Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens

More of a ramble than a review…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When young Nicholas Nickleby’s father dies leaving him penniless, he, his mother and his sister, Kate, must throw themselves on the charity of their uncle, Ralph Nickleby. Though rich, Ralph is a cold, unfeeling man who sees no reason why he should be responsible for the welfare of his feckless brother’s family. He seems to take delight in finding the worst position he can for young Nicholas, as assistant to Wackford Squeers, proprietor and headmaster of Dotheboys Hall school for boys. This post will take Nicholas far from his family to distant Yorkshire, leaving his sister to the doubtful protection of their uncle…

I have a tendency to decide each time I read a Dickens book that it’s one of his very best, leaving me to wonder which ones aren’t! But this really IS one of his best, showcasing everything that makes Dickens one of the few writers who can present a 900-page novel and leave the reader wishing it was a little longer.

As tends to be the case in his major books, there is a mix of underlying plot with a series of episodes that stand almost on their own. So we see Nicholas first in Dotheboys Hall, where unloving parents abandon their young sons, or often stepsons, to the negligent and cruel care of Squeers and his equally horrible wife. Dickens uses this to provide a pointed commentary on this kind of legalised child abandonment, and to show the physical and emotional damage it causes. But he leavens it with some humour, often rather cruel, especially when directed at Squeers’ son and daughter (who, one could argue, are as much victims of their parents’ over-indulgence as the pupils are of their neglect).

Then there’s the wonderful section when Nicholas falls in with the travelling company of actors under the headship of actor-manager and all-round ham, Vincent Crummles. Who could ever forget the Infant Phenomenon, she of uncertain age who has been playing child roles for longer than is perhaps chronologically plausible? Dickens is at his most humorous here, with his affectionately caricatured portraits of the various actors and a few side-swipes at the practice of plagiarism which he suggests was the norm at a time when “new” plays were required each week. I love how Crummles demands that each play is written to a formula, to include all the things his actors are noted for – there must be a sword fight, the Infant Phenomenon must get to dance, there must be a romance for Miss Snevellicci, etc.

The Infant Phenomenon…

Nicholas’ third section is back in London when he is employed by the charitable Cheeryble brothers, whose main motivation in life is to do good to others. Dickens manages to avoid mawkishness in this novel (something he doesn’t always achieve) and the Cheerybles are less caricatured than my memory from earlier reads, or perhaps TV adaptations, suggested. Although the ultimate in kindliness, the brothers also have cores of steel that prevent them being taken advantage of, and allow them to act decisively when they see wrong being done. Their characterisation is undoubtedly more nuanced than many of Dickens’ “good” characters, but he still manages to use them to show that good deeds done with truly charitable hearts are repaid ten-fold by the affection and loyalty of the recipients.

Nicholas is also more complex than most of Dickens’ young heroes. At heart he is naturally good, but he’s hot-tempered, can have a wicked sense of humour at times, is not above poking fun at the dreadful Miss Fanny Squeers, and even flirts outrageously with Miss Snevellicci. He’s tougher too – although he gets help along the way, one feels Nicholas would have been perfectly capable of making his own way in life if he had to. And he’s kind and fiercely loyal – his friendship with Smike, one of the boys from Dotheboys, is beautifully portrayed, and always has me sobbing buckets. If I was forced to fall in love with a Dickens hero, Nicholas would be the one…

Nicholas gets a little hot-tempered…

I love Kate, too. She’s so different from his usual drooping, dim-witted heroines! Society makes it tough for women to stand on their own two feet at that time, but one feels that if any woman could do it, Kate could. She stands up to her uncle, she supports her mother, and she provides a stabilising influence on the more volatile Nicholas. She has her own story too, running separately from Nicholas’. Her job in Mantolini’s milliner’s shop provides another arena for Dickens’ humour, this time at the expense of the ‘macaroni’, the foppishly fashionable man-about-town, and the silly women who fall for them. Mantolini himself (real name Alfred Muntle) is pure comedy joy. But Dickens has a point to make too about the intolerable working conditions for women, working 12 or 14 hours a day and never seeing sunshine, all for a pittance barely enough to keep body and soul together.

