The real Nicholas Nickleby

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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.

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:

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''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.''

This scene, as Burnett successfuly recaptures it, is a typical Nicholas Nickleby scene: We can see Nicholas leaping athletically back on the stage to continue his duet with a somewhat shaken but admiring young lady, the torn coat adding just the necessary touch of the ridiculous. It is enough to convince us that there was a good deal of his brother-in-law in Dickens's creation of Nicholas, and that no doubt Dickens was still laughing over this incident when he described Nicholas's brief but successful career as an actor. A gloomy player of tragic parts, goaded to desperate action by Nicholas's popularity (both on the stage and with the ladies of the company off stage), threatens to pull his nose in front of the entire company. Nicholas promptly knocks him down while everyone cheers. Henry Burnett clearly provided much of the inspiration.

On deeper levels it becomes clear, however, that Nicholas resembled Dickens himself in many ways, one of which was their mutual enjoyment of acting. Henry Burnett performed in opera because of financial necessity, but he disapproved of the stage because of religious views. Dickens, who liked his brother-in-law in every other respect, could never forgive him for removing himself and Fanny from the stage, and eventually from the corruptions of London. They moved to Manchester and supported themselves by teaching.

Dickens's fascination with the stage was lifelong - he narrowly missed being an actor instead of a writer. When court reporting seemed unlikely to bring him fame and fortune, he turned to the stage, rehearsing for weeks to audition with a leading London stage manager. His sister Fanny, sworn to secrecy, was to accompany him on the piano. Illness prevented him from keeping the appointment; otherwise we might be remembering him as a great actor rather than a great writer. Like Nicholas, Dickens reveled in making an effect on an audience:

''How the ladies in the audience sobbed! . . . what a thrill of anxious fear ran through the house! His air, his figure, his walk, his look, everything he said or did, was the subject of commendation.''

He wrote plays and operettas - including one in which Henry Burnett performed - and later, as a relief from the ardors of writing novels, staged amateur productions for audiences ranging from his own family to that of Queen Victoria. His fondness for a young actress toward the end of his life led to the breakup of his marriage. And finally his love for the stage led to a new career - the readings from his own work that enabled him to play a multitude of parts, including that of Nicholas Nickleby.

Adaptation of ''Nicholas Nickleby'' for the stage had begun even as installments for the book were still coming out. Of all Dickens's novels, it was one of the most easily and successfully transferred to the theater.

The same thing proved true when Dickens adapted it for his own readings. Accounts of these readings attest to the fact that Dickens would have been a great actor. Audiences in England and America stood in line all night for tickets. Men wept and women fainted at his rendition of scenes from the novels. On Dec. 6, 1867, writing from Boston to his sister-in-law in London, Dickens remarks how ''we made a tremendous hit last night with 'Nickleby.' ''

It was no wonder that he performed Nicholas so well. Henry Burnett provides the words in his reminiscence which point to the deep connection Dickens had with Nicholas. Burnett recalled how success had not changed Dickens from being a man who ''was strong as a lion to hold his own when he had to choose between what he thought right and what he thought doubtful.'' And how ''even so early his aim seemed to be to lift the fallen, to help the unfortunate, and to tussle with every oppressor.'' Dickens ''tussled'' with words, Nicholas more often with his fists, but when Nicholas shoulders the burden of another ragged homeless Yorkshire schoolboy in the brilliant conclusion the Royal Shakespeare devised for their production, we recognize him as the true spiritual offspring of Charles Dickens.

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