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?