Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens (published serially from 1838-1839) meets the Dickensian stereotype of a very long book. I began reading it when my daughter was newborn and I finally finished it, now that she’s three and half.
Nicholas Nickleby is definitely not my favorite Dickens novel. In some respects it’s obvious that its a early novel by the master of complex plots. It has many different plots and subplots and an abundance of clever characters, and yet there’s something that seems to be missing to tie the whole novel together. It simply was not an enjoyable read for me after the first few hundred pages.
That’s not to say I regret reading it. I’m always glad to read another Dickens novel, I really do enjoy both the complex and the superficial and stereotypical characters that are presented in a Dickens’ novel.
Nicholas Nickleby is about the once wealthy Nickleby family, which upon the death of the father of the family is left impoverished due to his unwise investments. Mrs. Nickleby is a ridiculous woman. Nicholas is of course the eldest, and since he is college educated and the new “man of the family”, he must find a way to support his mother and sister. Nicholas’s beautiful and innocent sister, named Kate, also needs taking care of. Upon the reversal of their fortunes, the Nicklebys first turns to their estranged uncle, Ralph Nickleby, in London, who is wealthy, in hopes that he will help them become established in some way with their new, less stable, future.
However, Ralph Nickleby is a wicked man. The novel follows Nicholas as he first follows Uncle Ralph’s advice in teaching in a rural Yorkshire school, and then as he flees a poor situation to find his own route to supporting his family. The most well known part of this novel, thanks to the 2002 movie, is the section in which Nicholas is working at Dotheboys Hall, a stereotypical abusive boys school that in the 1830s truly did exist in the countryside of Yorkshire. Dickens’ novel became an expose of the horrible living and learning conditions such boys were reduced to, and after Nicholas Nickleby‘s publication, many such schools were shut down.
However, Nicholas short tenure at Dotheboys hall and the tyranny of the wicked headmaster Mr. Squeers is only the first 200 pages of the massive tome about Nicholas’s attempts to reincorporate his family into the proper London social sphere. Nicholas flees the countryside with an abused and simple boy, Smike, only to search for work and stability for the forseeable future (and another 600 pages). He becomes an actor with a travelling troupe, he must save his sister in London from abuse at the hands of Uncle Ralph’s wicked friends, and he must find a job he can do to provide his mother and sister with stability. Of course, he also desires to find love for himself and his sister, but that would make things too pretty in the end, wouldn’t it? 😉
I don’t mean to spoil the novel for you, but I don’t think it would do that if I said that things do work out all right in the end. Uncle Ralph meets his just desserts, Nicholas, his sister, and his mother find stability and happiness, and the novel ends on a positive note in many ways. Saying so much cannot spoil the novel for you, as it is 800 pages. There is much to be discovered within the pages, and yet one must be an ambitious reader to keep going. The plot turns, and turns again and characters appear and reappear. All become important to the developing plot, and I enjoyed how Dickens tied things up in the end to provide the positive tone that Nicholas and Kate live for throughout.
All that said, I cannot say I will reread Nicholas Nickleby, and I cannot recommend it as a first Dickensian read for the uninitiated. It is just so tiresome overall!
Note: Nicholas Nickleby is in the public domain. I read a digital edition. If you’d like a physical copy, consider one of those I link to above!