When Nicholas Nickelby’s father died, Nicholas, his mother, and his sister, Kate, had to cast themselves on the mercies of their uncle, Ralph Nickleby.
Ralph had become a rich but hardened and unprincipled man. He only wanted to do the minimum for his poor relations. He got Nicholas an assistant’s position with Wackford Squeers, the one-eyed superintendent of the Dotheboys School in Yorkshire. As Nicholas prepares to leave, he is given a letter by Ralph’s odd assistant, Newman Noggs. Noggs offers Nicholas help if it is ever needed.
Nicholas finds that the Dotheboys school is a place of cruelty and injustice. Squeers and his wife take money for the boys’ education and use it for themselves, giving the boys very little to eat. They take the boys’ clothes and adapt them for their own son, Wackford, Jr. Squeers mistreats all the boys, especially a young man named Smike who has been abandoned at the school and become an unpaid servant to the family. Nicholas “hoped that by remaining where he was, he might do some good, even there; at all events, others depended too much on his uncle’s favour, to admit of his awakening his wrath just then.” But Nicholas fights Squeers while intervening to keep Smike from being beaten, and he and Smike leave the school.
Nicholas has little money and has not been trained for any work. After meeting up with Newman Noggs, Nicholas and Smike attempt to find work on a ship, but are disappointed. Nicholas meets up with an acting troupe, and he and Smike are taken on.
Meanwhile, back in London, Ralph puts Kate and her mother in an old slum that he owns. He sets Kate up in a dressmaker’s shop. He invites her to a dinner with other businessmen, hoping to use her to draw in the young Lord Verisopht further into his debt. All the men are lewd and crude, and Kate flees the scene. But she has attracted the notice of an older man, Mulberry Hawk, who sets his sights on her.
When Newman Noggs alerts Nicholas that Kate is in danger, Nicholas speeds back to London, removes his mother and Kate from their uncle’s house, and tells Ralph they want nothing more from him.
But now with the weight of his family’s support, Nicholas needs to find respectable work. At his lowest point, Nicholas runs into a benevolent businessman named Charles Cheeryble. Charles is so kind and forthcoming that Nicholas can’t help but spill his story. Charles hires him on the spot.
But the Nickleby trials aren’t over yet.
Nicholas Nickleby is Charles Dickens’ third novel. It was published in serialized form 1838-1839. Dickens is a master of creating chapter endings that stir up anticipation for the next chapter. I was glad I didn’t have to wait a month between installments like the original readers.
As usual, Dickens employs a plethora of memorable characters, some quite eccentric. I love how the names fit many of them so well.
Though Nicholas is honest, noble, devoted to his family, and well-intentioned, he’s also immature. According to Wikipedia, Dickens said of him, “If Nicholas be not always found to be blameless or agreeable, he is not always intended to appear so. He is a young man of an impetuous temper and of little or no experience; and I saw no reason why such a hero should be lifted out of nature.”
As much as I love Dickens, I had never read this book. I thought I knew the story from a film, but I only remembered the evil schoolmaster and the dressmaker. So I must have seen the beginning of a miniseries.
Some of my favorite lines:
“Good-night—a—a—God bless you.” The blessing seemed to stick in Mr. Ralph Nickleby’s throat, as if it were not used to the thoroughfare, and didn’t know the way out.
The day wore on, and all these bright colours subsided, and assumed a quieter tint, like young hopes softened down by time, or youthful features by degrees resolving into the calm and serenity of age. But they were scarcely less beautiful in their slow decline, than they had been in their prime; for nature gives to every time and season some beauties of its own; and from morning to night, as from the cradle to the grave, is but a succession of changes so gentle and easy, that we can scarcely mark their progress.
She began to think, too, that Sir Mulberry was not quite so agreeable a creature as she had at first supposed him; for, although a skilful flatterer is a most delightful companion if you can keep him all to yourself, his taste becomes very doubtful when he takes to complimenting other people.
Among men who have any sound and sterling qualities, there is nothing so contagious as pure openness of heart.
In unequal marriages, the rich party is always supposed to make a great sacrifice, and the other to get a good bargain!
One of my favorite parts was near the end when one older, unlikely character proposes to another by saying, “Let’s be a comfortable couple, and take care of each other! And if we should get deaf, or lame, or blind, or bed-ridden, how glad we shall be that we have somebody we are fond of, always to talk to and sit with! Let’s be a comfortable couple. Now, do, my dear!”
One bothersome feature of this book is a couple of characters’ overuse of various forms of the word “damned”
I don’t think Nicholas will rank with David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities as my favorite Dickens novels. But I am glad to be acquainted with the story now, and some of the characters are especially touching. I listened to the audiobook superbly read by Simon Vance. I enjoyed reading parts online here and looking at the illustrations.
I’m counting this book as a new-to-me classic written by a favorite author for the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge.
Have you read Nicholas Nickleby? What did you think?