Book Review: Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens

Nicholas Nickleby – Charles Dickens (Everyman’s Library)

As always, when talking about a classic book on the blog here, I hesitate to label this as a true book review. After all, no one needs me to tell them to read Dickens. Either you already have, you already want to, or you’re probably never going to. I feel my admiration of Charles Dicken’s work is already well documented so you might be able to guess where I’m going with all this.

Nicholas Nickleby was one of Dicken’s earlier works and while it shows in some ways, the book as a whole is delightful. Nicholas and his mother and his sister, Kate, arrive in London after the death of their father and husband. He has left them very little in the way of financial security and so they have come to the city to seek the good graces of their only living relative, Ralph Nickleby. Unfortunately for them, Ralph is a usurer and though he is very wealthy, he worships money and seeks only his own good. While he does seem to help them at first, he does so only in ways that benefit himself. He helps Nicholas get a job at a boy’s boarding school where the schoolmaster, Mr. Squeers abuses the boys and effectually steals from them. Ralph puts Kate into a position where she will be harassed and assaulted by a wealthy man. Through all their trials though, Nicholas and Kate lean on each other (their mother is pretty naive and unhelpful) and strive to do good.

This is a long book and there are multiple plot lines that begin and end and move over each other. Both Nicholas and Kate try their hands at different jobs, usually not succeeding through very little fault of their own. That isn’t to say they are faultless characters though. They are delightfully human. Nicholas is headstrong and passionate, perhaps too eager to leap into action before thinking, something those close to him have to work around occasionally. Kate is a delightful female character, particularly for the time. She has a good deal more agency and personality than found in many other young women written in books, even by Dickens himself. Her poverty means that she is required to be a good deal independent and while Nicholas is off working at various locations it is left to Kate to gracefully manage their mother and protect herself from the machinations of Uncle Ralph. She is kind and patient and (of course) beautiful but also very smart and not afraid to gracefully stand up for herself.

The poverty of the Nicklebys is obviously relative to their previous wealth and while their struggles are real, Dickens also subtly draws the reader to compare them to the utter poverty that surrounds them in London. As Dickens does so well, he fleshes the story out with a myriad of characters – each one distinct both in physical bearing and in background. He truly creates a world around the Nicklebys and while some of the characters’ morality seems pretty black-and-white, there is also a wide variety of motivations and histories.

There is a particularly poignant scene where Nicholas is desperate to help an acquaintance being forced into a marriage that will basically amount to servitude. His attempts to save her from this have failed so far and as he wonders the city he begins to despair. All around him he sees people living in poverty and inhuman conditions. What’s one more person? What can he alone do to stem the tide of injustice? It’s a moment that probably many of us have experienced as we see the many ways in which people suffer around the world and wonder what difference we can possibly make. But rather than give up, Nicholas enlists the help of his most faithful friend, his sister, and together they make one more attempt.

As ever, it’s easy to cheer for Dickens’ heroes and Nicholas Nickleby is certainly a wonderful addition to them.

18 thoughts on “Book Review: Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens”

  1. I really like Nicholas and Kate as hero and heroine because they are flawed and that makes them seem more real than some of his plaster saints. Kate especially is fun because she has so much more spirit than a lot of his women. If he has a failing it’s that usually his villainesses are more interesting than his good women, but Kate’s the exception!

    1. I liked that about them both too. Often Dickens’ women seem sickeningly perfect but Kate felt a lot more authentic!

    2. I have just completed a 3 part blog on Dickens’s Portrayal of Older Adults in this his 3rd novel. The previous postings were on PP & OT.
      I examined each older character described by Dickens, & their role but also whether Dickens was reflecting Victorian attitudes to & on age & ageing. I also review how NN has been considered since it was published

  2. I am eventually planning to get back to Dickens – David Copperfield first, but I’m sure I shall pick up Nicholas Nickleby at some point! I have a bit of a Dickens allergy after being forced to read Great Expectations at school – I liked most of the books we read and genuinely enjoyed my English lessons, but Great Expectations just felt interminable… I do want to read his work though, as I suspect he may be better without having to analyse it half to death!

    1. I haven’t read David Copperfield. Actually, there is still a lot of Dickens I have yet to read. I hope to make Pickwick Papers my next book by him. We had to read Great Expectations in school too and I still maintain it is my least favourite book by him!

    2. David Copperfield is my husband’s favorite book. He’d read it a few times and eventually convinced me to read it aloud to him. It’s a great novel that I really enjoyed, though one or two chapters seem less focused on plot and more on whatever political things were happening at the time. I liked Bleak House and Great Expectations and A Christmas Carol. I think Oliver Twist was my least favorite. It really dumps on the poor orphan bit. Isn’t he cute, isn’t he utterly wronged, isn’t the system bad. There’s so much of that message that Oliver doesn’t feel like a real boy. I still need to read A Tale of Two Cities.

      Karissa, I like the sounds of this book, though I do feel that many of these older authors around Dickens’s time period heap on so many subplots that I get lost in them. I used to believe the tale that the writer was paid by the world but have since learned that is not true.

    3. Dickens does seem to like to include those politics chapters and plenty of side characters that a modern editor would probably omit!

      It’s been several years since I read Oliver Twist but I do recall rolling my eyes at it and how heavy-handed it was. Isn’t there a scene where Oliver falls through a random window and it happens to be the home of his long lost relatives?

  3. I do like Dickens when I read him. So far, Bleak House is my favorite. I haven’t read this one yet. Do you have a favourite?

  4. I love how you phrase the beginning of your blog around classics – so true! I do like the sound of this one, it sounds like a Dickens novel I could really enjoy, if I ever got the time to read Classics in the first place!

    1. It’s so hard to balance classics and new releases. Sometimes if I notice my reading list looking really weighted toward recent releases I try to throw in a classic or even a book from a few years ago but there is a pressure from ARCs that Dickens just doesn’t have!

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