Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist Jane Smiley is an essayist, scholar and fan of legendary writer, Charles Dickens. In 2002, Smiley wrote Charles Dickens: A Life, a contemporary biography and analysis of how Charles Dickens' life influenced his characters and literary works. Read a special excerpt from the beginning of her book and begin to see Dickens in a new light.
Charles Dickens was a public man and a famous man, and he assumed both of these slightly different roles in his early twenties. His first sketch, "A Dinner at Poplar Walk," was published in the Monthly Magazine in December 1833. Dickens, born on February 7, 1812, was only twenty-one, but because of his work as a parliamentary reporter (he had taught himself shorthand and was able to take down speeches word for word), he was already familiar with seeing his name in print. Nevertheless, he related later that "I walked down to Westminster Hall, and turned into it for half an hour, because my eyes were so dimmed with joy and pride, that they could not bear the street, and were not fit to be seen there." Further sketches published in monthly and weekly magazines over the following months attracted considerable notice, and when Sketches by Boz appeared in volume form in February and December 1836, they were well reviewed. What everyone, including Dickens himself, considered especially remarkable was their breadth of scope, and in particular the variety of lower-class characters and scenes depicted, perhaps a first in English literature. One reviewer called them "a perfect picture of the morals, manners, and habits of a great portion of English Society."
At only twenty-four, Dickens found himself in an advantageous authorial position—he was invited to contribute the text for a series of sporting engravings to be published by the firm of Chapman and Hall. They offered Dickens £14 per month (it is impossible to know exactly what this would be equivalent to in modern dollars, but it is useful to multiply any Dickensian sum by 35, which would make his fee about $500). The artist, Robert Seymour, was successful and famous, and it was he who was supposed to take the lead in conceiving and guiding the collaboration. The arrangement lasted two months, until Seymour committed suicide. In even this short a time, though, Dickens was able to assert his own resolve that he should direct the project, and by the time another artist, Hablot Browne, was hired, Dickens had gotten himself a raise, increased the proportion of the writing to the illustrations, and turned the whole endeavor into The Pickwick Papers, which was destined to become a publishing phenomenon.
The Pickwick Papers was published between March 1836 and November 1837. From that time to the end of his life, Charles Dickens was a figure of whom everyone had something to say, so it is appropriate to take a look at him upon his first real entrance into the condition of celebrity. First and foremost, friends and acquaintances noted his lively presence, his charm, his good looks, and his colorful style of dress. Though rather short, and even slight, Dickens was extremely straight in his bearing, and his friend and future biographer John Forster recalled "the quickness, keenness, and practical power, the eager, restless, energetic outlook...Light and motion flashed from every part of it." Forster asserted that humor, "habitual, unbounded, and resistless," was his most essential characteristic, but everyone he knew expressed astonishment at Dickens's level of activity, whether the object of that activity was work, games, exercise, amateur acting and play production, charitable projects, or anything else. He was good company and he loved all sociable amusements. He later commented that at this time of his life he was going out to the theater sometimes every night of the week—not only to see the more respectable offerings at Covent Garden and Drury Lane, but to any and all sorts of shows, spectacles, pageants, and performances. Himself adept at declaiming, singing, and performing, he was invited everywhere and participated fully in all forms of the social life of the time—parties and "at homes," nights on the town with groups of male friends, dinners, jaunts, impromptu adventures. Already, though, observers were finding something uncanny about his manner. As astute as he was charming, he often gave people the sense that they were being "scanned" from top to bottom. Extant portraits and photographs certainly fail to reveal the Dickens that his contemporaries knew, especially in the early years, since for various technical reasons subjects were never pictured or photographed smiling. It is especially important, therefore, to be mindful that what the twenty-first century is able to see of Dickens is the merest brittle shell of how he appeared to those around him.
The Pickwick Papers sold fewer than 500 copies of the first monthly number. The fourth number sold 4,000, the eleventh 14,000, and the last numbers around 40,000. Once published in volume form, it sold well for the rest of Dickens's life and after. By 1878, it had sold 1.6 million copies in various editions.
