Nicholas Nickleby was Dickens’ third novel, and probably his first novel proper, in my humble opinion. The Pickwick Papers started out as a joke on Mr Pickwick, until halfway through Dickens admitted to falling in love with his main character. Oliver Twist is almost a short story – for Dickens that is. It’s half the size of his usual novels. It seems like something he dashed off in a state of pure inspiration, while he had other novels in his head at the same time.
Thus when we come to Nicholas Nickleby you get the impression that Dickens had discovered himself a novelist, that he began to take himself seriously from that point on as a writer and artist. I say this after having now re-read the first three novels. If memory serves me right, he was simultaneously working on the Old Curiosity Shop at the same time, which I fear may have been a mistake. The Old Curiosity Shop is the only novel in the Dickens oeuvre which is a messy, tacked together dud. I wish it had never been written.
For anyone new to Dickens, Nicolas Nickleby is the book I’d recommend they start with. It’s got a simple, easy to follow plot, and is full of pure Dickensian invention. In short, it’s a joy to read.
The story follows the fortunes and misfortunes of Nicholas and his family when they fall upon hard times after Mr Nickleby senior dies. There’s plenty of Victorian melodrama, huge dollops of sentimentality, and contrived plot devices. But what gets you in is Dickens’ sheer energy. You marvel that a young man in his mid twenties could create such a huge array of characters, chugging merrily along for over 700 pages. His skill and capacious mind amazes for someone so young. How on earth did he educate himself to such a level (I’m talking about the range of his vocabulary and sentence construction) by such an age? I shake my head at it all. Some people are simply born with genius. Anthony Trollope may have maintained that anyone who put their mind to it could write a novel, yet if that gentleman were alive today I would counter, But not anyone can write an Anthony Trollope novel.
Here’s what I mean. Dickens describes the actors Mr and Mrs Crummles:
‘Mrs Crummles trod the pavement as if she were going to immediate execution with an animating consciousness of innocence, and that heroic fortitude which virtue alone inspires. Mr Crummles, on the other hand, assumed the look and gait of a hardened despot; but they both attracted some notice from many of the passers-by, and when they heard a whisper of ‘Mr and Mrs Crummles!’ or saw a little boy run back to stare them in the face, the severe expression of their countenances relaxes, for they felt it was popularity.’
How true of today’s stars!
Dickens welds a mix of the commonsensical and fantastical. A rock solid morality jostles with a keen sense of the ridiculous. Much of Dickens' world is quite surreal, and could only be painted by the likes of Salvador Dali. Dickens is a close observer of humanity, and likes to bring out all of our absurdities.
I also detected the influence of Samuel Richardson’s uber-novel Clarissa, with both of the main female characters of Nicolas Nickleby fleeing the attentions of various rakes. Indeed, how much the Marquis de Sade would have loved parts of Nicholas Nickleby. It’s fairy tale like morality would have made the great Frenchman roar with laughter, and he would have rubbed his hands together as he plotted ways to turn this quaint world upside down.