Nicholas Nickleby

I haven’t read any Dickens since 2009. That was Bleak House, perhaps the best Dickens I’ve read, an inexorable chilly gale of a book, whistling down the corridors while you sleep. Every character, every part of the plot, reflected back the ideas Dickens was curling around and around his prose: life under the law; life under good and bad and indifferent parents. Its structure was so careful that I couldn’t and didn’t want to find my way out. I was captivated by it. I couldn’t put it down.

Well, that’s not Nicholas Nickleby. This novel’s structure is more like a bag whose opening is the misfortune of Nicholas himself. The bag is full of coincidences, plot twists, happy endings, sad deaths, villains, pure virgins, comical situations, and (of course) Dickens’ wonderfully odd characters, including some lovable deus ex machinas (dei ex machinae?). Each time you give the bag a shake, something new comes out.

Shake! Here’s the reprehensible Wackford Squeers, schoolmaster of Dotheboys Hall, a horrifying school in Yorkshire that rivals Lowood in its cruelty to the children. (This cruelty is unrelieved by any saintly Helen Burns, but I feel sure that if Jane Eyre had been larger, and/or male, she would have taken the same steps Nicholas did at the end of his time there.) What’s the point of Dotheboys Hall, other than to introduce the Squeers family and the hearty John Browdie? I couldn’t say.

Shake! Here’s a theatrical troupe! Will Nicholas take permanently to the stage among the Crummleses and the infant phenomenon, and thereby earn a living for his mother and sister? Well, no, he won’t, so this is just by way of entertaining us for a few chapters, and great fun it is, too.

Shake! Here’s a pair of very nasty upper-crust gentlemen, one named Hawk and one named Verisopht, so you know which one is nastier! And there’s a duel! Will one of them do lasting harm to anyone connected to the Nickleby family? Well, no, actually, no, they won’t, not that you can tell. But very distressing it is while it lasts!

Shake! Here’s a madman stuck in a chimney! No, I’m not kidding!

Shake! Here’s a triple wedding! And no, I’m not going to be induced to tell you who marries whom, but it’s all very delightful, and — did someone in the back say that triple weddings are implausible? No, no. Shake the bag again. Something will turn up. Wait, that’s the wrong book. Sorry.

This novel was pure entertainment. Dickens is essentially doing vaudeville: you have Nicholas as Dudley Do-Right, and you have Arthur Gride twirling his mustachios, and you have Mr. Mantalini saying “Oh! Demmit what a demnable dem” all the time, for comic relief, not to mention the madman in the chimney. It was lovely, and I laughed over it, and enjoyed the entire thing. I almost always do like Dickens, though I like some of his novels much more than others.

I will say, though, that no matter how hard I shook the bag, a decent female character never came out. I often feel about Dickens’s heroines the way some people feel about Hitchcock’s blondes: Dora, Lucie, Madeline Bray, they are all cut from the same simpering cloth. There are a few exceptions: Mrs. Dombey, Esther Summerstone (though she, too, is idealized.) But not many.

The other really interesting thing about this novel, that didn’t quite fit into the bag, was that the most complete character was the villain, Ralph Nickleby. He’s rough and harsh and tight-fisted, he’s self-interested and set in his hateful, grasping ways, and he hates Nicholas and wants to destroy him. But Dickens gives him a glimmer of humanity. There’s a gleam of light there, right up to the end, both for Kate Nickleby and for one other person. Where are the spirits for Ralph, to do it all in a night?

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25 Responses to Nicholas Nickleby

  1. Tony says:

    I’ve read a lot of Dickens, but not this one, so perhaps 2012 will be the year :)

    And no, Dickens isn’t a great writer of memorable, authentic female characters…

    • Jenny says:

      I’ve read most of his novels now. Not Barnaby Rudge, Hard Times, or Little Dorrit — I think those are the only big ones I have left.

      When I see how other novelists of his day were doing with women, I do blame him for that.

  2. Victoria says:

    I just bought this to read at Christmas, and can’t wait. I only skimmed your review because of it, but was interested to see what you say about female characters. I’ve always found Dickens’ female characters a mixed success. He does seem to be attached to certain ‘feminine’ archetypes: the haunted, ruined older woman, the femme fatale, the angel in the house. On occasion he brings something more to them, but most of the time he seems to leave them to be what they are.