The success of his literary efforts enabled Dickens to progress in his private life, and on the second of April 1836, he married Catherine Hogarth, the daughter of George Hogarth, the editor of the newly established Evening Chronicle, a journal to which Dickens contributed twenty pieces. The Hogarths were Scottish, and before becoming a journalist George had been a lawyer in Edinburgh and the legal adviser and intimate friend of Walter Scott, an author Dickens very much admired. Catherine was the eldest of nine children, and the Hogarths were a lively, clever family. George himself was an accomplished musician and served as music critic of another newspaper that Dickens had written for the Morning Chronicle.
The twenty-four-year-old Dickens embraced the Hogarth family and, in turn, was embraced by them. He was impressed with their cultural connections, their liveliness, and their talents, especially the musical ones, which Dickens had a particular affinity for, being himself a performer and ready singer of popular songs, and he treated not only George but also Mrs. Hogarth with great affection. It may have seemed to him that he had found the one family that perfectly reflected his own aspirations to a hardworking prominence that was both artistic and bourgeois. An earlier suit had failed. His beloved, a young woman named Maria Beadnell, daughter of a banker, whom he had courted obsessively for four years, had finally rejected him (or her connections had broken off the relationship—the circumstances remain unclear) in May 1833.
Catherine Hogarth was a placid and gentle young woman of twenty quite unlike Maria Beadnell. Dickens's letters to her show that he felt affectionate toward Catherine, though not especially passionate, and that he took directing and molding her as seriously as he took pleasing and courting her—he was moving eagerly into the accepted Victorian role of paterfamilias. He also grew quite fond of, and intimate with, Catherine's younger sister Mary, who moved in with the young couple. His marriage and his relationship with the Hogarths, then, nicely expressed who he thought himself to be at the time, as well as his ideal of family life—a sort of cozy, busy, fecund, sociable, and comfortable household where people with imagination, energy, and considerable social mobility could gather and find both enjoyment and stimulation. The family formed by Charles, Catherine, and Mary seems to have suited all of them, and for Dickens it was as close as he ever came to domestic happiness. The gentle and affectionate, but somewhat languid Catherine satisfied the role of wife and mother, while the quicker Mary offered a more virginal and intellectual form of female companionship.
By the age of twenty-four, Dickens had already been working for nine years. He had applied himself to every task with vigor, and through a mixture of indefatigable endeavor, talent, imagination, charm, and focus, he had succeeded at nearly everything he tried. Only his great passion for acting had been stymied: on the day of his audition as a professional actor, he had fallen ill with a cold. Publication, of course, and the huge success of Pickwick fixed his professional course, but he could never be said to have "failed" at acting—he came back to it over and over, in amateur theatricals and other performances, and always received excellent reviews. In addition, in this same period, he became friends with William Charles Macready, one of the greatest actors of the Victorian period, a man who did much to rehabilitate the plays of William Shakespeare from the corrupted versions common in the eighteenth century.
Foremost among Dickens's friends was John Forster, another literary bon vivant and another ambitious and self-made man. Dickens and Forster were close associates in every way for the rest of Dickens's life, in personal, artistic, and public affairs. Forster handled many of Dickens's business matters, was his artistic and editorial adviser on many projects, and at last wrote the first and in some ways the most exhaustive (though discreet) Dickens biography. There were plenty of other friends, mostly artists, authors, and other men of the artistic/public sort.
Dickens's own family was like an unsuccessful version of the Hogarth family. John Dickens was a skilled journalist, also of a convivial temperament, and considered to be a man of some charm. Of Elizabeth Dickens, too, it was said that she was vivacious and winning. But the elder Dickenses had led a life of such improvidence, marked by so many changes in circumstances, that Charles Dickens's attitude toward them, both together and individually, was at the very least extremely complex and in some ways a contrast to his general charitableness. In the early years of his marriage and professional success, he was tormented by the fecklessness as well as the importunities of his parents and his brothers. With success and marriage, he had separated himself from the life he had led with them (a life that he hardly ever spoke of), but he could not as easily separate himself from his relations themselves. He attempted to find them work, to find them places to live (sometimes at quite a distance), to keep them at arm's length, but he repeatedly found himself bailing them out of financial difficulties. This was especially true of his father, and Dickens often spoke of his parents with exasperation in letters to friends. Even so, for fifteen months, it seemed as though Charles and Catherine Dickens were especially favored in every way—Dickens was busy, rich, and popular. He knew at once and without being told how interconnected fame, money, influence, and artistic independence were, and he asserted himself almost immediately to sustain all four of them through hard work, aggressive business dealings, and self-promotion. And, of course, the exercise of genius.
