The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1839)
Charles Dickens (Duckworth, 2005)
835 pp. First reading.
Posted 24 January 2007.
I think that I am finally learning how to appreciate Charles Dickens. Part of my problem, in the beginning, was that I approached him with false expectations. For some reason I had it in my mind that he was a long-winded, low-brow cartoonist. These errors are being corrected, slowly, with each new novel that I read, and with Nicholas Nickleby I feel as though I’ve turned a corner. I really enjoyed it tremendously.
Dickens is not an “important” writer in the sense that Dostoyevsky or Kafka are “important” writers, and this has been a stumbling block for me. He is not wrestling in the dark with deep and troubling questions of the spiritual life; he is writing romances with happy endings. Nevertheless, the more I read the more I begin to suspect that he is an important writer after all, important in a strong, elemental way that those other literary giants are not. To read him well seems to call, above all, for a generous and open heart. It’s a rather different way to read, and I think it’s doing me good.
Nicholas himself is a wonderful character: noble, brave, with a seemingly unerring sense for the right word and the judicious act. He is uncomplicated and sincere, and defends the good with as much readiness as Gawain or Lancelot ever did. He is, in other words, a splendid romantic hero. The role of villain is played by his wicked uncle Ralph, who bends his every effort to the undoing of Nicholas and his family. The supporting cast is peopled once again with a crowd of well-drawn characters: Smike, the simple, good-hearted invalid; John Browdie, the burly, whole-hearted, and thoroughly incomprehensible country man; the perpetually tangential Mrs. Nickleby and her senile, vegetable-tossing suitor; the splendidly named schoolmaster Wackford Squeers who, though only a puppet of Ralph in the overall story, has enough native villainy to serve as an effective secondary locus of nefariousness. The early scene in which Nicholas gives him his due is among the best in the book.
The story is episodic, moving from the schoolhouse to the theatre to the counting-house, and while the variety is pleasing, there is in such a format the danger that it will not cohere as a single story. In this case Dickens has escaped that danger, largely by preserving his central heroes and villains from the first pages through to the last.
I enjoyed reading Nicholas Nickleby more than the other of Dickens’ novels that I have read. This is so in some cases because it is a better book (better than Oliver Twist, for example), but I think it is also true that I am growing into his world, and learning to appreciate his particular strengths. I’m happy on both counts.
[A romance blossoms]
Tim sat down beside Miss La Creevy, and, crossing one leg over the other so that his foot–he had very comely feet and happened to be wearing the neatest shoes and black silk stockings possible–should come easily within the range of her eye, said in a soothing way:
‘I must,’ rejoined Miss La Creevy.
‘No, don’t,’ said Tim. ‘Please don’t; pray don’t.’
‘I am so happy!’ sobbed the little woman.
‘Then laugh,’ said Tim. ‘Do laugh.’
What in the world Tim was doing with his arm, it is impossible to conjecture, but he knocked his elbow against that part of the window which was quite on the other side of Miss La Creevy; and it is clear that it could have no business there.
‘Do laugh,’ said Tim, ‘or I’ll cry.’
‘Why should you cry?’ asked Miss La Creevy, smiling.
‘Because I’m happy too,’ said Tim. ‘We are both happy, and I should like to do as you do.’