York Household Edition, 1875, illustrated by Charles Reinhart).

Kate is only 14 years old, two years older than Dickens in the warehouse, and she dresses in mourning for her father. “Here was a young girl, who had done no wrong save that of coming into the world alive” (247). Her uncle provides her with employment as a helper to a milliner or dressmaker. Robert Giddings explains that “Unprimed modern readers may fail to pick up the clues…. ‘milliner’ was more or less a euphemism for prostitute. Many seamstresses took to prostitution as a means of supporting themselves. Dressmakers' shops were notorious as pick-up places for prostitutes and their clients” (Giddings). Kate is immediately exposed to “insolence and pride” and belittled as “common” by the customers, “awkward — her hands were cold — dirty — coarse — she could do nothing right” (220). Also the image of shrinking is repeated ominously. The forewoman Miss Knag instructs her “to shrink from attracting notice by every means in her power” (223). Kate refers to her economic class as “reduced,” which Miss Kang accepts with a superiority that Dickens terms “pity’s small change” (224). When Kate is walking home and meets her mother and uncle conferring on the corner, she finds herself “shrinking, though she scarce knew why, from her uncle’s cold, glistening eye” (234). He takes advantage of this and commandeers her to be the hostess at a dinner for his clients, an unspoken condition of the financial support he is providing her and her mother.

Left: Miss Nickleby introduced to her uncle's friends, "shrinking" back in her uncle's grasp (September 1838 instalment, illustrated by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne).

Upon arriving, Kate sees she is the lone woman. “Flurried,” she hopes for “a few minutes’ respite” before meeting the men but thinks better of it because “her uncle might consider [his] payment of the hackney-coach fare a sort of bargain for her punctuality” (239). Her business-like relationship to all the men reinforces the liberties they will take. In reports of 21st century women enduring harassment, there is also a repetition of the phenomenon of shrinking. In their article, “Victorian Literature in the Age of #MeToo,” Dalley and Holzer quote Lindy West from Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman: “We live in a culture that actively strives to shrink the definition of sexual assault.” In September 2021, Maya Guzdar, a 20-year-old intern at the US Defense Department, published a New York Times op-ed, “What Happened the Day After I was Sexually Harassed at the Pentagon,” and the illustration shows a large red hand reaching down to entrap a very small woman defending herself while another large hand grabs the first by the wrist to try to stop the assault. Guzdar was at a Pentagon happy hour much like Kate’s dinner party when “a drunken senior employee” of the Defense Department “— a man much older than me — began trailing me.” He “cornered” her, and though she was underage asked “about her favorite drinks” and her “partying habits.” He then “broke through a group I was standing with and careened toward me” in a way that “alarmed” her. In Guzdar’s case “a male officer pushed him away” and a female colleague drove her home,” but in Kate’s scene her uncle does not stop the aggressor. In another example of shrinking, Mulberry Hawk makes her the object of a bet. “Here is Miss Nickleby …wondering why the deuce someone doesn’t make love to her …. I’ll hold any man fifty pounds …that Miss Nickleby can’t look in my face, and tell me she wasn’t thinking so” (241). The men give her ten minutes. Bravely Kate looks “him in the face. There was something so odious, so insolent, so repulsive in the look which met her, that, without the power to stammer forth a syllable, she rose and hurried from the room” (244). This is one of several strong reactions by Kate as she tries to preserve what is being taken from her.

"Unhand me, Sir, this instant", says Kate, springing away from Sir Mulberry Hawk (New York Household, 1875, illustrated by Charles Reinhart).

Alone she starts to read but feels “some stray member of the party” will return and then hears Hawk’s voice “close to her ear” (245); he has been watching her. Maya Guzdar reports her reaction in a similar situation saying “my instinct of self-preservation urged me to stay quiet, not to report what happened …. It wasn’t that big of a deal.” In Guzdar’s case it wasn’t until the senior military official who had intervened reported the incident and her harasser quit that she could admit “a wrong had been done” and feel “horror” and “disgust.” But Kate has the strength to respond, “Do me the favor to be silent now, sir …. your behavior offends and disgusts me.” In retaliation Hawk mocks her “excessive rigor” and demands that she “be more natural.” He then catches her dress and “forcibly” detains her (245). Her uncle appears and the word shrink does too but now it is leveled at Ralph because Kate is gaining stature. “What is this?” he asks. “ ‘It is this, sir,’ replied Kate, violently agitated: ‘that beneath the roof where I, a helpless girl, your dead brother’s child, should most have found protection, I have been exposed to insult which should make you shrink to look upon me.’” Dickens shows “Ralph did shrink as the indignant girl fixed her kindling eye upon him” (246, original emphasis). Kate is forging her identity. In a 2021 Harper’s article about humiliation Vivian Gornick writes of “the piteousness of …[women’s] sanctioned subordination,” and Maya Guzdar’s first reaction when she reflected on her assault was that many women would consider it normal. 174 years ago, the same norm guided Ralph’s party: the action happened “behind closed doors” (Guzdar), so Ralph tells Kate “nobody must know of this but you and I” (248). Gornick also underscores the realism of Dickens’s portrayal when she categorizes occurrences like Kate’s as “the sort of sexual offenses that have been shrugged off for generations.”