Catherine Dickens gave birth to Charles junior on January 2, 1837, and in April the couple moved out of their rooms into a house. Then, on May 7, after an illness of only a few days, seventeen-year-old Mary Hogarth died suddenly. She died in Dickens's arms, and he was so undone by the loss that he had to put off completing the installment of The Pickwick Papers that he was working on. He wore one of her rings on his finger for the rest of his life and kept a lock of her hair and her clothes. When, five years later, one of her brothers died and was buried with her, Dickens wrote that "the thought of being excluded from her dust" was like "losing her a second time." Over the course of the next thirty years, he thought of her constantly and did not think that the influence of her spirit over him could be exaggerated. She is often said to have inspired several of Dickens's female characters of a certain type, of which Agnes, in David Copperfield, is an example— virtuous, compliant, and virginal, voiceless in a sense, and almost always too good for this world. Catherine could never take her place or fill, by herself, the two roles that Dickens needed filled by the women in his life.
The Pickwick Papers is not a book that holds much appeal for the modern reader. Episodic sporting adventures, however, were quite popular at the time, and a large part of their appeal was in the accompanying illustrations. The "novel" has the looseness and digressiveness of many eighteenth-century works like Tom Jones and Tristram Shandy, both of which Dickens admired. Dickens had not at that point developed his particular social vision, especially the darker, angrier parts of it, and his style, though already distinct, does not have the incandescent and concentrated ironic power that he achieved in later works. What he does have, full grown, and what readers noticed almost at once, is that facility in drawing characters that are not only entertaining but unique. An early example is Alfred Jingle, who joins Pickwick's party of friends and at first seems benign enough. His characteristic mode of expression is a sort of word-association utterance of disjointed cant phrases: "Splendid—capital. Kent, sir—everybody knows Kent—apples, cherries, hops, and women. Glass of wine, sir?" And a few moments later: "'Beg your pardon, sir,' said the stranger, 'bottle stands—pass it round—way of the sun—through the button-hole—no heeltaps.'" The Pickwickians are deceived by Jingle's bonhomie and apparent savoir faire, until he attempts to elope with the sister of their host. Only when he is being bought off by the man's lawyer does he speak in coherent sentences. When the lawyer suggests that £50 is a "good round sum—a man like you could treble it in no time— great deal to be done with fifty pounds, my dear sir," Jingle has no trouble responding "coolly," "More to be done with a hundred and fifty." Jingle's mode of expression is funny in itself, partly because it is mechanical and repetitive in rhythm and partly because the associated phrases are unexpected, and the shift to a more normal speech pattern reveals and underscores Jingle's duplicity. This is the absolute heart of Charles Dickens's idiosyncratic genius: what Jingle communicates to the reader, and what Dickens communicates through him, accumulates meanings and layers with every piece of dialogue and is simultaneously interesting and economical. And Jingle's style stands in contrast with the narrator's and the Pickwickians' more discursive manner, adding yet another layer.
Throughout his life, Dickens had a superb talent for mimicry, for speaking in voices, that almost amounted to allowing the voices all around him to speak through him. It was a talent he cultivated, but also himself marveled at, telling Forster that his characters came to him and spoke through him. David Lodge, one of the foremost comic novelists of our own day, and an experienced theorist, has written in After Bakhtin that the only way successfully to come to terms with the variety and scope of the novel is through analyzing it as a chorus of individual voices speaking in varying styles and tones, rather than as a single rhetorical expression. This is certainly true of Dickens as much as or more than any other novelist. But it is important to remember, too, that all of these voices are filtered through Dickens's consciousness, that every character is Dickens, whoever happened to be the original inspiration. Otherwise it is impossible to come to any comprehension of the variety, and variability, of the man himself.
