Chapters 21-23 Summary

Three days after the dinner party, Kate can finally manage to go back to work at Madame Mantalini’s. While she is there, two “professional gentlemen” of a rough and dirty appearance come and inquire for Mr. Mantalini. He has put himself into serious debt through gambling and horse racing and now must pay up. The two gentlemen have come to take inventory of his possessions. Madame Mantalini is beside herself and Mr. Mantalini runs off. Madame Mantalini sends Kate after him; she finds Mr. Mantalini in the act of sharpening a breakfast knife in preparation to end his life. Madame Mantalini arrives and takes the knife from him.

Kate discovers in the papers that the millinery has gone bankrupt, that it has been taken over by Miss Knag, and that she is now out of a job. Mrs. Nickleby says she knew a millinery was the last place Kate should have worked (despite her earlier pleasure at the prospects that might arise in the way of a business partnership) and suggests that Kate find a position as a lady’s companion. Kate realizes that her mother has already found a likely place for her with Mrs. Witterly. Kate and Mrs. Nickleby go to the home of Mrs. Witterly, which is near but not in the fashionable neighborhood of London. Mrs. Witterly is snobbish and pretends to a delicacy that her husband supports. Mrs. Nickleby envisions Mrs. Witterly’s death so Kate can marry Mr. Witterly and assume her place in the social atmosphere. Kate is given the position and moves to the Witterly home.

Nicholas and Smike leave London on foot, heading for Portsmouth. Nicholas proposes that both of them find jobs on a ship. On the way, the two friends stop at an inn where they make the acquaintance of Mr. Vincent Crummles, who runs a theatrical troupe. When Mr. Crummles learns that Nicholas and Smike plan to become sailors, he points out that it is unlikely they will find places because ship captains usually take men who have had some experience, and Nicholas and Smike are too old to start at the beginning. Crummles proposes that they join his theater group. Besides acting, Nicholas could write some plays for them as well as compose handbills. Nicholas has no better prospects and very little money, so he agrees to become an actor.

Nicholas (now going by the name of Mr. Johnson), Smike, and Mr. Crummles arrive in Portsmouth, where Nicholas meets Mrs. Crummles and the rest of the troupe, including Crummles’ daughter, known as the “Infant Phenomenon.” Although Mr. Crummles claims she is only ten, it is obvious to Nicholas that she is several years older. Mr. Crummles tells the troupe that Nicholas will have a new play for them by Monday. When Nicholas objects that he cannot work so quickly, Mr. Crummles hands him a French play and tells him to translate it and put his name on it.