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Charles Dickens And The Five Sisters Of York

The illustration of The Five Sisters Of York as produced for the book

If you’d like to read this story before continuing, it can be found in chapter 6. Here is the link to said chapter on Project Gutenberg. It took me, a slow reader, ten minutes to read, perhaps fifteen including the commentary.

I’d like to explore the short story that is part of Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby. I want to look at the reason Dickens included it, why he wrote it.

Of course the actual reason, so to speak, was to meet a word count. There’s no denying that; the story is told by a random passenger who happens to be on the coach with Nickleby, on a journey that is unnecessarily drawn out. The story doesn’t have much of a baring on the book as a whole, though there is a minor similarity in the themes. It could certainly be said that I’m over thinking things, but as the same could be said for Dickens I’d wager we should give his thoughts a thought of our own.

What is most striking about the tale of the five sisters, an average story by itself, is the way Dickens includes with it the morals that would’ve been acceptable at the time (my assumption was earlier than the Dissolution given the monk in the story) and then, when he reverts to Nickleby, it’s viewed in Dickens’ own more modern view. I know that whilst reading I was wondering ‘what sort of message is this?’ before Dickens asked the very same question. That he wrote such an old view into it, however historically correct, is something to think about. (One must consider the background to the story – to sum it up, Dickens used the Five Sisters window in York Minister as inspiration. As far as my research showed, he made up the story.)

As much as the story works by itself if viewed in its medieval context, Dickens wants us to consider the following conversation between his Nickleby characters as part and parcel of the tale. Dickens gives you the historical ending and viewpoint and shows how the Sister characters saw the conclusion as ‘right’, but then shows why the conclusion is not right.

Nickleby (by this I mean the characters of the book) notes that both ways of living ultimately led to death – Alice died when she continued to be carefree, just as the monk had hinted when he spoke of her taking the veil to make better use of her life. But, says Nickleby, had she not been happy, had she taken the veil and cloistered herself, wouldn’t the knowledge that she’d not been happy have made her death all the more upsetting? It’s something to think about given the differences in time and religion – in the medieval world, piety was important, by Dickens’ time, ‘life’ had gained a foothold.

When the sisters, minus Alice, are visited once more by the monk, they submit somewhat to his idea. They spend their time at the grave, no longer living life as they used to. I think there is something to be said for the way Dickens makes this, the ending, very quick, showing perhaps that the new gloom over the four sisters sped up their own deaths.

I think Dickens used the short story for a few reasons. To add to the word count, certainly, but also to make a case for happiness in his own life, in life in general, and for Nicholas Nickleby (both the single character and the others in the book).

If you’ve read the tale, what did you think of it? What’s your opinion of stories within a story?



November 28, 2014, 6:37 am

No, I do not think I have read it..nope


November 28, 2014, 2:50 pm

Interesting thoughts. I have read Nicholas Nickleby but sadly its been many years and I don’t remember this story being in it. Sounds like its time for a re-read.


December 8, 2014, 3:54 pm

Blodeuedd: I would say don’t read Nicholas Nickleby, even if that’s biased, but have a look at the short story. I think it’d be easier to appreciate it away from the rest of the text.

Jessica: That’s understandable, it’s really insignificant overall. I knew I was potentially making a mountain out of a molehill in writing this post!



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