Author: Charles Dickens
Published By: CRW Publishing Ltd.
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
Having been unfortunate enough to miss out on some of the classics most of my friends read in school, I have made it my mission to find and read as many of these as I can now that I am an adult. I have read most of Charles Dickens’ works, but had yet to read Nicholas Nickleby. As a fan of the Collector’s Library books, I decided to find this version of the book and purchase it. Once I received the cloth-bound book with it’s built in bookmark and gold-gilded pages, my jaw dropped. Twelve hundred pages worth of Dickens! Well, I thought, I had better get started, and I quickly opened up the book to the first page.
The story opens upon the passing of Nicholas Nickleby’s father, a pleasant man who lost everything to a poor investment prior to his death. His wife, daughter and son seek out Ralph Nickleby, Nicholas’ rich, greedy uncle. Worrying that his brother’s children will sap him of his wealth, Ralph decides to rid himself of them. He sends the headstrong Nicholas away as an assistant to a Yorkshire boarding school owner and finds Kate, Nicholas’ sister, a job working at a dress shop whose owner’s husband owes money to Ralph.
Entertaining misgivings about leaving his family, and even more about the school‘s proprietor, Nicholas decides he must make the best of things. Unfortunately, after witnessing the many abuses perpetrated on the poor children at this school, especially the somewhat lame and addled Smike, Nicholas can be still no more. His temper gets the best of him and he gives the headmaster some of his own medicine before leaving the school. Smike, seeing Nicholas as his only friend in the world, follows and the two set out for London to find Nicholas’ family.
Kate’s job at the dress shop becomes problematic as well when one of the young women in the shop begins to see her as a threat to her position. Her home life is likewise threatened when her uncle puts her in an unfavorable position with several of his ill-mannered acquaintances. Even worse, when Nicholas returns home, he finds that he is being sought for robbery and assault thanks to the Yorkshire school headmaster. He strikes out on his own, hoping to earn enough money to create a better life for his family. But if Uncle Ralph has his way, his entire family will end up in ruin or worse - dead.
Unbeknownst to Ralph Nickleby, there is a traitor in his midst - one who sympathizes with Nicholas and his family and would do anything to help them. Will Ralph Nickleby succeed in destroying the family of his own flesh and blood, or will Nicholas be the one who is victorious, restoring his family to a sense of the worth and happiness they once knew with his father?
When one begins a twelve hundred page journey, the ride can seem to be a daunting one. However, Charles Dickens has a way of captivating the reader, instantly engrossing them in the characters and the story. The reader connects to the characters and becomes invested in their outcomes. Thus, although the book was long, the story was entertaining and I finished it relatively quickly.
As with most of Charles Dickens’ stories, Nicholas Nickleby is a social commentary. Most of Dickens’ novels are reminders that those who have money should not hoard it and look down on those less fortunate. But this novel has an added commentary about the condition of the Yorkshire schools of the time. Apparently, the schools were in bad shape, offering very little in the way of education and much in the way of child abuse. In an introduction to the story, Dickens tells us that he has based the Yorkshire school in this novel on a number of such schools in his time to expose them for what they are and perhaps inspire better of them.
The story of Nicholas and his sister Kate is inspiring. Nicholas is at once a likeable man for his compassion, passion for life and love for his family. His honesty and integrity are a stark contrast to the foil of this novel, Ralph Nickleby. Nicholas is not one to attach value to material things and his eventual outcome is come upon honestly and with great humility. Kate is a stronger female character than one would expect to find in a Dickens’ novel. She has a strict sense of what is right and wrong and finds that she must be strong as her addle-brained mother can in no way be counted on to be the head of the family. She endures quite a bit in an effort to earn enough to keep the both of them going while Nicholas is gone and, as such, I view her as a heroine in this novel.
Ralph Nickleby is reminiscent of A Christmas Carol’s Scrooge and we can see what might have actually happened to Scrooge had he not repented his ways. In fact, this character is such an evil man, that we long to see his downfall. I can honestly say that I was waiting with baited breath for the moment when Ralph Nickleby would finally get what he deserved, although I was utterly unprepared for how that event comes about.
Of course, its quite a journey we are taken on before that can take place and the characters we meet along the way range from despicable to loveable to rather amusing. We note that anyone acquainted with Ralph is usually on the shady and unsavory side, with one exception. Newman Noggs, a former gentleman whose passion for drink and problematic investing has put him in a position of poverty. As an ill-treated employee of Ralph Nickleby, Newman reminds me a bit of Bob Crachit, Scrooge’s underpaid and oft abused clerk, minus the family and plus the drinking problem. Despite his issues, we discover that Newman still retains a sense of pride and honor and a sense of what is right. He, possibly, is the character that goes through the most change in this novel. People Nicholas meets along his adventures usually turn out to be rather happy people with minor faults, large hearts and great compassion, thus showing Nicholas that there is good in the world - not all men can be like his uncle and his “friends”.
Despite the length of the novel, the story was so captivating that I could hardly put the book down. I can honestly say that I enjoyed Nicholas Nickleby more than any other Dickens’ novel I have read to date. The story was unrushed and therefore complete, leaving no stray threads to be wondered over. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel and would recommend it as one of the best classical works out there.