Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby is not quite a masterpiece. That doesn’t mean I don’t love it.
Thackeray wrote of Nicholas Nickleby:
I know one who, when she is happy, reads Nicholas Nickleby; when she is unhappy, reads Nicholas Nickleby; when she is in bed, reads Nicholas Nickleby; when she has nothing to do, reads Nicholas Nickleby; and when she has finished the book, reads Nicholas Nickleby again.”
He was referring to his 10-year-old daughter.
I read and reread Bleak House obsessively. Jane Smiley, in her short biography of Dickens, says her favorite is Our Mutual Friend. My friend the blogger and professor Ellen Moody prefers Little Dorrit.
But even in Dickens’ lesser novels–and Nicholas Nickleby is definitely lesser–his mannered prose is baroque and resplendent, his passion for social justice inspires one to sign petitions, his exaggerated comic scenes are laugh-out-loud funny, and his hyperbolic offbeat characters are completely believable within the parameters of his own quasi-fairy-tale world.
Nicholas Nickleby is a coming-of-age comedy, influenced by the 18th-century picaresque novels by Fielding and Smollett. Like other Dickens’ novels, it unmasks social injustice. The Victorians loved it for Dickens’ ripping exposé of Yorkshire boarding schools, dumping grounds for unwanted children, among them gentlemen’s illegitimate children, who were neglected, beaten, starved, and seldom returned to their guardians. A reporter before he was a novelist, Dickens went with his illustrator, Hablot Browne (“Phiz”), to Yorkshire to investigate. With the publication of the novel, several of the schools were shut down, and at least one schoolmaster litigated, claiming to be Wackford Squeers.
Wackford Squeers is the sadistic schoolmaster who abuses the students and deliberately sends groups to board where they will be exposed to smallpox and die. He is the first in a long line of Dickens’ cruel schoolmasters.
How does Nicholas end up at the school? After Nicholas’s gentle father goes bankrupt and dies, the little Nickleby family–Nicholas, his sister Kate, and their mother–travel to London to ask for help from rich Uncle Ralph. It is the miserly Ralph Nickleby who sends Nicholas to work as a “teacher” for Wackford Squeers, and clearly the hope is that Nicholas will die. Smike, Wackford Sqeers’ most famous “student,” the perhaps mentally retarded adolescent who was treated as a slave after his “patron” stopped sending money, is another casualty of Ralph.
Nicholas stands up against brutality and beats Squeers for beating Smike. The two young men run off to London and save Kate from a stalker, Sir Mulberry, introduced to her by Uncle Ralph to boost his business. The hotheaded Nicholas overhears Sir Mulberry maligning Kate in a bar, and again stands up for social justice and beats him. It’s beat or be beaten in this Dickensian nightmare, until Nicholas and Smike travel to Portsmouth and fall in with a sympathetic, if eccentric, theater troupe.
The raucous manager, Mr. Crummles, a predecessor of Mr. Micawber, though solvent, with many schemes and dreams, requires Nicholas to write plays, act, publicize, and go door-to-door in search of an audience. Nicholas is brilliant and can do it all and enjoys it very much, but Smike is unable to remember his few lines. Nicholas patiently spends hours teaching Smike, and the loyal Smike remembers for love of Nicholas. These scenes are touching, realistic, and also very funny.
There are other unforgettable characters, among them the comical Mrs. Nickleby, whose rambling conversation reminds me of Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, or Miss Bates in Emma. The vain, silly Mrs. Nickleby cannot stick to the subject, and digresses along the most hilarious unexpected paths. And she is (perhaps blessedly) oblivious to the dangers of London, so that she innocently believes Kate’s stalker is a friend until Nicholas corrects her. Later in the novel, when she lives next-door to a madman who throws vegetables over the wall and repeatedly says he loves her, she refuses to believe he is mad because clearly she deserves admiration
Then there is the lovable Newman Noggs, a ruined gentleman who has been an employee of Ralph Nickleby for years. He becomes an advocate of Nicholas, Kate, and Mrs. Nickleby, and it is partly through his interventions that they survive Ralph’s schemes.
And there are philanthropists–there are always philanthropists–the Cheeryble twins.
It is the comedy that appeals to me. When has there been richer comedy than in Dickens’ vivid, beautiful and horrific novels? Who can hold one’s attention for 800 pages?
Doesn’t it make you want to turn off your phone–and reread Bleak House? Well, perhaps I should read something else since I read that last year.