Perhaps the most famous and best-loved character in The Pickwick Papers is Sam Weller. In the first few numbers of The Pickwick Papers, Dickens ascribes qualities of wisdom and benevolence to Pickwick himself, and to his friends, but these qualities remain rather abstract until the introduction of Sam, who is eloquently easygoing, street smart, and kindly. He is a foil for Pickwick's own bland innocence, and he provides commentary on what could easily become a series of meaningless episodes. His voice substitutes for the voice of the narrator, which the young Dickens has not yet mastered as he soon will. Sam Weller's voice is free, whereas the narrator's voice is still inhibited by middle-class convention and eighteenth-century diction. The innate skill for writing compelling voices that Dickens shows so well with Jingle and several of the other characters he practices and develops in Sam Weller. As soon as he is introduced, he is interesting: "Well, you are a nice young 'ooman for a musical party, you are. Look at these her boots—eleven pair o' boots; and one shoe as b'longs to number six, with the wooden leg..." His dialogue has accent and rhythm; it expresses his character while showing what he is doing and what he has observed. He adds something unexpected to the narrative every time he opens his mouth. Very soon after Sam appears and disappears, the Pickwickians witness the Eatanswill election. In this scene we have the beginnings of Dickensian social satire. The narrative style is slightly more ironic than earlier, but neither the narrator nor Pickwick himself can assume such an ironic voice without materially changing how they have already been presented. It is no coincidence that Sam returns to the narrative soon after, the perfect solution to the problem of how to comment upon the events of the narrative without betraying the tone of what has gone before. That the introduction of Sam Weller coincided with the rise in sales of the serial numbers indicates that through him Dickens had found his marriage of story and theme—great variety and breadth of incident plus overt, but comically expressed, social commentary. This form would remain constant to the end of Dickens's life, changing in mood and balance, but always constituting what we consider to be quintessentially "Dickensian."
No author's life is a strand of pearls, with books or plays or poems strung in a neat sequence upon a smooth string of personal events, but Dickens's life is even less sequential than most. Events and projects cascaded over one another, each requiring the author's intensive focus. He did not write the two volumes of Sketches, and then Pickwick, and then Oliver Twist, and so on. Rather, he was still gathering together the Sketches while he was writing Pickwick, and Oliver Twist began to run as a serial before Pickwick had finished. He was also writing essays and articles, and in some of them can be seen the germs of characters or ideas that are later developed more extensively in the novels. And during the extremely productive period of the late 1830s, Charles Dickens threw himself into two other activities that were to shape much of the rest of his life. One of these was editing.
In the autumn of 1836, publisher Richard Bentley approached Dickens with a plan for a new monthly magazine that Dickens would edit, and in January 1837, Dickens introduced the first number. This was the author's first experience wearing a hat he would continue to wear for many decades. He was no figurehead, but a very active and opinionated director of all aspects of the magazine. He read and considered eighty manuscripts each month, then prepared them for publication. He even did the proofreading. When his relationship with Bentley broke down after only a few years, it was because he found Bentley too interfering, not because he felt overburdened by work (though he often felt overburdened by work). Dickens was always looking for control and autonomy, and his career was marked by ferocious battles with publishers over contracts, money, and independence. His correspondence with authors shows that he had specific and very strong views about how pieces should be written and what effect they should have. His views were both aesthetic and political—to make a piece more lively and interesting was also to take a stand against the mechanical dreariness that Dickens felt was overwhelming English life. He was always in favor of imagination and "fancy," always opposed to dullness and the ponderousness that was a mask for social cruelty. His success in depicting the variety of lower-class English life was no accident—he was both interested in the lower orders and eager to show them to themselves and to the middle and upper classes.
The first ten parts of Oliver Twist were written at the same time Dickens was writing the last ten parts of Pickwick. Each section of Oliver Twist ran to about eight thousand words, and each section of Pickwick ran to about twice that or a bit more, so Dickens was writing ninety pages a month of these novels, while also working on other essays, articles, speeches, and plays. Evidence is that he would write the dark, ironic chapters of Oliver Twist first, then the light, comic chapters of Pickwick. The death of Mary Hogarth caused him to miss the June number of both novels and, some critics say, to soften the harshness of Oliver Twist; but in spite of his profound mourning, he never stinted his activities.