"I see how it is," said poor Noggs, drawing from his pocket what seemed to be a very old duster, and wiping Kate's eye with it.... (Household Edition, 1875, illustrated by Fred Barnard).

Lewes and George Eliot would probably have depicted the Kate-Hawk encounter differently, and in fact Gornick in 2021 describes a similar scene in Eliot’s Daniel Deronda. The scenes differ in two ways. Gornick points out that Eliot’s Gwendolyn Harleth has felt her husband’s “iron will” for months and “before a year has passed … realizes her marriage is a life sentence.” In Nickleby it is hard to imagine Dickens having a character submit to abuse for a long time and reflect on it as it continues. Dickens’s characters feel strongly and act immediately. Smike cries and escapes, Noggs punches the air, Nicholas gives Squeers a beating and the Cheeryble brothers plan solutions. Dickens’s vision of the “queer world” (260) is full to the brim with characters who are always experiencing “rough jostling” (268) and so have little time to reflect though they do make time for “hope, Heaven’s own gift to struggling mortals” (236). Over a period of months, Eliot’s Gwendolyn is “afraid of showing any emotion” (Gornick), suppresses her anger and hides behind urbanity, while Kate has one evening to react and accuses Hawk precisely. Still Lewes complains that Dickens’s characters strike him as “puppets” (148) because they do not take time to respond or to evolve “with the infinite fluctuations of organisms” (146). Referring to a child’s toy horse, he declares “It may be said of [Dickens’s] human figures that they too are wooden, and run on wheels” (146). He does not stop to think how many human interactions are experienced as mechanized, and certainly this is true of assault. Lewes’s most dramatic image comes from his laboratory: Dickens’s people remind him of frogs “whose brains have been taken out for physiological purposes …. isolated actions, and always the same” (148). But this describes Mulberry Hawk! He is like a brainless frog and his behavior is “as uniform and calculable as the movements of a machine” (149). When predators strike, they seem less than human. Their machine-like behavior produces the “horror” and “disgust” Maya Guzdar reports and which disgusts Kate (245). As Guzdar says in a Times interview, in a case like hers — or Kate’s — “there is no roadmap” (Instagram) and therefore, returning to Lewes’s first diagnosis, the experience must seem like a hallucination: no mind, only hands and bullying. Perhaps it takes a vision informed by trauma to see and describe this.


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any characters in Nicholas Nickleby can seem to be acting like laboratory animals whose cognitive systems have been slightly altered; they seem to have less than the whole array of skills needed to make good moral choices or reasonable decisions about life’s costs compared to its benefits. Lewes illustrates this with the example of David Copperfield’s Mr Micawber who always presents “himself in the same situation, moved with the same springs, and uttering the same sounds,” (148). This can also describe the eccentricity of Nickleby’s clown-characters like Noggs, Mrs Nickleby, Lillyvick the water-rate collector, the Kenwigses who preen frantically to get a place in his will and the barber who refuses to shave the coal-heaver because “it is necessary to draw the line somewhere” (662). There are many more and they make readers laugh, but they are also integral to Dickens’s vision because their behaviors are understandable, endearing responses to “complicated difficulties and distresses” (353). Life in London takes as much from them as it gives, and they can’t figure it out. In his way Lewes realizes this: their “manners were unlike those we were familiar with, [but] the feelings and motives, the joys and griefs, the mistakes and efforts of the actors were universal” (147).

And then, taking the beautiful burden in his arms, rushed out.... Nicholas rescuing Madeline Bray. (New York Household Edition, 1875, illustrated by Charles Reinhart).