    • Jenny says:

      I don’t mind types or caricatures in Dickens, since he does them so well, but since I know for a fact he can also do fully-rounded, interesting characters, I want some of them to be women!

  3. Harriet says:

    I think you have put your finger on the difference between early Dickens (NN) and later Dickens (BH). Bleak House is one of my all-time favorite novels, but I am less bowled over by the earlier baggier ones though Dickens is always worth a read.

    • Jenny says:

      That’s exactly how I feel. A couple of years ago, I really enjoyed Pickwick Papers, but there’s not much to it in terms of structure and plot. Still, always worth a read!

  4. Lisa says:

    I was a stage-hand in a theater production of Nicholas Nickleby, one of those six-hour productions, so the plot and characters were familiar to me long before I read the book. Your review reminds me of that, of how much I loved the backstage view it all. These days though I read more Trollope than Dickens. He of course has his stock characters too but he does seem to me to write more varied and realistic women’s characters.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, yes, definitely. And it’s a shame, because I know Dickens can do it. I’ll have to see if I can rent a DVD of a good Nicholas Nickleby.

  5. krismerino says:

    What a great take on this book. I LOVED Bleak House, in fact, was just talking to someone about it last week. But Nicholas Nickleby… not so much. I’ve never quite been able to enjoy early Dickens, and I think you put your finger on the reason.

    • Jenny says:

      Well, I’m a Dickens fan — though there are books of his I just don’t like much, and I couldn’t finish The Old Curiosity Shop — and I did like this. I just try to take it as it comes, and not expect everything to be Bleak House, more’s the pity. :)

  6. Liz says:

    Twice today I’ve seen reviews on a new biography of Dickens. One is:
    http://unabridged-expression.blogspot.com/2011/12/charles-dickens-life-by-jane-smiley.html

  7. I’ve found that reading Dickens’ other works after reading Bleak House puts a bit of a damper on things. I enjoyed NIcholas Nickleby as well, and recently read Little Dorrit, and while both were good they just weren’t nearly as good as Bleak House. I’ve also tried to read Oliver Twist and A Tale of Two Cities and quit after the first chapters because they just weren’t what I was expecting. I need to remind myself that Bleak House is considered one of his best works and I shouldn’t expect everything else to be as good, especially since I’d put BH on my top 10 all-time favorite books list. I’m going to keep trying with the other Dickens’ novels I haven’t read and hopefully I’ll still be able to enjoy all of them!

    • Jenny says:

      Have you read Our Mutual Friend? I can honestly never decide whether that one or Bleak House is the best. It’s absolutely one of my top favorites, not just of Dickens but of all time. Highly recommended!

  8. Melissa says:

    Bleak House is up in January for me. I can’t wait!

  9. Jeanne says:

    I like any Dickens in December…except for A Christmas Carol which I was tired of by the end of my first decade of life. I love the way you put things in a bag and shook them.

  10. Christy says:

    I just finished Our Mutual Friend not long ago and adored it, much as I adored Bleak House. I guess I must prepare myself to possibly be disappointed in the others I may read, based on your reply comment above about how those two are your favorites. Lizzie Hexam is a pretty strong female character for Dickens, but still drawn up to be the harangued virginal heroine in a number of her scenes.

    My sights are set on Great Expectations for the next one.

  11. rebeccareid says:

    I’ve started Bleak House right now and I enjoy it so far. I agree it’s well set up. But I’m feeling a little lost in the law. Not sure what I’m missing.

    This one sounds like fun too, but for different reasons. As for the lack of females, well, that’s what Wilkie Collins novels are for, right?

  12. cbjamess says:

    This is just what I like about early Dickens novels. There’s this clear sense that he’s making it all up as he goes along and probably having just as much fun, if not more, than we are wondering what will happen next.

    I loved this about Old Curiosity Shop. Grandpa and Little Nell, lost in the woods when they stumble upon a gypsy wagon!! Lots of fun as far as I’m concerned.

  13. christopher lord says:

    Every Dickens novel has at least one great thing in it…and in NN it’s the Crummles and the Infant Phenomenon. But I will also say that, if you’re torn between Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend as Dickens at his best, I couldn’t argue with you. Besides the Slater biography, consider “The Other Dickens,” a sometimes scholarly but also fascinating story of Catherine Dickens, one of the most interesting/enigmatic of literary consorts. Don’t bother with the Tomalin biography; she only has a few tidbits to offer that aren’t anywhere else, and she’s all over the map. Love the blog…more 19th century novels, please…

  14. mumble says:

    “deus ex machina” vs. “dei ex machinae”: I’m pretty sure that the plural of “” is eces — Shelley Berman gives us “Kleenex/Kleeneces” and “matrix/mattresses”.

