Tuesday, 31 October 2000

Charles Dickens: Nicholas Nickleby (1838)

Edition: Heron
Review number: 666

One of the most successful of all Dickens' early novels, Nicholas Nickleby will always be remembered for its portrayal of the wonderfully named brutal school, Dotheboys Hall. The plot of the novel is a variation of the young man coming to terms with the world theme. After his father's death, Nicholas Nickleby and his sister Kate need to earn their livings for the first time. They turn to their rich uncle Ralph for help, not realising that he is an evil man - avaricious miser and unscrupulous moneylender driven by hatred of their father. He arranges work for Nicholas as a teacher at Dotheboys Hall in Yorkshire and for Kate as a dressmaker. Naturally, these jobs do not turn out to be the wonderful opportunities expected by the two of them.

The main problems the novel has are certain of the characters. Ralph Nickleby is the most serious flaw; he is a melodramatic villain and no more, bu plays a big enough part in the plot that he should be made more realistic. The Cheerybyle brothers are blandly generous, and again, insufficiently individualised. A few of the minor characters are irritating, particularly the vain and stupid Mrs Nickleby, mother of Nicholas and Kate. There are excellent and interesting people in the novel, including Mr Squeers the vicious headmaster of Dotheboys Hall. In Dickens' introduction, written later, he explicitly denies that Squeers is based on any real person, to counter various schoolteachers being almost proud to point to themselves as the original; he is so unpleasant that it is bizarre that anyone would wish to do so.

The real strength of the novel is journalistic, the way in which various different worlds are sketched in - the London moneylender, the Yorkshire school (boarding schools in that county were notoriously bad), and the touring stage company which Nicholas joins after fleeing the school with the unfortunate Smike. This last is perhaps a little overly theatrical, but is interesting because of Dickens' own keen interest in the stage.

Nicholas Nickleby, like all of Dickens' novels, has obvious flaws, but it clearly deserves its place among the favourite classics in the English language.

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