Although it is the third of Dickens’s novels, Nicholas Nickleby is perhaps the first to feel more than prototypically Dickensian. It dances between comedy and tragedy, with a protagonist who is more than a little autobiographical and a secondary cast who are, to a man, larger than life. That Nicholas briefly spends time caught up in the inner workings of a theatre troupe is remarkably apt, because the tone of the entire book is decidedly theatrical, and it’s unsurprising to learn that it widely became the target of plagiarism for stage adaptation before it was even completed — a practice which prompts Dickens to use Nicholas as his mouthpiece to launch a vitriolic rant at just such a plagiaristic dinner guest in the latter pages of the book.
Much as The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist before it engaged the social issues of the day in the form of, respectively, debtor’s prisons and the New Poor Law’s workhouses, Nicholas Nickleby opens by sending Nicholas to one of the infamous Yorkshire boarding schools where boys lived in conditions such as five to a bed, all sharing a towel, in rooms with sewage and effluvium in their midst. Unlike his first two novels, where Dickens was at his strongest when tackling society’s injustices, these are some of the weaker chapters in the book, perhaps because he doesn’t let himself be angry enough. During Nicholas’s time in Yorkshire, I expected to see more of the scathing sarcasm with which Dickens described Oliver Twist’s workhouses levelled at the boarding schools, and not so much of Nicholas dodging the unrequited affections of the unfortunately named Miss Fanny Squeers.
From the moment Nicholas engages with the theatre troupe, the plot becomes background noise for a good few hundred pages. What takes centre stage are Dickens’s small insights into people, into personhood, as he piles more and more into his madcap dramatis personae. Take Miss La Creevy, the little miniature painter, whose scenes bear minimal importance to the overall direction of the story but the utmost to the heart of the novel, for the grace and good-humoured patience with which she is shown to bear her loneliness, the ways in which she is shown to have drawn positivity from being her own source of company, and the ken of humanity she demonstrates in return when she is the first to recognise the changes in Smike and the most astute at bringing him out into the world.
This, writ large, is the beauty of the book. Dickens’s characters can be melodramatic, they can be caricatures, they can be unabashedly, unapologetically over the top, and that’s here too, in the form of Lord Frederick and Sir Mulberry, Kate’s contemptible harassers, but they are rarely just that. They’re also Smike and Newman Noggs and the Cheeryble brothers — each a different facet of humanity’s capacity for warmth.
Kate’s chapters do disrupt the flow occasionally, because she borders on being another of Dickens’s repetitive illustrations of his one ideal of womanhood, but she’s not quite as tediously angelic as, say, Rose Maylie, a fate from which she is largely preserved by her hilarious relationship with her and Nicholas’s mother. Mrs. Nickleby would be too exasperating to be true if not for the fact that everyone has a relative of her ilk in their family tree somewhere, and the universality of having sat through a family dinner with one renders her exceedingly amusing.
Ultimately, the resolution is served by the fact that Dickens doesn’t strive to tie things up in as perfectly a happy bow as in Oliver Twist, but allows some bittersweetness to linger. It’s hard not to be heartbroken for Smike, but in an odd way, the heart breaks a little for Ralph Nickleby, ostensibly one of the black hats of the piece, also. He had the seeds of a better man within him, and so many opportunities where, had he simply allowed them to grow, he could’ve joined in the happy ending. Kate stood as his bridge to reconciliation with his fatherly instincts, with Nicholas and, through him, Smike, but every time he chose to protect his standing instead of the young woman appealing to his shrivelled sense of family, he took a step closer to that ending. He is one of Dickens’s more nuanced villains, and his final mental break is exceedingly well written. It’s a shame that more focus is given to the rescue of Madeline and all her entitlements, suspenseful though that plot can be, than to a more natural integration of Ralph’s downfall than having all the bad news unceremoniously dumped in his lap in the Cheerybles’ office.
Nicholas Nickleby can be a long and scattered book. It’s perhaps one of the best early examples of Dickens’s powerful descriptive prose, but he has yet to touch the heights of A Tale of Two Cities or Great Expectations. It is, however, unfairly subject to oversight, and there’s a lot here that is well worth your time.