Nicholas Nickleby is an odd hybrid beast. On the one hand it is all fun and mockery, with caricatures enough to people three such novels; on the other hand it is full of a barely digested rage against injustice, poverty and greed. Even I, who has read so little Dickens, can see that it is rag-tag mish-mash of half-formed ideas, characters, feelings that will reappear in later fictions. Here is a proto-Scrooge in the form of grasping moneylender Ralph Nickleby; and surely there is a little bit of Nicholas Nickleby in David Copperfield; and something of the Cheerybles in the Fezziwigs; and something of Lillyvick in Pumblechook. They are types, I guess, that Dickens imagined and reimagined and returned to all his writing life.
The central movement of the book is simple as can be: following his father's death young Nicholas Nickleby must make his way in the world in order to support his mother and sister. In the pursuit of a career he moves his family from Devon to London and seeks the assistance of his father's only brother, Ralph Nickleby. Ralph is a twisted, vengeful character, who hoards a fortune to no end except his own gratification. He dislikes his handsome idealistic nephew on sight and helps him to a position with a corrupt, cruel Yorkshire schoolmaster out of pure spite. Thus begin Nicholas' many trials and tribulations.
The schoolmaster is the infamous one-eyed Mr Wackford Squeers, whose school is little better than a workhouse, and who proposes to keep Nicholas as an 'under master' in conditions unsuited to a dog. In a few unpleasant weeks in my home county our young hero meets and befriends the unfortunate Smike, a former pupil at the school who is now living as a virtual slave to the Squeers family. The pair soon run away, setting in motion the series of escapes, captures, betrayals, schemes and fortuitous meetings that carry us through the next 700 pages.
The synopsis might mislead you into thinking that this is a tightly plotted behemoth like Bleak House. But not a bit of it. I didn't know when I started that this was only Dickens' third novel, coming after The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist. Like all Dickens' novels Nicholas Nickleby was serialised over the course of many months, and the notes to my edition comment quite candidly on his early strategies for bulking out his editions and drawing out the suspense. At one point we have two unconnected 'stories' told between characters at an inn to take up the final pages of the instalment; Dickens wrote to his editor admitting that he had to add them in because he'd reached the end of his plotted piece with too many words to spare.
There is a good deal of padding too in the form of auxiliary characters like the seamstress Mrs Mantalini and her feckless husband; the aspirational Kenwigs family eagerly seeking the favour of Mr Lillyvick, an uncle who collects the water rates and is thereby a man of some reputation; and even the delightful Crummles, an acting family from Portsmouth who give Nicholas a place in their performing troupe. They are indifferently absorbed into the plot, and visits to them act as comic interludes. You can see how Dickens hadn't yet mastered the integration of his theme with his caricatures, and this makes the reading experience slightly uneven.
The dominant emotion in the novel - superseding all the love, kindness and compassion with which it also abounds - is anger. It fairly seethes with outrage. The experiences of Nicholas' family, and of the friends they make, often the world to be unjust, unfeeling and harsh. The everyday lives of the Londoners that form the backgroup compound this, and we're often taken on descriptive tours of the terrible, heart-breaking conditions in which people spend their lives. On occasion these lead to overt authorial rants:
'...when he thought how regularly things went on from day to day in the same unvarying round - how youth and beauty died, and manly honest hearts were poor and sad - how few they were who tenanted the stately houses, and how many those who lay in noisome pens, or rose each day and laid them down each night, and lived and died, father and son, mother and child, race upon race, and generation upon generation, without a home to shelter them or the energies of one single man directed to their aid... how ignorance was punished and never taught - how jail door gaped and gallows loomed for thousands urged towards them by circumstances darkly curtaining their very cradles' head, and but for which they have earned their honest bread and lived in peace - how many died in soul, and had no chance of life...'
In any other novel I would find this intrusion rather overblown, but for some reason not with Dickens. In the context of one of his expansive, all-encompassing stories these outbursts seem right at home; they are endearingly honest. I don't know why that is.
The anger is not only general though. The focus of the fire and brimstone is often much narrower and channeled very specifically. Mothers, fathers and other parental guardians come out of Nicholas Nickleby very badly indeed, and if the book can be said to have a single message it is: there is no such thing as 'natural' affection. The pattern of distorted parent-child relationships repeats throughout. Some are cruel. Smike is utterly abandoned by his birth family, and horribly abused by his default surrogate parents, the Squeers (as are all the boys at the school). Others are selfish and callous, like the father of Nicholas' sweetheart Madeleine Bray, who keeps her a prisoner to his whims and is willing to bargain her away for his own comfort. Still others are keen to use their children as pawns to secure an inheritance (like the Kenwigses), or to enhance their careers (like the Crummles use their daughter 'the infant phenomenon'). Even Nicholas' own mother, who loves her children dearly, is solipsistic and self-centred, seeing their triumphs primarily as her own and always claiming that her feelings of grief and her lossesn are greater than theirs. Nicholas and Kate raise their eyebrows affectionately at her delusion but it has its darker side.
The best and most loving people in the novel are those who transcend blood bonds and form relationships with others through mutual respect, compassion and sympathy. Thus Nicholas becomes like a father and a brother to poor Smike; and in turn becomes the favoured protegee of the angelic Brothers Cheeryble, Charles and Ned. The Cheerybles, both unmarried bachelors, are the epitome of Dickens' vision of disinterested love and affection. They build a new kind of family around them, made up of their clerk Tim Linkinwater, Nicholas and his family, Madeleine Bray who they adopt as their ward and their nephew Frank.
Just in case we were in any doubt Brother Charles states the case against 'natural affections' quite strongly when Smike's apparent father tries to claim him back and is rejected:
'My dear sir,' replied brother Charles, 'you fall ino he very common mistake of charging upon Nature, matters with which she has not the smallest connexion, and for which she is in no way responsible. Men talk of nature as an abstract thing, and lose sight of what is natural while they do so. Here is a lad who had never felt a parent's care, who has scarcely known anything all his life but suffering and sorrow, presented to a man who he is told is his father, and whose first act is to signify his intention of putting an end to his short term fo happiness: of consigning him to his old fate, and taking him from the only friend he has ever had... If Nature, in such a case, put into that lad's break but one secret prompting which urged him towards his father and away from you, she would a liar and an idiot.'
Am I being cynical when I read this to mean that, for Dickens, families are sites of conflict, indebtedness, exploitation and even emotional blackmail? Perhaps I'm allowing a biographical reading to creep in, as I know that he had a difficult, unresolved relationship with his own parents; and also proved himself an indifferent and occasionally ruthless father to his children. I shall be very interested to read Claire Tomalin's new biography for her own reading on this.