Nicholas Nickleby

7th September 2001 at 01:00
In Dickens' novels, even the honest, decent teachers, such as Nicholas Nickleby, have an unhealthy appetite for thrashing people

Here we go again. Whackum, Thwackum, Tweakum and Smackum. Just about every teacher Dickens created enters the profession in order to maltreat little boys.

Not our Nicholas. He's a Dickens hero. A poor, but honest, young gentleman driven to schoolmastering in distant Yorkshire because, as wicked Uncle Ralph points out, "without friends, money or knowledge of business of any kind, he'll find no honest employment in London"!

And does our Nick know much about teaching?

Not really. Nicholas enters the profession mainly in the hope of meeting a young nobleman at Dotheboys Hall who'll appoint him personal tutor or, better still, marry his sister, Kate.

Ah... I guess this is the private sector we're talking about.

Dotheboys is certainly fee-paying. Headmaster Wackford Squeers says of his pupils: "We keep them as long as quarterly payment is made to my agent or until such time as they run away." In the meantime, they get fed the kind of food that would have had Oliver Twist asking for less.

I knew we'd be back to sadism sooner or later.

Well it's one-eyed Wackford who does the corporals. He is described in the Dickens Companion as "a typical specimen of Yorkshire schoolmaster - brutal, rapacious, ignorant".

What has Dickens got against Yorkshire?

In the 19th century the county became notorious for its "cheap" dumping grounds for unwanted illegitimate sons like Smike, the boy Nicholas befriends and saves from being thrashed to within 25.4mm of his life. Nicholas intercedes but ends up thrashing Squeers with his own cane, leaving the old man unconscious, before deciding to head back to London.

No doubt Smike goes with him.

Of course, for it turns out he is the illegitimate son of Nicholas's Uncle Ralph.

Isn't that rather a coincidence?

Life was like that in Victorian times. Here's another coincidence: as soon as Nicholas arrives in London he overhears the vile old roue, Sir Mulberry Hawk, reckoning that he stands a good chance of making it with Kate Nickleby.

So Nicholas thrashes him?

Indeed he does.

Isn't he a bit of a thug really?

Well, he certainly wasn't cut out for teaching. Fortunately Uncle Ralph, disgusted at his own evil, commits suicide leaving Nick all his money so our hero can now become a successful importer of goods.

And the moral of this tale?

Thrash first. Ask questions later. Inherit well.

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