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Charles Dickens > Nicholas Nickleby > Preface

Nicholas Nickleby


This story was begun, within a few months after the publication of
the completed "Pickwick Papers." There were, then, a good many cheap
Yorkshire schools in existence. There are very few now.

Of the monstrous neglect of education in England, and the disregard
of it by the State as a means of forming good or bad citizens, and
miserable or happy men, private schools long afforded a notable
example. Although any man who had proved his unfitness for any other
occupation in life, was free, without examination or qualification,
to open a school anywhere; although preparation for the functions he
undertook, was required in the surgeon who assisted to bring a boy
into the world, or might one day assist, perhaps, to send him out of
it; in the chemist, the attorney, the butcher, the baker, the
candlestick maker; the whole round of crafts and trades, the
schoolmaster excepted; and although schoolmasters, as a race, were
the blockheads and impostors who might naturally be expected to
spring from such a state of things, and to flourish in it; these
Yorkshire schoolmasters were the lowest and most rotten round in the
whole ladder. Traders in the avarice, indifference, or imbecility of
parents, and the helplessness of children; ignorant, sordid, brutal
men, to whom few considerate persons would have entrusted the board
and lodging of a horse or a dog; they formed the worthy cornerstone
of a structure, which, for absurdity and a magnificent high-minded
LAISSEZ-ALLER neglect, has rarely been exceeded in the world.

We hear sometimes of an action for damages against the unqualified
medical practitioner, who has deformed a broken limb in pretending to
heal it. But, what of the hundreds of thousands of minds that have
been deformed for ever by the incapable pettifoggers who have
pretended to form them!

I make mention of the race, as of the Yorkshire schoolmasters, in the
past tense. Though it has not yet finally disappeared, it is
dwindling daily. A long day's work remains to be done about us in
the way of education, Heaven knows; but great improvements and
facilities towards the attainment of a good one, have been furnished,
of late years.

I cannot call to mind, now, how I came to hear about Yorkshire
schools when I was a not very robust child, sitting in bye-places
near Rochester Castle, with a head full of PARTRIDGE, STRAP, TOM
PIPES, and SANCHO PANZA; but I know that my first impressions of them
were picked up at that time, and that they were somehow or other
connected with a suppurated abscess that some boy had come home with,
in consequence of his Yorkshire guide, philosopher, and friend,
having ripped it open with an inky pen-knife. The impression made
upon me, however made, never left me. I was always curious about
Yorkshire schools--fell, long afterwards and at sundry times, into
the way of hearing more about them--at last, having an audience,
resolved to write about them.

With that intent I went down into Yorkshire before I began this book,
in very severe winter time which is pretty faithfully described
herein. As I wanted to see a schoolmaster or two, and was forewarned
that those gentlemen might, in their modesty, be shy of receiving a
visit from the author of the "Pickwick Papers," I consulted with a
professional friend who had a Yorkshire connexion, and with whom I
concerted a pious fraud. He gave me some letters of introduction, in
the name, I think, of my travelling companion; they bore reference to
a supposititious little boy who had been left with a widowed mother
who didn't know what to do with him; the poor lady had thought, as a
means of thawing the tardy compassion of her relations in his behalf,
of sending him to a Yorkshire school; I was the poor lady's friend,
travelling that way; and if the recipient of the letter could inform
me of a school in his neighbourhood, the writer would be very much

I went to several places in that part of the country where I
understood the schools to be most plentifully sprinkled, and had no
occasion to deliver a letter until I came to a certain town which
shall be nameless. The person to whom it was addressed, was not at
home; but he came down at night, through the snow, to the inn where I
was staying. It was after dinner; and he needed little persuasion to
sit down by the fire in a warrn corner, and take his share of the
wine that was on the table.

I am afraid he is dead now. I recollect he was a jovial, ruddy,
broad-faced man; that we got acquainted directly; and that we talked
on all kinds of subjects, except the school, which he showed a great
anxiety to avoid. "Was there any large school near?" I asked him, in
reference to the letter. "Oh yes," he said; "there was a pratty big
'un." "Was it a good one?" I asked. "Ey!" he said, "it was as good
as anoother; that was a' a matther of opinion"; and fell to looking
at the fire, staring round the room, and whistling a little. On my
reverting to some other topic that we had been discussing, he
recovered immediately; but, though I tried him again and again, I
never approached the question of the school, even if he were in the
middle of a laugh, without observing that his countenance fell, and
that he became uncomfortable. At last, when we had passed a couple
of hours or so, very agreeably, he suddenly took up his hat, and
leaning over the table and looking me full in the face, said, in a
low voice: "Weel, Misther, we've been vara pleasant toogather, and
ar'll spak' my moind tiv'ee. Dinnot let the weedur send her lattle
boy to yan o' our school-measthers, while there's a harse to hoold in
a' Lunnun, or a gootther to lie asleep in. Ar wouldn't mak' ill
words amang my neeburs, and ar speak tiv'ee quiet loike. But I'm
dom'd if ar can gang to bed and not tellee, for weedur's sak', to
keep the lattle boy from a' sike scoondrels while there's a harse to
hoold in a' Lunnun, or a gootther to lie asleep in!" Repeating these
words with great heartiness, and with a solemnity on his jolly face
that made it look twice as large as before, he shook hands and went
away. I never saw him afterwards, but I sometimes imagine that I
descry a faint reflection of him in John Browdie.

