Smike had never known fair treatment much less kind treatment and in the Dotheboys Hall School run by Mr. and Mrs. Squeers it was worse. There he was enslaved and abused; his earlier lonely life was followed by his being thrown away and sent to this place that one would be tempted to think was God-forsaken.
But God came visiting Dotheboys Hall School run by Mr. & Mrs. Squeers looking like a new teacher called Nicholas Nickleby. In meeting him Smike met someone who treated him like a human to be cared for and nurtured rather than a whipping boy when someone with an ill temper wanted to ease his/her spleen. In the face of the boundless cruelty of the Squeers—shown to the entire body of terrified children under their care—Nickleby resigned from the school in defiance of the Squeers’ wishes.
Smike saw the young teacher as his hope for life and unknown to Nicholas he followed him away from the school, not showing himself, afraid that Nickelby might send him back. The teacher spent a night in a barn and in the morning he suddenly wakened to find the desperate boy there. The teacher had wakened without warning and Smike had no time to hide. Now discovered he begged to be allowed to stay. “To go with you—anywhere—everywhere—to the world’s end—to the churchyard grave.”
The teacher’s life’s situation was not at all an easy one and while he feels a deep compassion for the boy he tells him he has little to offer by way of help but Smike is not put off and desperate for the warmth of friendship, or, even if friendship is too much to ask, he wants to know, “May I—may I go with you? I will be your faithful, hard-working servant, I will indeed. I want no clothes…I only want to be near you.”
“And so you shall,” said the teacher. “And the world shall deal by you as it does by me, till one or both of us shall quit it for a better.”
Both were as good as their words and a wounded child found not only a champion but a friend and faithfully befriended his friend. (Sigh. I wonder, and I’ve no wish at this moment to reflect on it, if there is some child in the world who could one day say I was a friend and champion to him in some real way. I’m not looking for comment here, truly. I just find the story profoundly moving and it makes me jealous (not envious) of the characters, and wishful…..) It pleases me to know and believe that Smikes & Nicklebys are a great host, alive and well, in the world.)
In a world of quick-change passions, of outrageous pre-nuptial agreements, broken contracts, worthless promises, “sweet” marriage vows that vanish like morning mist, friendships that were “treasured” as long as one person ceaselessly pleased the other—in a world awash with so much uncertainty it’s an entrance into heaven to be certain of someone!
To read the commitment Ruth made and stuck with it (Ruth 1:16-18) makes your soul rise to its feet and cheer. Yesssssssss! To read of the mutual commitment of Smike and Nickelby generates the same feeling because it’s the same thing.
Dickens’ writing has remained one of the grandeurs of English life and literature. It isn’t all sweetness and light for his own life wasn’t like that. There’s a lot of pain and loss in his writing and that reminds us that he stayed in touch with life as a whole. He didn’t become the noted author he is by writing perfumed bubble and froth or pouring out simplistic moral platitudes. Nor did he write dark hopeless muck or leave us wringing our hands in abject despair, paralyzed by pervasive and entrenched evil. Nor did he make heroes of villains. He continued to remind us of the possibilities and potential of life; he speaks of happy endings without apology and makes us believe that honest commitments not only can be made but that they can be kept through thick and thin. What’s more, he shows us the glory of such people and makes us want to be like that.
He touches the depths of life and enables us to see that there’s more than evil in the world. And while there is evil in the world that is hard to “explain” if God is good, Dickens and people like him remind us that there is good in the world and that is hard to “explain” if there is no God that is good.
( Holy Father, since we thank you for all that is good in the world and in our lives, we wish to thank you for good and skilled authors and movie-makers and screen-writers who bring us redemptive stories that carry truth to us with realism shot through with hope and assurance. We’re thankful that while not ignoring the ugliness and cruelty in life they rise above it and show us such glory, strength, courage and kindness that makes us long to be a part of it. In Jesus, this prayer.)