Friday, December 17, 2010

Nicholas Nickleby

What better time of year to read Dickens than Xmas, with his cosy celebrations of family, friends, food and drink, while Scroogelike villains pinch their pennies?

My choice for this season was Nicholas Nickleby, which Dickens produced next but one after my current favourite, Pickwick Papers. I was hoping for something simpler and more comic than the last three I read, Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend, and Little Dorrit -- and until midway through the book I was not disappointed.

The plot moves along in a straightforward and unencumbered fashion. Ralph Nickleby finds employment for his nephew Nicholas with a brutal one-eyed schoolmaster named Wackford Squeers. Nicholas thrashes Squeers and runs away with a simple-minded young man named Smike, an abandoned student kept on at Dotheboys Hall as a servant. Nicholas finds employment tutoring French for the Kenwigs family, then he and Smike end up with a theatrical company run by Vincent Crummles. They return abruptly to London on receiving an urgent message from Newman Noggs, Ralph’s clerk. It regards Nicholas’s sister, Kate.

Ralph is a familiar figure in the pantheon of Dickensian villains, an implacable “usurer” whose chief goal in life is the acquisition of money. After finding employment for Kate with a milliner named Madame Mantalini, he dangles her before two debauched noblemen, Sir Mulberry Hawk and Lord Verisopht, as an inducement to maintain their financial dependence on him. They pursue Kate when she takes up new employment as a lady's companion with Mrs. Wititterly.

By this time Nicholas is back in the city and happens to overhear Kate’s name being bandied about by Hawk and his confederates. He accosts Hawk, rescues Kate from the Wititterlys, and denounces Ralph.

This is a very condensed version of the novel's first half, which I enjoyed enormously. But then a change takes place as Dickens starts herding his characters toward a conclusion. Comedy gives way to cloying sentiment, unlikely coincidences, contrived backstory, ridiculous melodrama, and stuffy Victorian morals. All of these elements are present to some extent in any Dickens novel, but they overwhelm the last half of this one. The turning point comes with the introduction of the insufferable Cheeryble brothers, through whose charitable hands money pours "as freely as water" (chapter 35), and the astonishing change of Lord Verisopht from a weak-willed dupe to a defender of Nicholas and Kate (chapter 38).

Dickens is forced to introduce several shady new characters to service the plot - Bray, Brooker and Arthur Gride. Squeers is dragged back into the story more times than is necessary. There is a soppy death scene for Smike, and an outrageous passage where Frank Cheeryble and Newman Noggs sneak into a room and get close enough to Squeers to peer over his shoulder at an important document – a will, of course. The marriage of Madeleine Bray to a disgusting old miser (Gride) is prevented by the timely passing of her father, which not only contributes to Ralph’s ruin but also saves her for Nicholas (who loves her even though he has scarcely spoken to her).

The worst is saved for the end – the revelation that Smike is Ralph’s son (with an implausible explanation of how he ended up with Squeers), followed by a saccharine triple wedding. One illustration in particular sums up all the corny melodrama.

This is not to say the last half of the book is without merit. Chapter 50, for example, is a fine set piece, culminating in the duel between Hawk and Verisopht. Overall, though, the final half fails to live up to the superb promise of the first half.


For me the most memorable characters are Wackford Squeers and Mr. Mantalini. Is it not odd that two such scoundrels are also the most amusing? The combination of humour and villainy makes for doubly potent comedy, and is one aspect of Dickens’s genius that I greatly admire.

I also enjoyed seeing Nicholas portrayed as a headstrong and fiery young man. His physical courage in confronting Squeers, Hawk, the actor Mr. Lenville, and his uncle Ralph is refreshing; while Kate as a spirited young woman is more satisfying than the meek and long-suffering Madeleine Bray, who serves as a template for subsequent boring heroines like Esther Summerson.

One of the best scenes in the book occurs when Nicholas seeks employment with an MP named Gregsbury, at the same time that he is being confronted by dissatisfied constituents. The Crummles theatrical troupe also affords a number of excellent moments.

Of no interest whatsoever are the saintly Cheeryble twins, who are as credible as Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Also, the machinations of Ralph Nickleby are a little too convoluted to be completely believable, though a trace of remorse early in the novel for manipulating Kate is a nice touch, as is his rationalization for doing so.


Marriage, family, and parental responsibility figure large in the work of Dickens, but here they are of central importance. Of the five weddings in the book, three of them take place at the very end -- Nicholas and Madeleine, Kate and Frank, Tim Linkinwater and Miss La Creevy. The other two occur earlier and offstage -- John and Tilda Browdie, and Mr. Lilyvick and Henrietta Petowker. The latter relationship ends when Henrietta runs off with a half-pay captain. A sixth wedding (Madeleine and Gride) is aborted at the last moment, and a wedding anniversary is celebrated by the Kenwigs.

In Chapter 4 we are introduced to Mr. Snawley, who, having just married, is sending his two stepsons off to Dotheboys Hall to prevent his new wife from squandering money on them. Dotheboys Hall, it turns out, is a dumping ground for unwanted children. Ironically Squeers is devoted to his wife and offspring. The Squeers and Mantalini families form a suitable contrast to the happy Kenwigs and Crummles (the latter containing the celebrated "Infant Phenomenon").

Family contrasts are also central to the Nickleby saga. The secretive marriage of Ralph ended badly, his wife running away with another man, his child (unbeknownst to him) ending up at Dotheboys Hall. Nicholas senior, on the other hand, married for love and headed up a happy family. Unfortunately, while Mrs. Nickleby's heart is in the right place, her brain isn't. She urged her husband to speculate, which led directly to his death and the family's financial ruin. She completely misjudges Hawk and Squeers, and in this respect resembles another incompetent parent, Madeleine's father. Apparently she is modelled on Dickens's own mother.

As important as love is, it takes second place to other things, and not just money. Nicholas and Kate are both ready to forgo it for the sake of appearances; they don't want the Cheerybles to think they are being taken advantage of. In a similar confusion of values, Madeleine Bray is willing to suffer a loveless marriage out of blind devotion to a worthless father.