Switch to larger text
The central theme of Nicholas Nickleby is flattery. In his usual fashion, Dickens explores his motif using practically all of the books dozens of characters.
Mrs Nickleby is a woman so addicted (and susceptible) to adulation that not only can experienced flatterers like Pyke and Pluck twist her round their finger [“I am quite in love with that dear Mr Pluck, I declare I am.”], but even the absurd encomiums of a vegetable-throwing madman turn her head. Nothing’s more flattering than someone professing undying love, so she refuses to believe he’s loopy until he switches his attentions to someone else. She takes every compliment at face value, no matter how outrageous, and greedily laps them up.
When no one’s around to satisfy her craving, Mrs Nickleby resorts to the desperate necessity of complimenting herself, which she does repeatedly throughout the book—and actually believes every self-congratulatory word that she says. This serves to keep her upbeat and cheerful, all painful truths being quickly repressed.
‘Women swallow at one mouthful the lie that flatters, and drink drop by drop the truth that is bitter.’ - Denis Diderot
Mrs Nickleby: “Mr Watkins said . . . that you [Kate] were one of the most astonishing children he ever saw. He did indeed, Miss Knag, and he wasn't at all fond of children, and couldn’t have had the slightest motive for doing it. I know it was he who said so, because I recollect . . . his borrowing twenty pounds of her poor dear papa the very moment afterwards”. Flattery is praise with an ulterior motive—but don’t ask for a favour immediately after paying a compliment! The joke, in this case, is that only Mrs Nickleby could fail to spot the connection.
Miss La Creevy, as a portrait-painter, flatters for a living. She paints people not as they really are but as they’d like to be—it’s the only way to make a profit. Not that she finds such flattering distortions easy: “what with . . . keeping down noses with all one’s force, and adding to heads, and taking away teeth altogether, you have no idea of the trouble one little miniature is”. As Wilkie Collins wrote in A Rogue’s Life: ‘Being perfectly well aware of the absolute dependence of the art of portrait-painting on the art of flattery, I determined to start with making the mere outline of my likeness a compliment to the sitter’.
As a splendid in-joke—one that must have tickled the Inimitable greatly—Nicholas Nickleby was printed with a frontispiece featuring a hugely flattering portrait of Dickens.
Wackford Squeers reserves his praise for everything wicked and egregious. He applauds Little Wackford whenever he emulates his father’s viciousness (children need praise to encourage good behaviour; through misapplied compliments, Little Wackford is corrupted), lauds his wife’s brutality (“I don’t believe there’s a woman in all England that can bring anybody’s spirit down as quick as you can, my love”) and gushes over the villainy of Ralph. He also pours a stream of encomiums on his appalling school and goes into raptures over watered-down milk: “There’s richness!”
Squeers is also, like most people, a self-flatterer and so ‘persuades his own mind that he was a very good fellow’. People are often amazingly obtuse about their character flaws, never seeing or acknowledging what, to everyone else, are screamingly obvious failings—and it’s self-flattery that explains this blindness. The world’s biggest bore congratulates himself on his conversational powers.  
The most obsequious sycophant never flatters us as outrageously as we internally flatter ourselves.
‘Knavery and flattery are blood relations.’ - Abraham Lincoln
Mrs Squeers is a plain speaker and flatters no-one—not even herself.
Kate Nickleby offers an amusing twist on the theme as she’s a regular victim of flattery. She’s subject to many coarse and impertinent ‘compliments’ throughout the book.
‘Sir Mulberry murmured a profusion of compliments, which Kate, remembering what had passed between them, rightly considered as so many aggravations of the insult he had already put upon her.’
She’s befriended by Miss Knag (Kate ‘would willingly have excused herself from this flattering companionship’) after being censured by a customer, but when praised at the expense of the elderly ‘fright’, Miss Knag reveals her claws and persecutes her instead.
At Mrs Wittiterly’s, Kate suffers triply. She’s forced to endure the insolent admiration of Sir Mulberry Hawk, suffers from the jealousy of Mrs Wittiterly (for having abstracted flattery from herself), and is abused for refusing to toady to her like everyone else. Her mother’s self-flattery is also sometimes at her expense—criticising Kate’s supposed inadequacies in order to puff herself.
A skillful flatterer says all the right things to endear themselves to the listener. Inadvertently, in dealing with Mrs Wititterly, Kate says all the wrong things:
‘If poor Kate had possessed the slightest knowledge of the world, she certainly would not have ventured . . . upon such an injudicious [unflattering] speech as this. . . . Mrs Wititterly received the attack upon her veracity with exemplary calmness, and listened with the most heroic fortitude to Kate’s account of her own sufferings. But allusion being made to her being held in disregard by the gentlemen [“in their utter disrespect for you”], she evinced violent emotion, and this blow was no sooner followed up by the remark concerning her seniority [“might have hoped to receive from one so much her senior”], than she fell back upon the sofa, uttering dismal screams.’ [A good deal of the cajolery in Nicholas Nickleby involves complimenting people on how young they look. And there’s a very good reason for that: nearly everyone’s a sucker for it.]