All through 1836 and 1837—that is, while writing, editing, getting married, moving house, and having children (Mary, called Mamie, was born on March 6, 1838)—Dickens was also writing plays and promoting or overseeing their production. He wrote four dramatic works during this period: The Strange Gentleman a comic piece; The Village Coquettes, an operetta; Is She His Wife?, a farce; and The Lamplighter, another farce. And though all of them went into production, and three of them had performances, only The Strange Gentleman ran for more than a handful of performances, and Dickens (reluctantly, perhaps) gave up playwriting for the time being. While not lasting works of art, the plays are testament both to Dickens's creative energy and to his surpassing love of the theater, which would emerge in later life in several potent ways.
Along with A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist is probably the best known of Dickens's narratives, certainly because, like many of Dickens's own works and like many other nineteenth-century novels, it was reworked for the stage, where the simple and vivid story of the workhouse child who falls among thieves and then is rescued and restored to his own wealthy grandfather made a dramatic and cohesive play. The arc of the narrative is fairy tale–like, but the details of Oliver's companions and surroundings came directly from Dickens's immediate world. The New Poor Law, under which members of families were parted from one another according to gender, with the feeding regulations that Oliver so memorably flouts when he asks Mr. Bumble the beadle for more, had been in effect for some three years and was widely opposed by more liberal and radical elements of English society, of which Dickens counted himself one. The area of London where Fagin and his gang of thieves lived was very close to where Dickens lived while he was doing much of the writing, and Dickens, with his lifelong love of walking, was intimately familiar with it (as with most of London and, indeed, all of the places where he lived). Dickens's outrage at the primitive conditions that the poor of London had to live in was genuine, both on their behalf and as what we might term an "ecological understanding" that there could be no real separation between the rich and the poor, the healthy and the diseased, the dirty and the clean, the educated and the ignorant. Images of the flow of all things abound in his fiction from beginning to end, and in some sense he was always striving in his work to include more and more, to make each novel bigger and broader and also more particular, and to make the links between all things less linear and more netlike, to reproduce on the page the simultaneity and comprehensiveness of the way his mind and world around him joined.
Like The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist was related in form to other works that were popular at the time, in this case narratives of the lives of real orphans; but, according to Ackroyd, it was the first English novel to take a child as its protagonist. In some sense, Oliver Twist turned the world upside down and offered a new view of things to Dickens's readers—life at the bottom of Victorian society, as seen through the eyes of a child. The form allowed the author to approach at a distance issues of his own childhood that he was not yet ready to address, among them feelings of victimization and abandonment.
As a narrator, the author was openly satirical. Early in the novel, for example, when Oliver is apprenticed to the undertaker Sowerberry, he incurs the ire of Mr. Bumble the beadle by defending the honor of his unknown mother. Mr. Bumble declares that Oliver's spirit must come from too rich a diet. The narrator comments, "The liberality of Mrs. Sowerberry to Oliver had consisted in a profuse bestowal upon him of all the dirty odds and ends which nobody else would eat, so there was a great deal of meekness and self-devotion in her voluntarily remaining under Mr. Bumble's heavy accusation. Of which, to do her justice, she was wholly innocent in thought, word, and deed." And Oliver Twist is especially rich in dialogue (perhaps evidence of Dickens's concurrent play-writing); the objects of the author's scorn repeatedly satirize themselves: "'Have the goodness to look at me,' said Mr. Bumble, fixing his eyes upon [his wife]. ('If she stands such an eye as that,' said Mr. Bumble to himself, 'she can stand anything. It is an eye I never knew to fail with paupers. If it fails with her, my power is gone.')" But, of course, Oliver Twist is as famous for melodrama as for satire, and Dickens's ironic tone frequently gives way to something more sentimental (as with Mr. Brownlow and Rose Maylie) and to something more sinister (as with Bill Sikes and Monks). In fact, Oliver's journey offers Dickens the perfect opportunity to experiment, in the rather tight confines of a simple plot, with a diversity of character voices, almost all of them extreme— Oliver is extremely young and innocent, Mr. Bumble is extremely pompous, Mr. Brownlow is extremely benevolent, Bill Sikes is extremely cruel, Fagin is extremely cunning—and with variety in the narrative voice.
