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.