Flattery (in the shape of a little white lie or two) can boost low self-esteem and be beneficial. Having just begun a new job, this is exactly what Kate needs. Unfortunately, Miss Knag speaks plainly:
‘“Bless you!” said Miss Knag, bestowing a kiss upon Kate at the conclusion of the second day’s work, “how very awkward you have been all day.”
“I fear your kind and open communication, which has rendered me more painfully conscious of my own defects, has not improved me,” sighed Kate.’
The young ladies under Miss Knag copy her behaviour. It’s an effective technique: imitation is the ‘sincerest’ form of flattery.
‘Miss Knag was unable to repress a virtuous shudder, which immediately communicated itself to all the young ladies’; ‘Miss Knag laughed . . . and . . . the young ladies . . . all got up a laugh without a moment’s delay’; ‘The bile and rancour of the worthy Miss Knag . . . augmenting with every successive hour; and the honest ire of all the young ladies rising, or seeming to rise, in exact proportion to the good spinster’s indignation . . .’
The flattery at the milliner’s is hierarchical. The young ladies toady to Miss Knag and Miss Knag toadies to Madame Mantalini.
Mr Mantalini’s constant and outrageous flattery of his wife keeps her sweet so that he can sponge off her (‘his share in the labours of the business being . . . confined to spending the money’) and wriggle out of scrapes. He’s so vain that he often compliments her on having managed to capture such a wonderful spouse. And he cleverly takes advantage of her jealous pride in him to cajole her into buying him a hundred guinea horse. “I will ride him in the park and . . . the rejected countesses [will] wish you dead and buried.” (There’s nothing more flattering to one’s self-esteem than to be the cause of jealousy in others.) Mrs Mantalini, under the duress of his ruinous profligacy, bends and bends, until, shown a letter with his uncomplimentary remarks (‘old’ and ‘ordinary’), she snaps; the spell’s broken and his wheedling words no longer have an effect.
Mrs Mantalini falls for her husband’s blandishments because she loves him and he’s telling her what she wants to hear. Flattery from other quarters, though, doesn’t succeed. Miss Knag constantly sucks up to her but Mrs Mantalini is wholly unimpressed and cheerfully sends her up.
Fanny Squeers quarrels with Matilda Price over her flirtatious flattery with Nicholas. Fanny’s wily servant, Phoebe, to try to brighten her mood, ‘administers as much flattery as she could get up’, but finding this ineffective, proceeds on an ‘indirect tack’ and abuses her friend instead—making uncomplimentary comparisons between Matilda and Fanny. “O, if she only knew how wrong she was, and would but set herself right by you, what a nice young woman she might be in time!” Fanny, even though she knows she’s being arse-licked by a paid subordinate and none of her comments are true, is still soothed and comforted—such a delightful thing it is to have one’s ego stroked. And the next morning, Fanny behaves better because of the comments and patches things up.
Praising someone’s possessions (to puff the listener’s wealth and good taste) is also a quick way to their heart: ‘And as [Matilda] had been in raptures with all the frocks, and had been stricken quite dumb with admiration of a new pink scarf, Miss Squeers said, in high good-humour, that she would walk part of the way with her, for the pleasure of her company’.
Fanny is also a self-flatterer. “What is the reason that men fall in love with me, whether I like it or not . . .” She’s decidedly plain, but when she looks in a mirror she sees not her true self but ‘like most of us . . . the reflection of some pleasant image in her own brain’. She also flatters herself that Nicholas, as a paid dependent, won’t turn down her advances, particularly as she is so ‘prepossessing and beautiful’.  She even invents flattery to puff herself: ‘she intrusted her friend with a vast number of things Nicholas had not said, which were all so very complimentary’. But when Nicholas refuses to compliment her at all, and, instead, is brutally frank, her love turns to hate.
Mrs Julia Wititterly is a hypochondriac whose character has been corrupted (made vainer, weaker and sillier) by the toadying of her husband. He compliments her on her lassitude and makes her ‘illness’ the subject of boast. “Your soul is too large for your body,” said Mr Wititterly. “Your intellect wears you out; all the medical men say so; you know that there is not a physician who is not proud of being called in to you.”
‘She began to think, too, that Sir Mulberry was not quite so agreeable a creature as she had at first supposed him; for, although a skilful flatterer is a most delightful companion, if you can keep him all to yourself, his taste becomes very doubtful when he takes to complimenting other people.’ (Don’t publicly scatter your flattery about!) In the novel, Pyke and Pluck leap to the rescue:
‘“Pyke,” said the watchful Mr Pluck, observing the effect which the praise of Miss Nickleby had produced . . . “Is there anybody . . . you know, that Mrs Wititterly’s profile reminds you of?”