Kate and Nicholas have a higher goal. They need to build identities that are whole and durable. And even Ralph sees the challenges they face: “there had somehow stolen upon him from time to time a thought of his niece which was tinged with compassion and pity.” Of course this does not stop him from “selling a girl — throwing her in the way of temptation” (338) — selling is his mechanistic response. Ralph’s callousness, Hawk’s violence and Miss Knag’s “bile and rancor” (233), have a firm place in the Dickensian vision of London. Therefore it is logical that Ralph, as an overseer of the city, is the one Dickens chooses to articulate London’s main existential rule: Kate “must take her chance. She must take her chance” (338). As for Nicholas, he will put the last piece of his youthful identity in place by saving Madeline Bray. To this end he “summoned up his utmost energy, and when the morning was sufficiently advanced for his purpose, had no thought but of using it to the best advantage” because “youth is not prone to contemplate the darkest side of a picture it can shift at will.” Youthful optimism is part of Dickens’s vision too, but it is always contrasted with “how much injustice, misery, and wrong there was, and yet how the world rolled on from year to year alike careless and indifferent, and no man seeking to remedy or redress it" (670). Central to Dickens’s vision in Nicholas Nickleby is the work of remedy and redress that lies ahead for the characters, for readers and for the author. And this from a 26-year-old. How many other great visions were to come!

Links to related material


Dalley, Lana L. and Holzer, Kellie. “Victorian Literature in the Age of #MeToo” An Introduction.” Nineteenth Century Gender Studies. Issue 16.2. Summer 2020. http://ncgsjournal.com/issue162/introduction.html

Dickens, Charles. Nicholas Nickleby. Barnes and Noble Classics. New York: 2005.

Eliot, George. “The Natural History of German Life.” The Westminster Review, 1856. http://georgeeliotarchive.org/files/original/ab0ce83fbebfa372e5e9a1c55ffcfeb8.pdf

Giddings, Robert. “Dickens and the Great Unmentionable.” The Charles Dickens Page. March 20, 2004. (https://www.charlesdickenspage.com/Dickens-and-Sex-Lecture.html#-ftnref15).

Gottleib, Robert. “Robert Gottleib on Dickensworld—the Great Novelist’s Grand Universe.”The New York Times. November 6, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/06/books/review/mystery-of-charles-dickens-a-n- wilson.html

Gornick, Vivian. “Put on the Diamonds.” Harper’s Magazine. October 4, 2021. https://harpers.org/archive/2021/10/put-on-the-diamonds-notes-on-humiliation-vivian- gornick/

Guzdar, Maya. “What Happened the Day After I Was Sexually Harassed at the Pentagon.” The New York Times. September 5, 2012. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/05/opinion/culture/sexually-harassed-pentagon.html

Guzdar, Maya. nytopinion #MeToo: Why the Day After Matters. New York Times Opinion on Instagram. September 9, 2021. https://www.instagram.com/p/CTnAL9Wnb0z/?utm_source=ig_embed&ig_rid=1e0783b 3-76cb-454c-a1ae-5edb791eda25

Johnson, E.D.H. Charles Dickens: An Introduction to His Novels. On The Victorian Web. https://victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/edh/4.html

Kennedy, Maev. “Where is Kate Nickleby, Missing Since Charles Dickens Died.” The Guardian, June 18, 2012. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/jun/18/kate-nickleby-missing-charles-dickens

Lewes, George Henry. “Dickens in Relation to Criticism.” Fortnightly Review. February 1872. https://davidcopperfield.columbia.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/lewes-dickens-in-relation-to-criticism.pdf

Muller, Jill. Introduction to Nicholas Nickleby. Barnes and Noble Classics. New York: 2005.

Sorensen, Sue. “Reflections on Several Birthdays: Generations of Dickens Criticism.” Academic.edu. 2012. https://www.academia.edu/6726584/Reflections_on_Several_Birthdays_Generations_of_ Dickens_Criticism

The Charles Dickens Page. Created by David Perdue. “What Was it Like to Live in the London of Charles Dickens?” https://www.charlesdickenspage.com/charles-dickens-london.html

Tromp, Marlene. “What Does It Take To Say ‘Me’ in Victorian Studies: Experiential Analysis in the Age of #MeToo.” Nineteenth Century Gender Studies. Issue 16.2. Summer 2020. http://w.ncgsjournal.com/issue162/tromp.html

Created 10 March 2022