When I say ‘Charles Dickens’ your first thought is probably LONG. Long and Boring have, since Victorian times, been best of friends, so that’s probably your second thought, and by this time you’ve probably either suddenly found you’re late for an urgent appointment or simply fallen asleep.
Hold your horses.
If this is your frame of mind when embarking on the inspirating (inspiring in a sort of breathy way, not to be confused with inspissating, thickening or condensing, another good Dickensian word) journey that is Nicholas Nickleby, I envy you. You will be shaken rudely (yes rudely!) from your mental slumbers. Like a kind of 19th century Breaking Bad it will inveigle it’s way into your heart and under your fingernails until you have no choice but to keep coming back for more. By the end you’ll wish it were twice the length.
Why is this? Let me explain.
Nicholas Nickleby (1838-9), coming hot on the heels of The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, was one of the first novels the young Charles Dickens, himself fresh from the workhouse, wrote. It’s the earliest I’ve read and you do notice it’s not as polished and complex as for example a later ‘masterpiece’ like Bleak House (1852-3). The plot feels a little all of the place and some of the sentences wriggle like hungry little caterpillars over the page. BUT this lack of polish means it’s all the more accessible, particularly for the newcomer. Released in monthly instalments like any 21st century soap or box set, Dickens has to keep his subscribing public’s attention with entertaining episodes and cliffhangers, and he works hard to fill each chapter with an entertaining set piece or exciting event. This means it’s a great novel to have on the go, particularly of a winter’s night.
When I earlier described reading Nicholas Nickleby as ‘a journey’ I should perhaps have said that Dickens helped cement that metaphor into Western culture. Simply put, Nicholas Nickleby is an OG picaresque (wandering hero) novel. Over the course of the story we head from Devon to London to Yorkshire to Portsmouth, via Piccadilly, The City and Lambeth. This give the storyline plenty of variety, flicking the channels for us, so to speak, so we don’t get bored (a bit like Game of Thrones did with its plethora of overlapping storylines).
The great thing is Dickens doesn’t bog us down with pages and pages describing these different locations. His novels are all about the characters. Always assuming that human nature hasn’t changed all that much in the last 150 years, I would hazard this is why we still enjoy them today. That said, this is one point where, as a modern reader, you have to slightly suspend your disbelief; Nicholas Nickleby contains none of the well-rounded complexity of character you expect from more modern novelists like Sally Rooney, or even the late Victorian Thomas Hardy. Dickens’ characters are quite over the top in their own little way; everyone is very good (Kate Nickleby), or very catty (Miss Squeers), jolly (John Brodie), theatrical (Mr and Mrs Crummles and the Infant Phenomenon), corrupt (Arthur Gride, Mr Snawley etc.), prolix (Mrs Nickleby) or indeed any other character trait you can come up with.
And that’s the fun of it. As Roald Dahl would later say: “All good books have to have a mixture of extremely nasty people – which are always fun – and some nice people. Can you imagine how boring The BFG would be if he were the only giant in Giantland?” As readers we almost immediately understand each of Dickens’ characters: one-eyed Wackford Squeers the schoolmaster loves nothing better than to hand out a good thrashing; Mr Mantalini has a magnificent moustache, spends money he doesn’t have and says “demnition” a lot. The bonus of this is that you’re never likely to forget a character because their single trait is so distinctive, and because Dickens himself is constantly reminding you about who they are due to the serialised nature of the story.
But maybe I’m preaching to the converted here. Maybe you already know that you enjoy this sort of thing and you’re wondering what I actually thought about Nicholas Nickleby.
Well two main things struck me, apart from ‘this is great and funny and I want to stay up all night reading it’.
The first was how simple many of the characters were, and how little they developed through the course of the novel. The novel’s interest is really centred on what the characters do and on their change in fortunes. There is no introspection and very little internal character arc, even for the hero Nicholas; he begins as a virtuous young man making his way in the world, and excepting his changes in worldly circumstances, this is just how we leave him.
On the one hand this makes the story very accessible, as I mentioned above, and enjoyable to read; the good people are really good, so you want them to triumph, and are satisfied when (spoiler alert) they do. It’s also quite interesting from a literary-cultural perspective because you can see in the earlier workings-out of Dickens’ style, how he in many ways created our modern idea of the virtuous hero, or the evil uncle, or the snooty aunt. While these archetypes are perhaps direct cultural descendants of snooty aunts such as Mrs Norris in Mansfield Park, Dickens is surely responsible for filling the popular imagination with them; illiterate poor would, in huge numbers, pay a half-penny a month to hear his works read out loud, greatly expanding the reach of ‘literature’.
On the other hand this lack of psychological development has its drawbacks. It can be infuriating, as when Nicholas and his sister needlessly forego the loves of their lives out of principle. As much as Dickens is clearly aware of this and uses it to toy with his readers — the chapter in which they make these rejections is wryly subtitled ‘Wherein Nicholas and his sister forfeit the good opinion of all worldly and prudent people’ — you never come close to the sympathetic connection to the characters you have in for example Persuasion, or to the emotional (self)realisations of for example Emma.
It also means that, we know fairly well how each character will respond to each new situation, unexpected features of the plot revolve too much around dark and mysterious figures appearing out of the shadows and revealing all, and other deus ex machinae, than is totally satisfying.
The second thing I noticed, and what really made the novel a joy to read, was Dickens’ wonderful style, how he mixes light and shade, describing terrible things in such a whimsical way that you only just notice they’re there. Take this early example, where Mr Wackford Squeers is looking after a small child in his care:
the little boy screwed a couple of knuckles into each of his eyes and began to cry, wherefore Mr Squeers knocked him off the trunk with a blow on one side of the face, and knocked him on again with a blow on the other.
Here we have brutal child abuse, and a complete perversion of the Christian ideal of turning the other cheek, linked with the kind of action-replay slapstick you might see on a Japanese game show. Another example subtly questions the status quo:
“It’s a fine boy, Mr Kenwigs,” said Mr Lumbey, the doctor.
“You consider him a fine boy, do you, sir?” returned Mr Kenwigs.
“It’s the finest boy I ever saw in all my life,” said the doctor. “I never saw such a baby.”
It is a pleasant thing to reflect upon, and furnishes a complete answer to those who contend for the gradual degeneration of the human species, that every baby born into the world is a finer one than the last.
Dickens never lets the reader sit complacently in unalloyed enjoyment but, with the wry authorial comment at the end, gently pricks the self-blown bubbles in which his characters live. This elegant moralising was for me one of Nicholas Nickleby’s best features, being both amusing and making you question your own apprehensions and preconceptions.
Have you read Nicholas Nickleby? If you haven’t, might you now? If you have, do you agree with me? (Or do you think it should remain the last resort of insomniac bedtime reading?) Let me know your thoughts!
P.S. I’ve also recently been enjoying Bleak Expectations which is basically an extremely absurd Dickensian parody, full of evil uncles and abrupt changes of fortune. It was a radio show and is now available as an audiobook. Here’s a clip to give you a flavour: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p0127mmf. Eeeenjjooyyy!!