Nicholas Nickleby "Bottled Lightning"

Charles Dickens

"Bottled Lightning"

Context: After the great success of Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist had established his reputation, Dickens looked around for a new subject to which he could direct his humanitarian and reforming zeal. As a child, he had heard of the notorious "Yorkshire schools," the name given to a type of school, many of them located in that county, which, while masquerading as educational institutions, were in reality only places to which unwanted children could be sent to be kept out of the way. They were run by ignorant and often brutal men, and the ill-treatment to which the helpless boys were subjected had become a byword. Dickens traveled to Yorkshire under an assumed name and with the pretext of being a parent in search of such a school. He soon assembled his material and created the figure of Wackford Squeers, headmaster of Dotheboys Hall, one of his most loathsome scoundrels. To develop the complicated and melodramatic type of plot at which he excelled, Dickens interwove the story of Squeers and his school with that of the usurer Ralph Nickleby, uncle of the naïve hero of the novel. Around the main characters Dickens grouped a supporting cast of the humorous and eccentric minor figures that his inexhaustible imagination produced. One of these is Mrs. Nickleby, the verbose, rattle-brained, and totally impractical mother of the hero. In one of the comic side episodes of the story, Mrs. Nickleby and her daughter Kate are entertaining some callers, when their attention is attracted by strange noises from the next room. The group rushes to investigate and discovers that a man is climbing down the chimney; his feet and legs are already visible. When he is pulled out, he is revealed as "the gentleman in small-clothes" (that is, tightly-fitting knee breeches), a harmless lunatic living in the next house who fancies himself in love with Mrs. Nickleby. His first demand, after a rambling speech by that lady, in which she expresses her inability to accept his attentions, has given us a phrase still applied to liquor of unusual strength:

. . . He did not appear to take the smallest notice of what Mrs. Nickleby said, but when she ceased to speak he honoured her with a long stare, and inquired if she had quite finished.
"I have nothing more to say," replied that lady modestly. "I really cannot say anything more."
"Very good," said the old gentleman, raising his voice, "then bring in the bottled lightning, a clean tumbler, and a corkscrew."
Nobody executing this order, the old gentleman, after a short pause, raised his voice again and demanded a thunder sandwich. This article not being forthcoming either, he requested to be served with a fricassee of boot-tops and goldfish sauce, . . .