Background.

Nicholas Nickleby
  • The expression of a man’s face is commonly a help to his thoughts, or glossary on his speech‘ is a quotation from Nicholas Nickleby (Chapter 3).
  • 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 appears during a description of Newman Noggs, assistant to Ralph Nickleby. Ralph has just snatched a letter from Noggs that informs him that his brother has died, leaving behind a widow and two children. Rather than feel sorrow at the death, Ralph is annoyed that the three are in London, (where he is), knowing they will undoubtedly call on him, as family, for help.

Noggs pulls a twisted face at this seemingly callous attitude, the text going on to explain but whether of paralysis, or grief, or inward laughter, nobody but himself could possibly explain. Only later we will learn that Noggs, unlike his employer, shows sympathy towards the plight of the bereaved Nickleby’s.

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.

Source.

Taken from the following passage in Chapter 3 of Nicholas Nickleby:

Mr. Nickleby snatched the letter from his assistant, and fixing a cold look upon him, opened, read it, put it in his pocket, and having now hit the time to a second, began winding up his watch.

‘It is as I expected, Newman,’ said Mr. Nickleby, while he was thus engaged. ‘He is dead. Dear me! Well, that’s sudden thing. I shouldn’t have thought it, really.’ With these touching expressions of sorrow, Mr Nickleby replaced his watch in his fob, and, fitting on his gloves to a nicety, turned upon his way, and walked slowly westward with his hands behind him.

‘Children alive?’ inquired Noggs, stepping up to him.

‘Why, that’s the very thing,’ replied Mr. Nickleby, as though his thoughts were about them at that moment. ‘They are both alive.’

‘Both!’ repeated Newman Noggs, in a low voice.

‘And the widow, too,’ added Mr. Nickleby, ‘and all three in London, confound them; all three here, Newman.’

Newman fell a little behind his master, and his face was curiously twisted as by a spasm; but whether of paralysis, or grief, or inward laughter, nobody but himself could possibly explain. The expression of a man’s face is commonly a help to his thoughts, or glossary on his speech; but the countenance of Newman Noggs, in his ordinary moods, was a problem which no stretch of ingenuity could solve.

‘Go home!’ said Mr. Nickleby, after they had walked a few paces: looking round at the clerk as if he were his dog. The words were scarcely uttered when Newman darted across the road, slunk among the crowd, and disappeared in an instant.

Characters.

Newman Noggs.

In the novel Nicholas Nickleby, Newman Noggs is the middle-aged clerk to the self-centered and controlling businessman, Ralph Nickleby. He works from offices in Golden Square in the Soho area of London. Noggs is a fallen gentleman, ruined by bad investments and now a nervous alcoholic character. Like many characters in Dickens’ novels, Noggs is memorable for his strange appearance, and he is one of the many characters in Nicholas Nickleby who is deformed in some way. He has a cadaverous face with a red nose and two google eyes, one of which is false. He has a habit for cracking his knuckles. Despite his apparent flaws, Noggs has a strong sense of justice, and proves to a vital ally for Nicholas Nickleby, hero of the novel, and his sister Kate in helping them overcome their uncle’s scheming.

  • In a 2002 adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby, the part of Newman Noggs was played by Tom Courtenay. Courtenay has also appeared as Daniel Quilp in a 1995 TV movie of The Old Curiosity Shop and was Mr. Dorrit in the 2008 BBC mini-series of Little Dorrit.

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The expression of a man’s face is commonly a help to his thoughts, or glossary on his speech.
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