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Nicholas Nickleby

Nicholas Nickleby

Author: Charles Dickens
First published: 1838-39, by Chapman and Hall

Nicholas Nickleby is not my favorite book by Dickens. In fact, it is one of my least favorite books by Dickens. But it is an extremely important book in Dickens’s career because, though he was already quite famous when it was first published in 1839, it was the book that in many ways made him an author.

At the time of Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens was still writing almost exclusively under his pseudonym “Boz.” But with Nickleby, he started putting his real name to his work, and in the front of the first edition of the book his publishers, Chapman and Hall, provided an engraved portrait of the young and handsome author—the antecedent to the modern-day dust jacket photo. Nicholas Nickleby was also the first novel for which Dickens, after much negotiation, came away owning the exclusive copyright.

The story of Nicholas Nickleby is typical early Dickens stuff—a melodramatic hero too perfect and honorable to be believed, a family plagued by ruin, mercenary and lecherous villains, damsels in distress, the bucolic Eden of the countryside contrasted with the stink and soot of London. It is the brother volume to the more familiar Oliver Twist, which Dickens was writing for another publisher (Richard Bentley) at the very same time. It’s no coincidence that the two greatest and most famous Dickens stage adaptations—Lionel Bart’s Oliver! (1960) and David Edgars’s Nicholas Nickleby (1980)—are of these two fast-paced and episodic books from this particular time period.

Nicholas Nickleby is really like two novels. The first half is rambling and quixotic, reaching back to Dickens’s first novel, The Pickwick Papers (1837), and the discursive traditions of the 18th century. The second half is more coherent and dramatic, demonstrating the roots of the elaborate and magnificent plots that Dickens would go on to create in his later novels. My favorite characters in Nicholas Nickleby are probably the Cheerbyle brothers, who appear magically in the middle of the book to save the day, and mark a kind of transition point in the novel. They are not memorable for their language or complexity, but rather for the ridiculous degree of benevolence that they bestow on all who cross their path. (Think Scrooge at the other end of the spectrum.) Their generosity is so absurd and unbelievable that you can’t help but come away from the book laughing, and laughing hard.

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