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The real Nicholas Nickleby

By Sayre Sheldon / February 15, 1984

Now that ''The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby'' has been transferred from the book to the stage and then to television in the Royal Shakespeare Company's magnificent eight-hour marathon adaptation, the public has a new favorite Dickens character. The struggles of the young, attractive, fatherless, and penniless Nicholas to clear his name, defend his sister's virtue , provide for his mother, and triumph over the myriad injustices in his path have endeared him to millions on both sides of the Atlantic.

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In 1838, when the first installments of the book were appearing, the British public took Nicholas to its bosom in the same way. Inevitably there were speculations about who the original of this engaging, impulsive young man might be. His creator wrote the usual disclaimer of any resemblance between the characters and real life; in a preface to the second edition, Dickens added: ''If Nicholas is not always to be 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.''

But, to the public, Nicholas seemed to be lifted from an actual person - Henry Burnett, the talented young singer who had recently married Dickens's beloved sister Fanny, also a performing singer and pianist. Years later when Burnett was asked by Frederic Kitton to write a memoir for Kitton's book ''Charles Dickens by Pen and Pencil,'' Burnett wrote that he was greeted almost everywhere he went as the hero of the story:

''I remember going one night into a room at the English Opera House before dressing for the opera, and then for the first time hearing the shout, 'Welcome, Nicholas Nickleby!' But after that it was common to address me so in many places; I suppose the reason was that 'Phiz' had me as near a likeness as could be given on so small a scale, and the dress was exact. I have the coat with its swallow-tail at this moment. It was worn in a drawing-room scene in an Operetta then being played. I was young and very slight, though strong. The form and dress, as delineated by 'Phiz,' resembled mine so much that many came to this conclusion.''

Burnett's explanation seems logical; Dickens often referred his illustrators (in this case ''Phiz,'' who was Hablot Browne) to specific individuals - he was as obsessive about having his characters as correct visually as he had described them verbally. The resemblance between Nicholas and Burnett could have been a purely visual one, easily picked up by the public because of Burnett's appearances on the stage. But further reading in Burnett's memoir suggests that the similarities were more than skin deep:

''Truly I can say that I never had a fight with a schoolmaster, but a little while before the book came out I was foolish enough to make myself the subject of a little laughter amongst musical people and others. A few months before I was married, a clergyman told me that a mutual friend had said so and so, and my answer was, that if such a thing had been said, it was a great lie. This was repeated to the offending person, who wrote me a line saying he would always drive about with a riding-whip, and the first time he saw me would horse-whip me unless I made an apology. This I could not do, so one morning at rehearsal, while on the platform with the lady at my side, with whom I was to sing, I spied my enemy looking through one of the glass doors. In a moment I was down from the platform and through the long room, the doors were thrown open, and a duet of another kind, far from musical, had begun. I remember old Mr. Dickens (father of Charles), in helping me get away, tore my frock-coat from the waist up to the collar. My last sight of my friend was when two or three were putting him outside, and another throwing after him the wig I had unintentionally knocked off. I returned with my torn coat, and when the lady was found, went on with the duet. The incident was much laughed at, at the Opera by the band, and not the less by the Dickens family.''