In reference to these gentry, I may here quote a few words from the
original preface to this book.

"It has afforded the Author great amusement and satisfaction, during
the progress of this work, to learn, from country friends and from a
variety of ludicrous statements concerning himself in provincial
newspapers, that more than one Yorkshire schoolmaster lays claim to
being the original of Mr. Squeers. One worthy, he has reason to
believe, has actually consulted authorities learned in the law, as to
his having good grounds on which to rest an action for libel;
another, has meditated a journey to London, for the express purpose
of committing an assault and battery on his traducer; a third,
perfectly remembers being waited on, last January twelve-month, by
two gentlemen, one of whom held him in conversation while the other
took his likeness; and, although Mr. Squeers has but one eye, and he
has two, and the published sketch does not resemble him (whoever he
may be) in any other respect, still he and all his friends and
neighbours know at once for whom it is meant, because--the character
is SO like him.

"While the Author cannot but feel the full force of the compliment
thus conveyed to him, he ventures to suggest that these contentions
may arise from the fact, that Mr. Squeers is the representative of a
class, and not of an individual. Where imposture, ignorance, and
brutal cupidity, are the stock in trade of a small body of men, and
one is described by these characteristics, all his fellows will
recognise something belonging to themselves, and each will have a
misgiving that the portrait is his own.

'The Author's object in calling public attention to the system would
be very imperfectly fulfilled, if he did not state now, in his own
person, emphatically and earnestly, that Mr. Squeers and his school
are faint and feeble pictures of an existing reality, purposely
subdued and kept down lest they should be deemed impossible. That
there are, upon record, trials at law in which damages have been
sought as a poor recompense for lasting agonies and disfigurements
inflicted upon children by the treatment of the master in these
places, involving such offensive and foul details of neglect,
cruelty, and disease, as no writer of fiction would have the boldness
to imagine. And that, since he has been engaged upon these
Adventures, he has received, from private quarters far beyond the
reach of suspicion or distrust, accounts of atrocities, in the
perpetration of which upon neglected or repudiated children, these
schools have been the main instruments, very far exceeding any that
appear in these pages."

This comprises all I need say on the subject; except that if I had
seen occasion, I had resolved to reprint a few of these details of
legal proceedings, from certain old newspapers.

One other quotation from the same Preface may serve to introduce a
fact that my readers may think curious.

"To turn to a more pleasant subject, it may be right to say, that
there ARE two characters in this book which are drawn from life. It
is remarkable that what we call the world, which is so very credulous
in what professes to be true, is most incredulous in what professes
to be imaginary; and that, while, every day in real life, it will
allow in one man no blemishes, and in another no virtues, it will
seldom admit a very strongly-marked character, either good or bad, in
a fictitious narrative, to be within the limits of probability. But
those who take an interest in this tale, will be glad to learn that
the BROTHERS CHEERYBLE live; that their liberal charity, their
singleness of heart, their noble nature, and their unbounded
benevolence, are no creations of the Author's brain; but are
prompting every day (and oftenest by stealth) some munificent and
generous deed in that town of which they are the pride and honour."

If I were to attempt to sum up the thousands of letters, from all
sorts of people in all sorts of latitudes and climates, which this
unlucky paragraph brought down upon me, I should get into an
arithmetical difficulty from which I could not easily extricate
myself. Suffice it to say, that I believe the applications for
loans, gifts, and offices of profit that I have been requested to
forward to the originals of the BROTHERS CHEERYBLE (with whom I never
interchanged any communication in my life) would have exhausted the
combined patronage of all the Lord Chancellors since the accession of
the House of Brunswick, and would have broken the Rest of the Bank of

The Brothers are now dead.

There is only one other point, on which I would desire to offer a
remark. If Nicholas be not always found to be blameless or
agreeable, he is not always intended to appear so. He is a young man
of an impetuous temper and of little or no experience; and I saw no
reason why such a hero should be lifted out of nature.

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