Mantolini gets a little over-dramatic…

Through Kate, and later through Nicholas’ love interest, Dickens shows how women were so much at the mercy of men, to be treated kindly or cruelly at their whim, with very little recourse. Lord Frederick Verisopht, despite the typically silly name, is another complex character who grows and changes during the course of the book, first behaving as a predator towards Kate, driven on by the uniformly evil Sir Mulberry Hawk, but gradually realising the wrong that is being done to her. I have a very soft spot for Sir Frederick. (Sorry! I should have tried harder to resist that…)

Of course, there’s a whole batch of quirkier characters too. Vain and empty-headed Mrs Nickleby is a comic gem who had me laughing at her (affectionately, mostly) many times. Newman Noggs and John Browdie, though very different, are each the kind of loyal friend who pop up often in Dickens to help the young hero along the way. The story of the Kenwigs, Mr Lillyvick and Miss Petowker is a delightful little satire on class and cupidity. And the late-blossoming romance of dear little Miss La Creevy is guaranteed to melt the hardest heart.

The greatest writer the world has ever known…

For me, though, the most intriguing character in the book has to be Uncle Ralph, the villain of the piece. Again, he’s much more subtly drawn than Dickens’ villains sometimes are. We get a hint as to why he may have turned out as he did, and though we’re hoping throughout for him to get his comeuppance, when it comes it seems particularly harsh, leaving this reader at least feeling somewhat torn. He deserves to pay for his behaviour to the young Nicklebys and others, for sure, but the price is cruelly high. I always remember the old RSC adaptation (which I may re-watch and review separately) where the role was played superbly by John Woodvine, and I remember how he made me feel that Ralph demanded a little pity too… just a little, but perhaps enough to keep us all human.

More of a ramble than a review, but in summary – one of Dickens’ very best, and since he’s without question the greatest writer the world has ever known, then that’s pretty spectacular…

Book 20 of 90

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52 thoughts on “Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens

    • Thanks – good to be back! 😀

      Bleak House is my favourite, though this and David Copperfield are close. Oh, and A Tale of Two Cities. But Bleak House is the best book ever written in the entire history of the universe! Without question! 😉

  1. Good to see you’re back! And with such a great ‘ramble’.I haven’t read NN but remember seeing TV adaptations from years ago and feeling so sorry form him at Dotheboys Hall – the horrible Squeers. It’s on my classics club list – maybe I’ll get round to it one day.

    • Thank you – all refreshed and raring to go! I love Dickens adaptations nearly as much as the books, quite often. The old RSC version of this is absolutely brilliant – I remember being totally blown away by it back in the day. The book is fantastic – if you do get to it one day, I hope you love it as much as me… 😀

  2. So glad you’re back, FictionFan. And what a great choice to mark your return! Dickens was a fantastic writer, of course, and this one often doesn’t get the press and attention it probably should. It’s a multilayered story, and it’s been tooooo long since I thought about it.

    • Thanks, Margot – good to be back in action! 🙂 Yes, it does seem to be rather the poor relation and yet I think it’s possibly better even than David Copperfield, but that might be because I love when he’s in more humorous mode. I’m so glad I live in a world that had Dickens in it!

    • All refreshed and raring to go! Funnily enough, Great Expectations is my least favourite Dickens. I put it down to having been forced to analyse it to death at Uni, but I also prefer when he includes a lot of humour. Not a lot of laughs in Great Expectations! I loved the old RSC adaptation of NN – must dig out the DVDs…

  3. Nice to see you back! Great review. NN is one of my favourites too – I think Mantollini may be my favourite funny character of all of Dicken’s.

  4. I’ve missed you, FF — welcome back! And what a great review to begin anew with. I haven’t read this one, but it sounds as if I might enjoy it. Drat, you’re not back a single day yet, and already I’m having to plump up my TBR!!!

  5. So glad to see you back! I’m hoping for your sake you took a break because you travelled to an exotic beach somewhere and was too busy sipping pina coladas and sampling the local chocolate to have been blogging. We can always leave the fantasy at that 🙂

    After reading this review you have reminded me that I really need to read more Dickens!

    • Good to be back – all refreshed and raring to go! Ha – I kinda forgot I was supposed to be writing a review and discovered I’d just done a kind of stream of consciousness thing by accident… 😉 Ooh, I’m glad this is one of your CC books – I want everyone to take a couple of weeks off and read it. It’d be a better world… 😀

  6. I’m glad you’re back – and with such a great review/ramble! I still have about half of Dickens’ novels left to read and this is one of them. It’s on my Classics Club list, along with Dombey and Son, so hopefully I’ll be reading it soon.

    • Thank you – glad to be back and all refreshed and raring to go! 😀 Oh, you’re lucky! I think there’s only one or two I’ve never read, though sometimes I’ve seen so many adaptations, I think I’ve read them when I maybe haven’t. But I’d love to be able to read some of them for the first time again. I enjoyed Dombey and Son a lot too – one of the more underrated ones, I think. Hope you get as much pleasure from this one as I did!

