Nicholas Nickleby (1838 – 1839)
Charles Dickens’s third novel, Nicholas Nickleby, is a lengthy and picaresque novel detailing the exploits of the Nickleby family – notably Nicholas, his sister Kate, dear Mama, and Uncle Ralph. It is more interesting that the villain of the piece is Ralph Nickleby, and made clear from the start.
For reasons that need not explaining, it took me over a month to finish this novel, and the delays in reading it dissipated some of its tensions, but did not overly affect my reading of it – for as a picaresque novel it is subject to shifts in focus, in obsessions and in plot. Not one character hangs around for very long. But what characters! There is Wackford Squeers, the infamous headmaster of Dotheboys Hall where Nicholas is employed as master and from where he deserts with Smike the maltreated schoolboy (and revealed, near the end of the novel, to be Nicholas’s cousin). Squeers is a monstrous creation, and apparently real enough for several readers to threaten legal action against Dickens for defamation of character: as he notes in the preface: “It has afforded the Author great amusement and satisfaction, during the progress of this work, to learn from country friends and from a variety of ludicrous statements concerning himself in provincial newspapers, that more than one Yorkshire schoolmaster lays claim to being the original of Mr. Squeers… [I] suggest that these contentions may arise from the fact, that Mr. Squeers is the representative of a class, and not of an individual.” It is a sign of Dickens’s increasing popularity in Victorian England that he is subject to attack, but also a clear sign of his concern of the treatment of the young and vulnerable in the country: In his second preface, to the 1848 Cheap Edition, he notes that such schools as Dotheboys were common in Yorkshire at the time of writing but are now disappearing.
Nicholas Nickleby is, for me, Dickens’s first genuine masterpiece. Oliver Twist may have mass popularity, even now, but it is a flawed novel whose focus is badly lacking in the middle half – Nicholas Nickleby’s focus is also lacking, but the adventures and scrapes Nicholas and his family become embroiled in advance their characters and their fortunes – there is a trajectory to their life, and their decisions affect themselves and others. Nicholas may have always been a good man, but he must undergo all that he does, and learn all that he does about humanity, before he can woo Madeline Bray. It is this subplot that gives Nicholas Nickleby its depth – this is the first of Dickens’s romances, and it is handled with good humour and honesty and only the occasional splashing of sentimentality. The same is true of Kate Nickleby; she must endure the violence and threat of Sir Mulberry Hawk and see her family almost destitute before she can find happiness. This is what Nicholas Nickleby does best; Dickens has created a living breathing city in this novel. London, in its myriad layers, comes alive; the poor rub against the rich, the crooks plot against the innocent, ordinary men rise up to extraordinary challenges, and even the good men are not safe from Death’s scythe.
It is sometimes noted that Nicholas Nickleby is famed as one of the great comic novels of the nineteenth century – a statement I agree with – but that it lacks character development: everything I have just stated to me seems to disprove this claim. Yet: the villains almost wholly remain villains. Squeers and family remain as cruel as when the novel begins, Sir Mulberry Hawk remains as misogynist as when we first meet him, but Dickens’s treatment of Ralph Nickleby is curious: here is a man who sees no wrong in his action, and yet by the end is reformed but unforgiven, and chooses an action that would seem to be at odds with how he first appears: Ralph Nickleby has changed. Characters in this world do change, they make bad decisions and good ones, they are subject to fate and to their own choices – they are, indeed, the most human of characters Dickens has created so far.
Nicholas Nickleby, then, is a good book. My favourite, so far, of his oeuvre, and at times very very funny, and at times movingly sad.
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