An a-typical Victorian life.
First Published: 1838
Date Reviewed: 16th February 2015
Following the death of the patriarch, the Nickleby family finds itself fairly impoverished and Nicholas goes out to look for work. Thus begins a journey that will take him through three jobs, across England, for richer and poorer and caring and hate, whilst his mother and sister make the best of their own bad situations.
Nicholas Nickleby is an epic book that sees Dickens cut and paste together what could have easily been several separate stories. It contains the stuff of the greater works, and therefore may be considered worth the read just for that, but it pales in comparison to Dickens’ other tales and is to all intents and purposes a Victorian Neighbours or Eastenders, carrying on and on instead of finishing where it should, much like this sentence.
Given the nature of the book and the general agreement nowadays that Dickens is wordy at best, this review will be focusing on the book purely in the context of the modern reader. It is fair to say that the Victorian reader would have found the format and longevity a lot less tedious.
What’s good about the book is that it is, as said, very Dickens. It can be funny, if not as much as other novels, and when Dickens isn’t trying to add words for count it can be easy to get lost in. Dickens is as welcoming as ever, as clever and as witty, and the funny stereotypical characters he likes to exploit are here by the dozens.
Nicholas’s sister, Kate, makes the book a much better read than it might have been had it focused just on him. Through Kate, Dickens is able to look at more concepts, ones that affected women, and this makes for a good balance. In addition to this, Kate is the opposite of Nicholas in most ways so if you find Nicholas less of a hero than you’d have presumed, you can rest assured Kate will be there to pick up the pieces, so to speak.
Mrs Nickleby is rather like an extreme Mrs Bennett. Dickens has ‘gone to town’ on her character – she is the comic relief and, whilst frustrating, worth the time.
The problem with this book is that there are just too many negatives and the length of it means that these negatives are further cemented than they may have been otherwise.
In the context of our present day, the book may have worked as a serial, but compiled into a book (albeit that this happened in the Victorian era, too) it doesn’t work so well nowadays. Wordiness apart, there are just too many superfluous plot threads that go on for too long (and then, ironically, are wrapped up far too soon), too many characters (many completely unnecessary) and there are too many comings and goings between these characters and plot threads.
It can be frustrating when you’re just getting into the particular plot thread at hand, to have it finished so quickly. The threads that stick out are the school and the theatre which could both have been very good stories in their own right. It’s easy to invest yourself and then feel cheated when Dickens sweeps Nicholas away suddenly without a true conclusion. The school gets a proper conclusion later, as you expect, but it’s not as satisfying as it could’ve been. It’s safe to say that Nicholas Nickleby is in some ways a less satisfying Oliver Twist, which presents a similar concept in the beginning but concludes with more strength.
On this subject is the ending during which Dickens ties everything a little too neatly and conveniently. It is that little too predicable and sweet.
Lastly, to this reviewer at least and, due to the reasoning, likely many other modern readers, Nicholas comes across as hot tempered to the point of worry. What will happen in the future if he and Kate have an almighty argument? His tendency to physically lash out does not recommend him, especially when he is seen as so kind and goodhearted throughout.
Nicholas Nickleby can take a long time to read and a lot of your courage to get through. It’s for the most part a slog and whilst it’s of course recommended if you want to read every novel Dickens wrote, otherwise your literary and classics needs would be best served by a better work.
February 18, 2015, 9:39 am
I’m sorry to see you had mixed feelings on this book. It has been many years since I’ve read it and must agree to a degree with you that it is the least memorable for me of the novels by Dickens I’ve read. I hope your next Dickens read is better for you.
February 18, 2015, 7:26 pm
I love your long sentence that carries on instead of finishing “where it should.”
March 3, 2015, 12:44 pm
Jessica: I’m actually really interested to see the Hunnam (sp?) adaptation as it looks like they made the best of it, but otherwise I’m going to have a look at David Copperfield. I’ve heard that’s similar but better.