  7. I loved the section based in that horrible school. The chapters with the theatrical family irritated me after a while – Dickens had this huge thing about the theatre and seemed to think everyone was as interested as he was.

    • I always feel that about Dickens – after a bit I only remember the main story and forget all the wonderful side characters and plots that make the books so much fun. This one is definitely worth a re-read!

  8. Nice to see you, FF!
    I haven’t read this particular Dickens, although it sits on my shelf. Next time I read one, it will be between this one and David Copperfield. Right now, though, you’ve heavily persuaded me towards Nicholas…
    I just love all the character names he comes up with – I hope he had as much fun choosing them as it seems like he did!

    • Thank you – good to be back! 🙂
      I love the character names – you can tell what the character is going to be like straight away. I also love David Copperfield, so that will be a hard choice. Nicholas Nickleby is lighter and more entertaining, but David Copperfield has more depth, probably. It’s also darker and more emotional. So it depends on the mood you’re in when you get to them, I think. Whichever one you go for, enjoy! 😀

  9. Welcome back!
    I’m so glad to read your ramble as this was one I put on my Classics Club list too (I see I have some good company on that!) I just love Dickens’ funny character names. It’s been a while since I read one by him (A Tale of Two Cities was the last, about 8 years ago.) This makes me look forward to NN very much!

    • Thank you – good to be back in action! Ah, I’m glad this is on your CC list – one of the best! I couldn’t go eight years without a Dickens fix. In fact, I try to read something of his every Christmas, even if it’s just a re-read of A Christmas Carol. He’s my festive treat! Hope you love it when you get to it (which should be SOON! 😉 )

  10. So I saved reading this because having posted my Pickwick thoughts, I’m due to write my own ramble about NN and felt that I shouldn’t be corrupted/influenced/intimidated/utterly demoralised-in-an-I-want-to crawl-under-a-stone kind of way….

    But I couldn’t resist finally taking a peek…. sigh….

    So now I’m feeling enlightened/uplifted and slightly wistful – because I too, loved Nicholas Nickleby and I’m sad that I won’t have that experience again: the delight of coming to it for the first time. That was before before the inevitable realisation settled that you’ve said it all in a far better way than I can ever hope to. And THEN I realised that when I do finally get to write my own ramble all I have to do is say: “what FF says; she’s said it all!” It will quite clearly be my shortest post ever and yet I’ll have covered the entire doorstopper of a book comprehensively, clearly and with feeling. 😀

    I might just carry on sailing blithely in your shadow 😉

    (And although I’ve said it elsewhere, it really is very good to have you back 🙂 )

    • Hahaha – thank you so much! 😀 But the lovely thing about Dickens (and why I couldn’t do a proper ‘review’) is that there’s so much in each book to love that everyone can ramble on without it all sounding the same, since we’ll all have different favourite bits and characters. Go on – I’d love to read your thoughts on it! I do wish I still had the pleasure of reading Dickens for the first time, though unlike a lot of writers I can cheerfully re-read them again and again, and often find I’ve forgotten as much as I remember. I think there are still one or two I haven’t read but I’ve seen so many adaptations I really can’t remember which ones – they all seem familiar when I read the blurbs. This is undoubtedly one of the best!

      (Thank you! It’s good to have a break now and again, but good to come back too… :D)

    • Oh, this would be an excellent introduction to Dickens, I think. It’s got all the things that makes him so great – the writing, the humour, some great quirky characters, a bit of social justice warrior stuff and a couple of nice little romances… 😀

  11. I loved Nicholas Nickleby! I would say it’s one of my favorite Dickens’ novels, but they kind of all are, so…
    I CAN say that Kate is definitely one of my favorite female protagonists in a Dickens novel. Sometimes his female characters fall a little flat, but I love Kate so much!
    Great review! I love finding other Dickens enthusiasts. 🙂
    (Also chocolate is wonderful. Could there be another opinion on the matter?)

    • It’s a great book, isn’t it? Haha – I have that same problem with Dickens – whichever one I last read is my favourite! Though Bleak House is the best book ever written in the history of the universe so I suppose it must be my overall favourite… 😉

      (Chocolate-haters are banned from the blog – but don’t tell them…)

      Thanks for popping in – nice to meet you! 😀

  12. What a refreshing read… To think the works of Charles Dickens are still enjoyed to this very day. There’s something to be said about the classics.

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