Over February and part of March this year I reread Nicholas Nickleby in six segments, part of a readalong hosted by the blog FandaClassicLit (here).
The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby is the third of Dickens’ completed novels and was first published in serial between 1838 and 1839. This was I think only my second time reading it, but it was the first of Dickens’ novels which really got me hooked the first time I read it and made me pick up almost all the other Dickens novels.
Our hero is of course Nicholas Nickleby, the grandson of one Godfrey Nickleby of Devonshire. Godfrey came into a fortune when one of his relations died of which he left his house to his elder son Nicholas (Sr) and money to the younger Ralph. Ralph heads of to the city where his sole focus is making money (unscrupulously of course). On the other hand, Nicholas (Sr) marries and has two children Nicholas, our hero who is nineteen, and Kate, fourteen. At his wife’s behest Nicholas Sr speculates with what little money he has, loses everything and as is usual in such stories dies shortly after leaving his family at the mercy of his cold brother Ralph. Ralph takes a dislike to the younger Nicholas from the start but secures him a position, as he does for Kate whom he takes to, and agrees to look after Kate and her mother so long as Nicholas holds on to his job. But as can be expected, neither position is particularly pleasant.
Nicholas is an assistant master at a school, Dotheboys Hall, run by the odious and sadistic Wackford Squeers in Yorkshire where the boys are poorly fed, poorly looked after and taught next to nothing. Nicholas feels his blood boil but holds on for a while until Squeers treatment of the students gets beyond bearing and he gives Squeers a taste of his own medicine (whip) before leaving. He is followed by Smike a weak young man of about Nicholas’ age who is languishing and bearing torture at the establishment where his family seem to have abandoned him. Nicholas and Smike then find their way to London where they are helped by the kind-hearted Newman Noggs, Ralph Nickleby’s assistant (under service to him because of owing him money) and then on to Portsmouth where he encounters Mr Crummles who runs a theatrical group. Nicholas and Smike both find work here, and begin to lead an interesting life among the colourful theatrical troupe (which includes a performing horse). But he is soon summoned back to London where Kate is facing some trouble. Once there he tries to find employment again and encounters the very kind Cheeryble twins who run a counting house. Here Nicholas is able to secure not only work but also a home where he can look after his mother and sister. But he still has unpleasant people to contend with among them Ralph and Squeers and his love interest, Madeline is also in trouble and Nicholas must rescue her before it is too late.
Kate on the other hand was found a place by her uncle at a milliner, Madame Mantalini’s where she begins by doing well, but her youth and pretty looks attract some unpleasantness from coworkers. Also Mr Mantalini has a roving eye and while he doesn’t actually do anything, it is certainly unsettling for her. Her uncle Ralph on the other hand, invites her home where he is entertaining his rather slimy business acquaintances whose unwelcome attentions she must bear. But Kate is spirited and speaks up for herself, though Ralph while shaken is in no mind to relent and tell off his friends. Kate does manage to secure a slightly better situation when the Mantalini establishment breaks up but here too she cannot escape the attempts of her uncle’s friends Sir Mulberry Hawke and Lord Frederick Verisopht. Finally, Nicholas arrives and takes her away and she can live the life she dreamed of, her family all together again. But of course, our story doesn’t end thus for the heroes and heroines must get their rewards and the villains their just desserts!
While Nicholas Nickleby is a comic novel essentially, it really has a bit of everything, tragedy, drama (and may be some melodrama), humour, romance and adventure. As a serial it must have made for a really fun read—the equivalent of a TV soap in its day, albeit much better material than the latter. The book is clearly influenced by the picaresque novels Dickens used to read (among them those by Tobias Smollett), as one can see in the various adventures that befall out itinerant hero as he moves from place to place.
One of the elements I enjoyed most about the book was the sheer array of characters that Dickens has created; one might be able to classify them in terms of black and white rather than grey but they are still a wide range, some offering contrasts. Among our heroines for instance, is Kate Nickleby, Nicholas’ young sister who finds herself in rather trying situations and at the receiving end of harassment at the hands of her Uncle’s business acquaintances. She is young and living in somewhat a dependant position but this does not prevent her from speaking against the injustices she is subjected to not from confronting Ralph and making him decidedly uncomfortable. On the other side is Madeline Bray who Nicholas falls in love with. She is beautiful certainly but also too much of a saint for my liking—sacrificing herself into a marriage with the much older Arthur Gride because she must protect her father who treats her like a slave.
Then we have Mrs Nickleby herself. Said to be based on Dickens’ mother, she is fickle, changing her statements (and convictions) at the drop of a hat, silly, and ready to trust strangers over her own children. But despite these not so pleasant characteristics she is the source of much entertainment for readers with her somewhat Mrs Bennett-like tendency to ramble on, and her ‘romance’ with a man next door who turns out to be a patient in a mental establishment.
Among the characters we also have the kind hearted, like Newman Noggs who is forced to work for Ralph but helps Nicholas and his family; the Cheeryble brothers (who also perhaps fall in the too-good-to-be-true category); Miss La Creevy a miniature painter, and also John Browdie, a Yorkshire farmer who ends up befriending Nicholas and rescuing Smike from Squeers’ clutches more than once.
The theatrical troupe—the Crummles family and others add a lot of colour to the story and give us a peek into the performing life. Their morals and outlook perhaps are not the same as others as one of our minor characters Mr Lilyvick (water-tax collector and uncle of the Kenwigses who live in the same lodging house as Newman Noggs) discovers to his dismay.
And then there are the villains; once again we have an assortment of despicable characters: There is the cold-hearted and money-minded Ralph Nickleby and the sadistic Wackford Squeers. There is the slimy Sir Mulberry Hawk and Lord Verisopht both of whom plague poor Kate with their unwelcome attentions but luckily also get their comeuppance. And also Mr Mantalini who has clearly married his wife only for her money, and ends up bringing not only himself but also his wife down in the world.
Some of our characters might seem bland and unlikeable but the majority give us a variety of shades and are both unique and interesting. I also feel they get added colour from Hablot Knight Browne or Phiz’s illustrations.
Besides entertainment, Dickens’ novels are known for the social problems they highlighted which often did lead to real-life changes—from the poor law in Our Mutual Friend that poor Betty Hidgen tries hard to escape to school teachers in Hard Times (Mr Chokumchild’s name itself is a hint) to nurses like the awful Mrs Gamp in Martin Chuzzlewit. In this one we have him taking up the issue of schools like Dotheboys Hall—Squeers’ establishment—where children were not taken care of, instead subjected to cruelty and punishment, the headmasters’ only objective being profit. Squeers was in fact based on the real-life William Shaw who ran Bowes Hall Academy where 8 neglected students went blind. The book played a major role in destroying schools of the type which went out of business in 1840 (here).
I enjoyed my reread of this one very much—the comic elements and the rich array of characters made this a truly entertaining read.
Have you read this one? How did you like it? Did you enjoy it as much as I did? Looking forward to your thoughts!
Cover image: Goodreads; other images all by Hablot Knight Browne ‘Phiz’ via Project Gutenberg (here)