Before Ebenezer Scrooge, there was Ralph Nickleby. In Nicholas Nickleby, Dicken’s third novel published in 1839, Dickens combines the humor of Pickwick Papers with the graphic social ills of Oliver Twist. Our hero is a young man named Nicholas Nickleby whose father recently died, leaving his son, daughter, and wife nearly destitute. When they travel to London to seek help from their miserly Uncle Ralph, they have no conception of the struggles they will face as they learn to survive in a hard world. From the crowded streets of impersonal London to the flamboyant color and drama of the stage, Nicholas’ adventures are thoroughly entertaining. Please be advised that there are spoilers to follow.
The characters are brilliant. Dickens, you’ve gone and done it again — created characters I love and many I hate, with a few weak ones in between that I’m just glad I don’t have to deal with in real life! The Cheerybles, the Crummles, Tim Linkinwater, and dear Miss La Creevy are great fun, and their warmhearted goodness more than balances the evil characters. Over the top they may be, but they live vibrantly in the novel, and I won’t forget them. And the villains are wonderfully villainous: Ralph Nickleby, a great Dickensian misanthrope, Mr. and Mrs. Squeers, the epitome of selfish, blatant cruelty, silly and malicious Miss Squeers, greedy Wackford Jr., and the dissipated debauchee Sir Mulberry Hawk. Dickens’ character names are delicious, as usual… Peg Sliderskrew, Arthur Gride, Mr. Lillyvick, and the rest.
Despite the heaviness of the subject matter — the nauseating abuse and neglect occurring in Yorkshire boarding schools of the time, the plight of women who are prey to rapacious men, the agony of poverty — Dickens still manages to infuse his story with some wonderful humor. Whether it’s the wry narrative voice (“Mr. Squeers’s appearance was not prepossessing. He had but one eye, and the general prejudice runs in favour of two”), the characters’ own merriment (John Browdie, your laugh is infectious even from the page), or the ridiculous comic situations (like Mrs. Nickleby’s senile admirer coming down the chimney to find her), there is much to laugh over in these pages. It’s one of the things Dickens does so well: mixing the heavy and/or melodramatic moments with unabashed humor that is still funny today.
One of the darker themes of the story is how female beauty is a commodity to be bought and sold like anything else. Dickens represents this as a heinous evil, and if he over-glorifies the delicacy and virginity of his two young heroines, I can forgive him because of his anger toward their oppressors and concern for their happiness. Early in the story he indignantly notes that the birth dates of girls were never recorded, just those of boys. Modern feminism may find Dickens a bit of a soft chauvinist, but he shouldn’t be judged by standards he never knew. It’s more fair (and enjoyable) to look at the gender issues of his work in the context of his own historical period, not ours. Dickens is rather like Victor Hugo in this way.
Sometimes Dickens’ social and moral causes get away from him and take over the narrative. In one scene Nicholas gives a lengthy diatribe against playwrights who steal the plots of struggling novelists (clearly Dickens had NO personal experience with such abuses!). The diatribe is intelligent and eloquent, but rather odd in the mouth of Nicholas, who had no previous experience in the story with that particular evil and who could hardly have been expected to possess such an articulate opinion on it. It’s a technical flaw to make Nicholas a mouthpiece in such a clumsy way, though I can understand the indignation that prompted Dickens to do so.
There have been several film adaptations of the story, but the only one I have seen is the 2002 version written and directed by Douglas McGrath and starring Charlie Hunnam, Anne Hathaway, Christopher Plummer, Romola Garai, Jim Broadbent, and Jamie Bell. The film itself is gorgeous, and I loved the opening credits rolling in front of the painted miniature stage props; such a nice allusion to the theatrical nature of the story. The casting and acting are excellent, for the most part (with some slight qualms about Hunnam’s Nicholas, but nothing major). As in the book, John Browdie is a wonderfully congenial and funny character, and Jim Broadbent and Juliet Stevenson as the Squeers are truly sadistic in a very dark (rather than maudlin) way. It was nice to see Timothy Spall (who plays Peter Pettigrew in the Harry Potter films) play a good guy in Charles Cheeryble. Romola Garai was lovely as Kate, and Ralph Nickleby’s character is handled deftly by Christopher Plummer.
As expected, parts of the story were condensed or completely dropped from the film: no Kenwigs, no Mantalinis, no Arthur Gride (Hawk takes his part), no Tim Linkinwater (he is conflated with Frank Cheeryble), barely any Miss La Creevy, no inheritance for Madeline, and no duel between Lord Frederick Verisopht and Sir Mulberry Hawk (though Verisopht does keep his brave speech!), to name a few. But though I am generally a purist, I do understand that some things will have to be cut in the process of adapting an almost eight-hundred-page novel to a two-hour film. Compressing events, changing a letter to a face-to-face confrontation, and making other similar changes don’t bother me overmuch as long as there is a good reason. It’s when the screenwriters start changing characters and plotlines dramatically that I have a problem. That didn’t happen in this film, thankfully. Nicholas Nickleby is considerably more serious than McGrath’s Emma starring Gwyneth Paltrow, but it has hints of the same light humorous touch in places. Overall, I enjoyed it very much.
This story is complete with all the unlikely coincidences requisite for a good Dickens. Sometimes the characters are a bit too dramatically Victorian to seem realistic, but you’ve just got to go with it. Yes, characters will die in each other’s arms; yes, it’s going to take Kate three days to compose herself after her first assault by Sir Mulberry Hawk; yes, Newman Noggs will devote his life to the enemies of his employer Ralph Nickleby out of sheer revenge. And somehow it all works. I don’t think that Nicholas Nickleby is considered one of Dickens’ stronger works, but I loved it and would probably rate it third among my favorites (right behind Pickwick Papers and Bleak House). Nicholas is an engaging, imperfect, humorous character who really grows into his strength throughout the course of the novel, and I greatly enjoyed cheering him on. Bravo, Dickens!