Reform in England
Charles Dickens wrote Nicholas Nickleby in 1838 and 1839, at the end of a turbulent decade in Britain. British workers had fought for an extension of the right to vote early in the decade, but the Reform Act of 1832 in actuality disenfranchised some workers. The Poor Law Amendment Act, passed in 1834, all but ended ‘‘outdoor relief,’’ or payments to supplement the income of the poor, and created harsh workhouses meant to be an alternative only for those facing starvation. Then in 1837 unemployment spread through industrial districts as a result of an economic depression that gripped the country. A largescale workers movement called the Chartist movement emerged from all of these causes to push for universal manhood suffrage, the secret ballot, the abolition of property requirements to be elected to Parliament as well as pay for its members, and annual elections. While the Chartist movement ultimately failed to achieve its goals, it was the first large-scale workers’ political movement—a prospect that middle- and upper-class Britons found deeply threatening.
Dickens, with his own family history of time spent in debtor’s prison, must have had these developing workers’ movements in mind as he explored issues of work and class in Nicholas Nickleby. He portrayed his protagonists sympathetically as they worked for long hours in abysmal conditions. For example, he condemns the conditions under which Kate Nickleby works: six twelve-hour days each week, with no control over her work or conditions and employed only at the whim of her managers and employers.
The existence of the infamous ‘‘Yorkshire schools’’ was another social problem that preoccupied Dickens as he wrote Nicholas Nickleby. These institutions were located in the countryside some distance from London. There poor boys were sent to live. Dickens, who began his career as a journalist, was indignant upon hearing about the conditions the boys endured— scanty food, cold and filthy lodgings, physical beatings and other humiliations, and no real education. Approximately twenty of these schools existed, and many of them had been in operation for over a hundred years when they came to Dickens’s attention. In advertisements in London papers, they boasted ‘‘no vacations’’ for the young inmates. A schoolmaster named William Shaw, who became the model for Squeers, the sadistic schoolmaster in the novel, had been sued in 1823 by the parents of two boys who went blind under Shaw’s care. At the trial, it was revealed that at least ten boys had gone blind there due to lack of medical treatment.
In 1838, just prior to beginning Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens visited Shaw’s school. Dickens posed as a man seeking such a school for a widowed friend’s children, but Shaw was evasive. Dickens then went to the graveyard, where he found the graves of twenty-five boys who had died from Shaw’s mistreatment during the past twenty years. Nicholas Nickleby has the rare distinction of being a novel that actually changed the world: due to its enormous popularity, the book single-handedly caused the Yorkshire schools to close.
Realistic Novels of the Working Class
In the decade during which Dickens began publishing, there was a lull in the great writing produced in Britain. This lull contributed to Dickens’s enormous and immediate popularity, and also allowed him the freedom to write in a way that was new in both style and content. Instead of writing about the upper classes, Dickens wanted to represent working-class people; he sought to reproduce their speech and dialect and filled tens of thousands of pages with their hopes, fears, and triumphs. British novelists who followed Dickens in the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s—including George Eliot, Trollope, Wilkie Collins, and both Bronte¨ sisters—all owed a direct debt to Dickens for the pathways of acceptable subject matter he opened before them. They were each by turns grateful and resentful, but they were always keenly aware of his influence.
Sara Constantakis, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels – Charles Dickens, Volume 33, Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010