Every novelist seeks, both consciously and unconsciously, to extend his range of expression. Dickens was especially energetic in seeking out dramatic incidents and unusual characters and new material; he also possessed a constitutional restlessness that brought him into contact with a range of classes and individuals almost uniquely broad. In his twenties, he was not unlike other youthful authors. Even though he was a genius, he had artistic ambitions that he was not yet technically equipped to fulfill, and he used his first three books to write his way toward fulfilling them. The Sketches expressed the plenitude of his interests but did not unify them. Pickwick gave voice to his very rich and ready comic sensibility but suffered from a certain bland digressiveness. Oliver Twist allowed him access to a wide variety of strong emotions, both through and about his characters and their world, but was too vividly colored and suffered from a lack of the very naturalness that the other books had possessed.
Nevertheless, between December 1, 1833, when his first piece ran in the Monthly Magazine, and November 9, 1838, when Oliver Twist was published in three volumes, Charles Dickens had become the most important literary figure of his day, the first Victorian novelist. Victoria herself was only newly crowned (as of January 1837). Novelists who were later to emerge as Dickens's contemporaries and rivals, such as William Makepeace Thackeray, Charlotte Brontë, and George Eliot, were still at home or in school. Even Elizabeth Gaskell, close in age to Dickens, hadn't begun to write. In a very real sense, he was in the process of creating the literary age that the others would be part of. He was so popular and so dominant a figure as both author and editor that the others would have to create their literary sensibilities more or less in reference to his.
But Charles Dickens was not only a famous author, he was also a self-conscious and responsible citizen, who never forgot that his fame gave him an unusual opportunity to comment upon and influence political events. Already by 1839, at the age of twenty-seven, Dickens was being honored by his friends for his active benevolence—Macready declared that Dickens "had made the amelioration of his fellow man the object of all his labors." Consciousness of the sufferings of the impoverished classes ran through all his activities, from the walks he took that carried him into every neighborhood, to the issues, such as the New Poor Law, that he wrote about, both in fiction and in his journalism, to the public speeches that he made and the fund-raisers that he organized to benefit fellow artists or their dependents.
Charity and charitable enterprises were at the very heart of Victorian life and constituted the main way in which those unable to take care of themselves were taken care of by society. Very few social services as we know them were provided by the government—rather, churches and privately supported charitable institutions, upholding a wide variety of theories and methods, provided education, sustenance, sometimes employment, and care for those in need. Dickens did not uniformly support all of these institutions, especially not those sponsored by Evangelical groups. The combination of puritanical narrowness and crabbed strictness opposed Dickens's instinctive sense that true charity was an outgrowth of kindly benevolence and good cheer. He had his own theories about the failures of his society and their proper alleviation, and he was frequently in sympathy with radical political ideas. At the same time, he deeply distrusted social unrest, including incipient revolutionary movements, labor strikes, or any potential violent confrontation between classes. Social order was his highest goal, a social order that recognized the responsibility of all to all and made plenty of room for the pleasures of life—entertainment, good fellowship, good food and drink, congenial surroundings, familial affection. While he feared social unrest, he deplored any means by which the moneyed classes might shirk their social responsibilities: harsh poor laws, legal obfuscation, bureaucratic incompetence and red tape, failure to attend to public works and public sanitation, or simple personal selfishness and profligacy. It can be fairly argued, in this context, that Dickens never shirked his. His mode of life demonstrated that he lived by play as well as work, believed equally in the value of each, and promoted the value of both for all members of Victorian society. In 1839, Dickens met Angela Burdett-Coutts, the heiress to the Coutts banking fortune, the wealthiest woman in England other than the queen. Two years younger than Dickens, Miss Coutts remained single until eleven years after Dickens's death and devoted herself to a wide range of charitable projects, in many of which Dickens was her partner and agent, especially a project for retraining and rehabilitating fallen women, called Urania Cottage.
