Background.

Nicholas Nickleby
  • Nicholas Nickleby; or, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby was Charles Dickens’s third novel, published monthly between April 1838 and October 1839. Dickens largely wrote the work whilst living at his London residence in Doughty Street. The novel centres on the life and adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, a young man who must support his mother and sister after his father dies.

Context.

This quotation is said by the character Julia Wititterly, who is talking to (Lord) Frederick Verisopht. The two are at the theatre watching a Shakespearian play. The delicate Mrs. Wititterly is described as having a ‘very excitable nature‘ and is ‘excited by the opera, the drama, the fine arts‘, demonstrated here by this quotation, going on to say ‘I scarcely exist the next day; I find the reaction so very great after a tragedy, my lord, and Shakespeare is such a delicious creature‘.

Charles Dickens had visited Shakespeare’s house in Stratford-upon-Avon around the time he wrote this passage, signing a visitors’ book, an experience he uses in Chapter 27 of Nicholas Nickleby. Following this quotation, Mrs. Wititterly goes on to mention Shakespeare’s birthplace, commenting ‘I find I take so much more interest in his plays, after having been to that dear little dull house he was born in!‘ and felt inspired after writing her name in the visitors’ book, remarking that it ‘kindles up quite a fire within one‘.

In the original serialisation of Nicholas Nickleby, Shakespeare was spelt Shakspeare. There have been a number of variations, or corruptions, in the spelling Shakespeare. These include Shaksper, Shakspere, Shakespear, and even Shackspeare. The spelling Shakspeare was commonplace in the nineteenth-century, but this appears to have reverted to Shakespeare in the early part of the twentieth-century.

Illustration by 'Phiz' from the original publication of Nicholas Nickleby showing Newman Noggs with Kate Nickleby and her mother.
Illustration by ‘Phiz‘ from the original publication of Nicholas Nickleby showing Newman Noggs with Kate Nickleby and her mother.

Dickens and Shakespeare.

Charles Dickens maintained a life-long enjoyment of William Shakespeare (1564-1616), and would make numerous references to the English playwright, poet and actor in his writings, and also in his speeches. In his younger years, Dickens had read Shakespeare, watched productions of his plays and later put on amateur dramatics with his friends. In October of 1838 this interest increased when, on a trip with his friend the illustrator Hablot Browne, he travelled to Stratford-upon-Avon and visited the house in which Shakespeare was born. At the time the house was a private house and museum, and Dickens signed the visitors’ book. Within days, Dickens would feature the experience in the chapter of Nicholas Nickleby that he was writing at the time. Charles Dickens would visit Shakespeare’s birthplace again two years later and in subsequent years supported efforts to purchase the house as a national memorial, and raise funds for a permanent curator.

Source.

Taken from the following passage in Chapter 27 (Mrs. Nickleby becomes acquainted with Messrs Pyke and Pluck, whose Affection and Interest are beyond all Bounds) of Nicholas Nickleby:

‘My dear Kate,’ said Mrs. Nickleby, kissing her daughter affectionately. ‘How ill you looked a moment ago! You quite frightened me, I declare!’

‘It was mere fancy, mama,—the—the—reflection of the lights perhaps,’ replied Kate, glancing nervously round, and finding it impossible to whisper any caution or explanation.

‘Don’t you see Sir Mulberry Hawk, my dear?’

Kate bowed slightly, and biting her lip turned her head towards the stage.

But Sir Mulberry Hawk was not to be so easily repulsed, for he advanced with extended hand; and Mrs. Nickleby officiously informing Kate of this circumstance, she was obliged to extend her own. Sir Mulberry detained it while he murmured a profusion of compliments, which Kate, remembering what had passed between them, rightly considered as so many aggravations of the insult he had already put upon her. Then followed the recognition of Lord Verisopht, and then the greeting of Mr. Pyke, and then that of Mr. Pluck, and finally, to complete the young lady’s mortification, she was compelled at Mrs. Wititterly’s request to perform the ceremony of introducing the odious persons, whom she regarded with the utmost indignation and abhorrence.

‘Mrs. Wititterly is delighted,’ said Mr. Wititterly, rubbing his hands; ‘delighted, my lord, I am sure, with this opportunity of contracting an acquaintance which, I trust, my lord, we shall improve. Julia, my dear, you must not allow yourself to be too much excited, you must not. Indeed you must not. Mrs. Wititterly is of a most excitable nature, Sir Mulberry. The snuff of a candle, the wick of a lamp, the bloom on a peach, the down on a butterfly. You might blow her away, my lord; you might blow her away.’

Sir Mulberry seemed to think that it would be a great convenience if the lady could be blown away. He said, however, that the delight was mutual, and Lord Verisopht added that it was mutual, whereupon Messrs Pyke and Pluck were heard to murmur from the distance that it was very mutual indeed.

‘I take an interest, my lord,’ said Mrs. Wititterly, with a faint smile, ‘such an interest in the drama.’

‘Ye—es. It’s very interesting,’ replied Lord Verisopht.

I’m always ill after Shakespeare,’ said Mrs. Wititterly. ‘I scarcely exist the next day; I find the reaction so very great after a tragedy, my lord, and Shakespeare is such a delicious creature.’

‘Ye—es!’ replied Lord Verisopht. ‘He was a clayver man.’

‘Do you know, my lord,’ said Mrs. Wititterly, after a long silence, ‘I find I take so much more interest in his plays, after having been to that dear little dull house he was born in! Were you ever there, my lord?’

‘No, nayver,’ replied Verisopht.

‘Then really you ought to go, my lord,’ returned Mrs. Wititterly, in very languid and drawling accents. ‘I don’t know how it is, but after you’ve seen the place and written your name in the little book, somehow or other you seem to be inspired; it kindles up quite a fire within one.’

‘Ye—es!’ replied Lord Verisopht, ‘I shall certainly go there.’

Characters.

Julia Wititterly.

Mrs. Julia Wititterly is the wife of Henry Wititterly of Cadogan Place, in the Belgravia area of London. Rich and snobbish, she is described as having ‘an air of sweet insipidity, and a face of engaging paleness‘. Dickens uses the metaphor of ‘a hothouse plant‘ to describe her hypochondriacal nature. Wititterly has a ‘very excitable nature‘ and is ‘excited by the opera, the drama, the fine arts‘. Wititterly is a social climber and gossip, who applies for a companion and is joined for a brief period by Kate Nickleby. Charles Dickens would often name a character to match a unique personality or trait. In this case, Wititterly was almost certainly a combination of the words ‘wit’ and ‘titter’.

  • In Mrs. Wititterly, Dickens was parodying characters of the ‘silver fork’ novels, a subgenre of 19th-century English literature popular from the mid-1820s until the mid-century that featured fashionable Regency highlife. Many authors of this genre were women writing with a predominantly female audience in mind, including Jane Austen, the Countess of Blessington, Lady Charlotte Bury, and Catherine Gore.

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I’m always ill after Shakespeare.

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