Charles Dickens At His Near-Best — Book Review of Nicholas Nickleby

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I love almost everything that Charles Dickens (1812-1870) ever wrote  He was a man of enormous talent and energy. Remarkably, by the age of 27, he had already written three excellent books – Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, and Nicholas Nickleby.

In fact, he wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby almost simultaneously, publishing them at the age of 26 and 27, respectively.  He began Oliver Twist in February 1837 and finished it two years later in April 1839. Nicholas Nickleby was begun in March 1838 and completed in September 1839.

Both were serialized in magazines. Nicholas Nickleby is divided into 65 chapters, serialized into  19 monthly issues. When published as a book in late 1839, it was 952 pages. (Oliver Twist was notably one third shorter.)

Nicholas Nickleby is a wonderful story but in my opinion but much too long. Clearly he was paid by the month and stretched out the story for continued remuneration.

The novel reminds me of the marvelous scene in the movie Amadeus when Emperor Joseph II speaks to Mozart on stage after the premiere of Mozart’s opera The Abduction from the Seraglio. The emperor tells Mozart that his opera is really excellent, but it suffers by having “too many notes.” He suggests that if he just removes some notes, the opera will be even better.

In the same fashion, Nicholas Nickleby would have been greatly enhanced if Dickens had just removed some words. Nonetheless, it is a terrific story and, as is typical of most of Dickens’s works, replete with outrage at some of the cruelties and injustices of the age. It is a work of youthful energy and exuberance but also a savage criticism of some aspects of the nobility, commerce, and certain schools.

The original title of the novel was The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, Containing a Faithful Account of the Fortunes, Misfortunes, Uprisings, Downfallings, and Complete Career of the Nickleby Family. The title, too, could use fewer words.

The title character is an honest, trusting, good-hearted, courageous youth who is thrown at the mercy of the world because of his father’s untimely death. His father was an impecunious gentleman, who left his family with no means. Nicholas realizes that his mother and his beautiful younger sister, Kate, are now his responsibility, and he turns to Ralph Nickleby, his father’s brother, for help. Ralph is a successful London businessman but a grasping miser, who has acquired his considerable wealth through usury and other unethical business tactics.

Ralph Nickleby secures Nicholas a job as a master at a Yorkshire school for unwanted boys, Dotheboys Hall, run by a tyrannical headmaster, Wackford Squeers. Within days of his arrival at the school, Nicholas comes to understand that Squeers, his odious wife, and his son are profiting by withholding most of the money sent to the school by negligent and gullible parents. They serve so little food that the boys are malnourished. They also treat the boys with great cruelty, administering frequent beatings, which terrorize the boys. Within weeks, Nicholas departs the school, taking with him a slow-witted orphan boy named Smike, but not before he confronts the Squeers family and administers a severe beating to the headmaster. Unlike some of Dickens’s young men in his other novels, Nicholas is strong, courageous, sometimes impetuous, and even violent. Nicholas has a strong sense of duty and acts fiercely against injustice and wickedness, of which there is plenty in the story.

As in all of Dickens’s best novels, there are numerous subplots that reveal the virtues and vices of Victorian society and, indeed, of humanity in general. One of the more interesting subplots involves Kate – Nicholas’s kind, strong, and beautiful younger sister. Her uncle, Ralph Nickleby, introduces her to several nobles, including the loathsome Sir Mulberry Hawk, in an effort to use her as bait to do business with him. Kate courageously refuses their advances, and is ultimately rescued by Nicholas from the shame of being by used by her uncle. And satisfactorily, the odious Sir Mulberry Hawk comes to a bad end.

Not all the characters are disreputable or evil. Nicholas finds employment at a wealthy London firm run by two German immigrant brothers, Charles and Ned Cheeryble, who have learned of Nicholas’s plight and offered him a job.  Through them, Nicholas meets a beautiful young woman, Madeline Bray, and falls desperately in love. Her father is hopelessly in debt to none other than Ralph Nickleby and another scurrilous elderly businessman, Arthur Gride. Madeline, the loving and dutiful daughter, appears ready to marry Arthur Gride to enable her father to get out of debt.

There are far too many subplots to review here, but Dickens uses them to demonstrate the all-too human frailties of greed, malice, and envy. Without giving a spoiler alert, the novel ends on a generally upbeat note – with both Ralph Nickleby getting his well-deserved comeuppance and Nicholas helping to fulfill his responsibilities to his tedious mother and his lovely sister.

Some critics have written that that the negative portrait of Nicholas’s mother that Dickens painted was modeled on his own mother, who remonstrated against Dickens’s father when he sought to remove Charles from his job at the blacking factory that he was forced into at the age of 11. Like so many of Dickens’s novels, there are clearly autobiographical elements to Nicholas Nickleby.

Dickens was a young man of 27 when he wrote this novel (and Oliver Twist), and there is a lot of youthful energy in the telling of this story. While much too long, it is a good yarn. And many have clearly enjoyed this work not only in prose but on the stage and in the movies. Nicholas has been made into no fewer than ten movies and TV series, the most recent of which was filmed in 2002, featuring Charlie Hunnam, Anne Hathaway, Jamie Bell, Christopher Plummer, and Tom Courtenay.

 At the end of the day, I would choose Oliver Twist over Nicholas Nickleby, but it is a close race!


Robert H. Bradley is Chairman of Bradley, Foster & Sargent Inc., a $6.2 billion wealth management firm that has offices in Hartford, Connecticut and Wellesley, Massachusetts. Read other articles by him here.


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