Published in 1839, 817 pages
The most gorgeously theatrical of all Dickens's novels, Nicholas Nickleby follows the delightful adventures of a hearty young hero in 19th-century England. Nicholas, a gentleman's son fallen upon hard times, must set out to make his way in the world. His journey is accompanied by some of the most swaggering scoundrels and unforgettable eccentrics in Dickens's pantheon.
From the dungeon-like Yorkshire boys' boarding school run by the cruel Wackford Squeers to the high-spirited stage of Vincent Crummles' extraordinary acting troupe, Nicholas Nickleby is a triumph of the imagination, bursting with color, humor, and poignant social commentary.
Nicholas Nickleby was Dickens' third novel, and supposedly his first romance. Nicholas Nickleby, the protagonist, is the son of a gentleman who made a bad investment (at the urging of his sweet but daft and motor-mouthed wife) and then conveniently died, leaving his wife, son, and daughter to deal with the consequences. Since this is Victorian England, where social "safety nets" were still a faintly futuristic notion, their only recourse is to rely on the kindness of their uncle, Ralph Nickleby. Unfortunately, Ralph Nickleby has all the mean-spirited selfishness of Scrooge and being the villain of the story, there is no redemptive arc for him, so he despises his late brother's son on sight, and forces his widowed sister-in-law and niece into what amounts to slum lodgings.
Nicholas, being a generally cheerful and good-hearted if somewhat hot-tempered young man, goes about trying to make his own way in life, along the way spending time in a cruel Yorkshire school, a traveling theatre troop, a very brief interview with a satirical political figure, and finally engages in a showdown with his uncle. He is aided and hindered along the way by a typically Dickensian cast of characters, most of which are extraneous to the central story.
Like his earlier books, Nicholas Nickleby was published serially. Thus, many of the chapters are episodic, and there are extended forays into relatively unimportant side plots. One of the pleasures of reading Dickens is that the storytelling style is so different than modern books. People call Dickens "wordy" and he certainly was — almost no Dickens novel is short, and Nicholas Nickleby is over 800 pages. He spends entire chapters on minor characters and adventures that don't really advance the plot much, a thing that few modern authors are given the luxury to do. But if you like Dickens, then more Dickens is never a bad thing, and even the misadventures of Vincent Crummles and his traveling theatre troupe are entertaining, as silly and pointless as Nicholas's turn as Romeo may be.
Dickens' women come in two types: empty-headed and vain (and if cast as villains, also vicious and ugly) or pure-hearted angels too good for this world. Of course the male characters are hardly less obvious archetypes, being all comic or tear-jerking and dastardly or noble and virtuous, with very little in-between. Dickens captures human drama on a larger-than-life stage, gives his characters all alliterative or evocative names, and paints them with memorable quirks and personalities that make each one distinct. His style is unmistakable, but unlike, say, Jane Austen, his stories aren't all based on the same general outline; they all have common themes, and he always touches on his social concerns. Whereas I sometimes have trouble remembering which dashing gentleman was the hero of which Austen novel, one will never confuse Nicholas Nickleby with Oliver Twist or Pip or David Copperfield.
If you have read a lot of Dickens novels, you will be able to tell that Nicholas Nickleby is one of his earlier ones. Dickens was always a great author, but his later novels tended to be slightly more mature, with comic turns but with not quite as much farce, more tightly plotted (though still sprawling and wordy), and also more pointed in their social commentary. I liked this book (I like all Dickens novels), but it does not quite rank among my favorites. (David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, and Great Expectations are still my top three, I think.)
Also by Charles Dickens: My reviews of A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, Bleak House, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, and Hard Times.
My complete list of book reviews.