Monday, May 8, 2017

Back to the Classics 2017: Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens


I have often heard readers say that Dickens was “paid by the word” and that is why his novels are so long, but I don’t think that is true.  I am fairly sure it has been documented elsewhere that due to his enormous creative energy, he was often working on various projects simultaneously.  So the “wordiness” and extraneous stories are likely due to little time devoted to laying out the plot beforehand in combination with the serialized nature of the publications.  

I mention this because I noted that in the over 900 pages in the Penguin Classics edition of Nicholas Nickleby that I read, at least two story lines could have been cut without hindering the plot in any way.  Of course, this is neither here nor there if you love Dickens as I do and one of such plot lines concerning the proud, solidly lower middle class Kenwigs family was one of my favorites.  Probably inserted mostly for comic relief, Mr. and Mrs. Kenwig are determined that their children will do better than they have, “She will be a treasure to the man she marries, sir,’ said Mr. Kenwigs, half aside; ‘I think she’ll marry above her station, Mr. Lumbey.” says papa Kenwigs about his eldest daughter Morleena.  In fact, the family has pinned all of their hopes on Morleena inheriting her great uncle Lillyvick’s modest “estate”. Lillyvick is a water rate collector only slightly higher up the social ladder but unmarried and therefore heirless. 

The main story line concerns the eponymous Nicholas who has to fend for his mother and younger sister when his father’s death leaves them penniless.   The family appeals to their rich yet miserly uncle Ralph , who has little sense of familial duty  or affection and pawns them off as cheaply as he can.  Nicholas is sent to work as an assistant to the brutish school master Wackford Squeeres  in Yorkshire where he befriends the poor, abused Smike.   Meanwhile, back in London, sister Kate Nickleby’s situation becomes more and more precarious and she has no one to turn to since her mother is self-absorbed and useless and her uncle uncaring and selfish.  Eventually Nicholas leaves Yorkshire under bad circumstances with Smike in tow, which firmly cements his Uncle Ralph’s hatred of him. The rest of a book is a winding account of Nicholas’ trials and travails as he seeks his own fortune and tries to protect those closest to him while battling his uncle’s dastardly plans to bring him to ruin.

One thing that set this title apart from other Dickens novels I have read is the character of Nicholas himself. He is quick to anger and to react, which gets him into trouble often.  I agree that Dickens’ female protagonists are generally pretty sketchy, but his male protagonists are also often fairly passive. In comparison to David Copperfield say or Pip from Great Expectations, Nicholas was anything but passive.   I also think that this book was particularly keen in terms of class consciousness and the arbitrary accesses and barriers it engenders. Not only do we have the Kenwigs and their aspirations, but there are also the social climbing Wititterlys who are Kate’s employers for a time, not to mention Mrs. Nickleby who is a complete snob. 

I read this book for the category of A 19th Century Classic for the Back to the Classic Challenge  2017 hosted by Karen at the blog Books and Chocolate. Of the eleven Dickens titles I have read so far, this one will definitely be considered one of my favorites.  It has all the qualities I love about Dickens:  adventure, romance, compassion, sentiment and a sense of humor. In additional to the aforementioned Kenwigs family, I also adored the character of John Brodie, the bluff and generous Yorkshireman who comes to Nicholas’ aid more than once.

9 comments:

  1. I have to admit, Dickens is not my favorite author although I did love A Tale of Two Cities. I should probably try reading him again sometime. If you had to pick your favorite Dickens, or say your top three, what would they be?

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    1. Thanks for the comment Lark! My top three Dickens titles would be Bleak House, Little Dorrit and Great Expectations. However, if you don’t like Dickens’ style, I think that is completely understandable. And there are so many fantastic television adaptations of his books that one could watch in lieu of reading his books. In particular, the Bleak House miniseries with Gillian Anderson is fabulous.

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    2. I probably would like watching Bleak House better than reading it. :)

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  2. I think I will try this on audio. Someday. I loved Bleak House! I probably should reread A Tale of Two Cities but we both know that is unlikely.

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    1. Thanks for the comment Care! Yes, I hear you on re-reading when there are so many books I want to read first. I have listened to a couple of Dickens titles on audio and I think you like Simon Vance as a narrator? He has done quite a few audio books of Dickens' works.

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  3. I'd agree that Bleak House is his best, but my #2 would be David Copperfield, #3 would be A Tale of Two Cities, and #4 would be Martin Chuzzlewit which I like for mean reasons. My reviews are at

    http://majoryammerton.blogspot.com/2015/09/bleak-house.html
    http://majoryammerton.blogspot.com/2015/01/classic-1.html
    http://majoryammerton.blogspot.com/2014/03/2014-classic-1.html
    http://majoryammerton.blogspot.com/2014/10/mount-tbr-22.html

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    1. Thanks for the comment Major (and the links to the reviews-I will check them out).

      I almost put Martin Chuzzlewit as #3 because it was the first title I read and so has a special place in my heart.

      David Copperfield annoyed me because of Dora mostly...I am sure I would enjoy it more on a re-read.

      A Tale of Two Cities just leaves me cold and I have read it twice. I really only like Madame Defarge. I am glad to recognize the quote "It is a far, far better thing" but I never really believed in Sidney's devotion.

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  4. It's been over 25 years since I last read NN but I remember really liking Nicholas and his sister and I've been meaning to renew our acquaintance for years. Now you've inspired me to do so, maybe in 2018. You're right, Dickens male protagonists aren't all the feisty, and you're also right in that Dickens had more imagination and energy than he knew what to do with. I don't recall if he was a plotter or a seat of the pants writer, but it sure seems like the latter, and sometimes the various threads came together and sometimes they didn't.

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    1. Thanks for the comment Jane. I would love to hear what you think of NN and Co. if you do re-read next year. I think he was a "seat of the pants" writer for his novels...but I usually enjoy his tangents and odd side characters!

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