Sunday, 4 October 2015

Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens (1838-9)

Originally Written in 2008

In the paperback Penguin edition of Nicholas Nickleby, Michael Slater refers to "the sheer exuberant joyousness that animates this immortal cast". These words neatly sum up Dickens' third novel, which Slater also calls one of the touchstones in the English comic novel tradition. It is certainly a much lighter affair than Oliver Twist, yet brings with it some of the same structure and focus that was not to be found in The Pickwick Papers.

Around the central narrative of a young man named Nicholas Nickleby, and his family, is woven a great gallery of other characters, many of whom are Dickensian favourites. These are well sprinkled throughout the plot, and many are given their fair share of the expected trope of an unexpected reappearance. From the Crummleses to Miss Petawker, from the Lillyvicks and Miss La Creevy to the Mantalinis - they all have a part to play in this novel's rather crowded cast.

If Oliver Twist showed, in the persona of Bill Sikes, that Dickens was quite at home creating a villainous monster of a man when he wanted to, Nicholas Nickleby continues that grand tradition. We don't just get the most memorable, the horrific and somehow-onomatopoeic-but-I-don't-want-to-think-about-it Wackford Squeers, headmaster of Dotheboys Hall, but there's also Ralph Nickleby and his audacious financial machinations and Sir Mulberry Hawk and his scandalous schemes. This is not a book that is short of bad guys. There's a case, certainly, that none of them are ever quite as terrifying as the unhinged Bill Sikes at his worst, but then that isn't necessarily this book's goal, and in that regard it's helped by the fact that Nicholas simply isn't as likeable as little Oliver.

Nicholas is a determined hero, one who seems aware of his status in a major novel, and is gifted with flashes of righteous anger, but to be sure he has his flaws - in the manner of Dickens' greatest misfires he can be far too do-good-y and on other occasions implausibly headstrong and foolish. A far more interesting character, for my money, is Smike, who causes much of the pathos that runs through the story: this poor, wretched, pathetic little 18-year-old is one of the most tragic of Dickens' creations - and one of the best.

All in all, Nicholas Nickleby features a pinch of Pickwick Papers humour and a dollop of Oliver Twist-style misfortunes, plus an entirely new helping of ideas. It is worthy of note, however, that much of what Dickens does here he will go on to do much, much better himself in David Copperfield.

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