  15. mumble says:

    According to Dickens hisself, Mrs. Dombey was based on his mother, which is why there is too much of her in the novel: he fell in love with characters who talked amusingly, such as Mrs. Sairey Gamp in Martin Chuzzlewit.

    He was writing Nicholas Nickleby in instalments in parallel with ditto for Oliver Twist while fighting off rascally publishers who wanted him to deliver Barnaby Rudge purely on the laughable grounds that he had contracted to do so.

    In between this, he was getting married (and his wife returned pregnant from their honeymoon) and editing this and that (including Master Humphrey’s Clock, which didn’t go well) in an effort to get some of the money pouring in to arrive in his pocket rather than his publishers’ (a not unfamiliar story, which, later, would even drew venom from the famously equable P.G. Wodehouse).

    The deal with Oliver Twist is that, unlike Pickwick Papers, it was tightly and deliberately plotted and Dickens knew where he was going and wanted to get. Nicholas Nickleby, on the other hand, was a return to the Pickwick model of serial publication, which was faking it from issue to issue under high pressure with — especially at the start — no special sense of direction.

    All entertaining extracts, made in hopes of luring young readers into liking Dickens, come from the early part, where the Wackford Squeers is being vile yet funny at Dotheboys Hall, whereas the last quarter is a desperately faked-together effort, drowned in a thick custard of melodrama just to get the wretched thing finished with, for the publishers, and hence close to unreadable.

    Lastly, Nicholas Nickleby overlapped also with The Old Curiosity Shop, which was a return to proper Oliver Twist–style plotting. Contemporary critics considered The Old Curiosity Shop to be Dickens’s masterpiece, and he seemed to agree, so Nicholas Nicklebynever really had a chance,

    • Jenny says:

      Thanks for this. I assume the Dickens bio is coming on apace?

      “Thick custard of melodrama” — well, exactly. And you know that bit where you cook it just one second too long, and it turns into sweet scrambled eggs — well, that didn’t quite happen. But you could sense it, just around the corner.

      I couldn’t get through The Old Curiosity Shop. I’ll have to try again sometime.

  16. mumble says:

    Much apacier than the wr-r-retched John Betjeman (Not A Very Nice Person; Issues — spot the emergent pattern) and the wr-r-retched Cecil Beaton (Not A Very Nice Person; Issues), I thank you kindly.

    You were supposed to get copious feedback on Betjeman but, at the end, it was all my failing strength could do get him back to the library before they sent the heavies to rescue him. I had renewed him telephonically so often that their computer grew suspicious that I had lost him and insisted I present him physically.

    I found the book exhaustingly over-completist, and I long passed the point of wondering how anybody could find one more detail to report, or find strength to do it (reader interest having long since boiled away to a dry pot). And yet… And yet… this one too-big-to-be-read-comfortably-in-bed paperback was an abridgement of three too-big-to-be-read-comfortably-in-bed paperbacks! Lordy May! For this, as with Ted Hughes’s letters which, his editor tells us, might have been five or six times as long without sacrificing littery merit, we need Kindles: Kindles to be hurled at the wall when enough is enough.

    And Beaton I bundled back unfinished. No critic, he offers nothing critical a-tall: just guest-lists and menus and old-fashioned, ass-kissing snobbery. He considered, for example, that Prince Charles is handsome, intelligent, kindly and wise, which, at least, rescues us from one-dimensional thinking.

    Anyway… Dickens…

    Yes, critics who were Dickens’s contemporaries considered The Old Curiosity Shop to be Dickens’s masterpiece, but our own contemporary critics (I, for example) disagree, and I cannot, in conscience, recommend that you travel back to the bourn of th’undiscovere’d country (that is from the Bible): I do not relish the prospect of crossing parasols with you over Little Nell.

    SPOILER ALERT: The wretched child dies, dammit, and not a moment too soon, and life <gasp> goes on. Of possible littery interest is that she takes more pages to die than Henry James takes to move a character from one room to another.

    In fact, I’m trying to think up a pro-Quilp T-shirt slogan. In the meantime, it would be a much better deal if you went and re-read Great Expectations instead. Twice, even.

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