Each winter for the past several years I have gone back to the late 19th century to read one of the classic novels of that period–Dickens, Hardy, Trollope. Last year my book of choice was Bleak House (thanks, Charlotte, for the great suggestion). This year while browsing the Dickens shelves, Nicholas Nickleby caught my eye, and I am glad that it did!
Like all of Dickens, Nickleby is a sprawling story that shifts from London to Yorkshire to Portsmouth and back. Originally published in serial form, the story moves briskly for all its length, with short chapters alternating between the trials of the various characters. And what characters they are. How could you not be drawn in to a story populated by such folk as Wackford Squeers (a despicable schoolmaster), Lord Verisopht (a naive nobleman who redeems himself at the cost of his life), Charles and Ned Cheeryble (twin brothers involved in international trade who assist Nicholas), the miserable Smike, who finds a friend in Nicholas, and many others.
The story is common to Dickens in that it follows the ups and downs of a young man (in this case also those of his sister and mother) who is orphaned and left to fend for himself in an unforgiving society. Nicholas and his sister Kate can expect no help from their rich uncle Ralph, who seems to delight in making their lives as difficult as possible. Unexpected friends turn up and some apparent friends turn out to be less than they seem. What makes this story particularly appealing though is that Nicholas refuses to let himself be simply a victim of fate. Over the course of the story, Nicholas works as a teacher in a dreadful school for boys, as an actor in a traveling company, as a French tutor, and finally as a bookkeeper. At each step along the way he makes decisions that affect his life. He is no passive pawn.
There is a great deal of humor here. Nicholas’s time with the traveling players is delightful, and Dickens clearly had some experience with actors from his portrayal of the Crummles family, including “The Infant Phenomenon,” and their colleagues Miss Snevellicci, Mr. Folair, and Mr. Lenville. And as always, Dickens does not spare the tragic. The death of Smike from tuberculosis and that of Lord Verisopht in a duel defending the honor of Kate Nickleby both show Dickens at his most moving.
I think that what keeps me coming back to Dickens each year is the obvious affection he has for his characters and his great compassion. Oh, and the character’s names. I look forward to the next trip to Dickensian London.
Check the WRL catalog for Nicholas Nickleby