. . . “The D. of B.?”
“The C. of B.,” replied Pyke . . . “The beautiful sister is the countess; not the duchess.”
Here was a state of things! Mrs Wititterly was declared, upon the testimony of two veracious and competent witnesses, to be the very picture of a countess!
. . . The two gentlemen having, by the greediness with which this little bait was swallowed, tested the extent of Mrs Wititterly’s appetite for adulation, proceeded to administer that commodity in very large doses.’
The easiest people to cajole are the vain. The most outrageous blandishments are swallowed whole. It’s only confirmation, after all, of what they already know.
Mr Gregsbury is a politician, a profession that, like acting, necessarily features in a novel about flattery. Mr Gregsbury doesn’t waste his flummery, though; he deploys it only when needed. ‘The deputation, who had only seen him at canvassing or election time, were struck dumb by his coolness. He didn’t appear like the same man. Then he was all milk and honey; now he was all starch and vinegar.’
Mr Gregsbury plays on voters’ jingoism—a staple political tactic—and flatters the whole country and its people:
“Whether I look merely at home, or . . . contemplate the boundless prospect of conquest and possession—achieved by British perseverance and British valour—I clasp my hands, and . . . exclaim, ‘Thank Heaven, I am a Briton!’”
“If it means that I grow a little too . . . hyperbolical in extolling my native land, I admit the full justice of the remark. I AM proud of this free and happy country. [‘. . . establish us once more, the inhabitants of a free and happy country.’ - George Washington] My form dilates. . . my heart swells, my bosom burns, when I call to mind her greatness and her glory.”
The wisdom and trustworthiness of the world’s electorate is really quite extraordinary:
“You can trust the American people. They have uncommonly good common sense.” - Mr. Lamneck, Congressman, 1937.
“I trust the British people. I trust their common sense.” - William Hague, former Conservative leader.
“I trust the wisdom of the American people.” - Bill Clinton.
“I trust the wisdom of the American people.” - Ronald Reagan.
“I trust the wisdom of the American people.” - George Bush.
Mr Gregsbury wants his secretary to puff him and be his toadeater, such as “during great debates, sitting in the front row of the gallery, and saying to the people about—‘You see that gentleman . . . that's Mr Gregsbury—the celebrated Mr Gregsbury—’ with any other little eulogium that might strike you at the moment”.
Smike is so unworldly that he hardly even knows what flattery is and never deploys it consciously (though he does pay flattering attention to Kate by the arrangement of his flowers—which Mrs Nickleby, naturally, interprets as a tribute to herself).  
‘“Is she like you?” inquired Smike.
“Why, so they say,” replied Nicholas, laughing, “only a great deal handsomer.”
“She must be very beautiful,” said Smike, after thinking a little while.
“Anybody who didn't know you as well as I do, my dear fellow, would say you were an accomplished courtier,” said Nicholas.
“I don't even know what that is,” replied Smike, shaking his head.’
Of course, Smike, like everyone else, appreciates praise:
‘“What a dear that [Smike] is!" said Miss Snevellicci.
“I’ll tell him presently, for his gratification, that you said so,” returned Nicholas.’
Complimenting someone to their friends, hoping the comments will be imparted, is a crafty way to ingratiate yourself—though, in this instance, it’s Nicholas’s heart that Miss Snevellicci is trying to worm into. Nicholas will appreciate the kindly words about his poor friend, she knows, almost as much as Smike himself.
Arthur Gride is a moneylender and a scheming sycophant, but he wastes his breath on Ralph:
‘“You were born a genius, Mr Nickleby,” said old Arthur. “Deep, deep, deep. Ah!”
“. . . I shall need all the depth I have, when men like you begin to compliment. You know I have stood by when you fawned and flattered other people, and I remember pretty well what that always led to.”
“Ha, ha, ha!” rejoined Arthur, rubbing his hands.’
Arthur is afraid of Ralph and his primary motive for bootlicking him is a cowardly desire to appease him. Indeed, he ‘would have licked his shoes and crawled upon the ground before him, rather than venture to return him word for word, or retort upon him in any other spirit than one of the most slavish and abject sycophancy’.
Arthur Gride eulogises the lady he wants to marry (“a young and beautiful girl; fresh, lovely, bewitching, and not nineteen. Dark eyes - long eyelashes - ripe and ruddy lips that to look at is to long to kiss - beautiful clustering hair that one’s fingers itch to play with - such a waist as might make a man clasp the air involuntarily, thinking of twining his arm about it - little feet that tread so lightly they hardly seem to walk upon the ground - to marry all this, sir - this - hey, hey!”), but his words—like most flattering words—are designed to deceive; it’s the girl’s money he’s really after.
Flattery Part Two

Flattery 2
Theatrical Flattery
Other Flattery
Flattery 3