From his earliest writings, Dickens frequently expressed the opinion that ignorance and want go hand in hand and together cause many social ills, from disease to crime to social unrest. Over and over, his depictions of children included critiques of cruel, ineffectual, and neglectful educational institutions, and he relentlessly made the point that the child is father to the man. In his third novel, Nicholas Nickleby (which began to appear at the end of March 1838), he succeeded in bringing together several of his concerns and several of his customary styles, and he produced what may be seen as his first wide-ranging "Dickensian" novel. Depiction of an educational institution—one of the "Yorkshire schools," where illegitimate and otherwise inconvenient children were warehoused at low cost by their families—was his avenue into the novel, but as yet he was not quite ready to form the entire narrative around a single overarching theme, as he was later to do with Bleak House and Little Dorrit. He took as his protagonist a young man not unlike himself or, perhaps, a young man who was a combination of himself and the standard hero of a melodrama. Nicholas's father dies of grief over losing his property, and Nicholas, his sister, Kate, and their mother go to London and seek the aid of their uncle, Ralph Nickleby. Ralph is a moneylender, a greedy, heartless rich man who has no family feeling other than a long-standing contemptuous envy for his more humane but less successful brother. Ralph and Nicholas are soon bitter enemies. Ralph consents to help Mrs. Nickleby and Kate on the condition that Nicholas accept employment with Squeers, the proprietor of one of the Yorkshire schools.
The plot of Nicholas Nickleby is episodic and owes a considerable amount to the devices of early Victorian drama—Ralph's villainy is unrelieved and relentless, and Nicholas's heart is invariably pure. It is the peripheral characters that Nicholas encounters as he makes his way who supply the humor and psychological interest. The young, romantic lead characters are not so idiosyncratic, and their dilemmas are rather formulaic. But Nicholas Nickleby is a lively and entertaining reading experience and, in the context of Dickens's other works, has several features of interest. Whereas the Pickwickians went out into the world to see what they might see, a leisure activity, and Oliver went out to find himself a home, Nicholas must confront the choices of a life work and a life partner (choices Dickens himself had had to make rather recently). He has to find a way to make himself an agent in the world rather than an observer, like the Pickwickians, but neither does he need or desire to escape the world, like Oliver; so Dickens has a look at several types of work—education, art, theater, finance, business, and fashionable dressmaking. There is even a portrayal of aristocratic profligacy as a career. Nicholas's story is the story of making choices, and therefore seeking maturity, though in the conventional modes of work and domestic life.
It is evident from the tone of the novel, which is ebullient and lively, that Dickens was enjoying his own domestic life (a few days before the publication of the novel in volume form, at the end of October 1839, Dickens and Catherine had a third child, Kate). The final image of Nickleby is of happy marital fertility—Nicholas and Madeline's children gathered about the quiet grave of Smike, honoring his memory. Nickleby is remarkable among Dickens's work for other reasons as well. Sir Mulberry Hawke and his associates are open sexual predators, who prey upon Kate with the collusion of her uncle, and, in a different way, the lascivious designs of the old miser, Gride, upon Madeline Bray are expressed and developed. In fact, much of the peril of Madeline's sacrificial marriage arises from the image of the young beautiful girl in the arms of the repulsive old man. Nicholas Nickleby is full of lusty men, young and old, and their beautiful objects of desire. In an interesting twist, Mr. Mantalini, who lives off his wife, repeatedly uses the language of ardent romance to woo her and blind her to the financial ruin he is bringing upon her establishment. This relative openness about romance and sexuality is not characteristic of later Dickens novels, which take a much less earthy view of happy domesticity and a much darker view of marriage in general. But the brightness of Nickleby is of its historical as well as its biographical moment—at the end of the 1830s, the respectability of Victorianism had not yet entirely supplanted the rowdiness of the eighteenth century, and traces of older ways remain in what we might otherwise see as the first truly characteristic novel of the most characteristic novelist of the Victorian period.
Nicholas Nickleby was successful as a serial publication, selling fifty thousand copies of the first number and maintaining sales throughout, then selling well as a volume, too. Its popularity did not sustain itself, however, and the novel became one of Dickens's least read works, a high-spirited but not quite successful transitional novel in which Dickens began to try out the ideas and methods that would bear fruit a few years later.
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