I read Dickens. For fun. There, I said it. Aside from “Tale of Two Cities” being a required read in high school, I hadn’t really delved into any of Dickens’ other novels until my late 30’s when a co-worker gave me a copy of David Copperfield in a holiday gift exchange. I was hooked after that and have been hitting his canon (snicker, snicker) a novel or two a year since. So…I’m old and I read Dickens and, to further the lewdness portion of the program, I picked up “Nicholas Nickleby” primarily because I want to see the film adaptation with Charlie Hunnam and I’m a stickler about reading the book before I see the movie. A Cougar reviews Dickens. Fabulous.
The novel follows the aftermath of a father’s death and the subsequent impoverishment of his wife, daughter and son, Nicholas Nickleby. They travel to London to seek assistance from their uncle, Ralph Nickleby, who is basically Scrooge with a serious grudge against his late brother and his family. Weave around this many subplots of thievery, exploitation, and thwarted love affairs and you’ve got “NN”.
Dickens is funny, people. If you can slow down enough to wrap your head around the English language, which is actually utilized in his writing, it is laugh out loud funny. Most of the characters are completely absurd and totally self unaware and skip about wreaking havoc in one another’s lives, whether by design or ignorance. Usually, the ha-ha is balanced out by some pretty dark stuff like horrible labor conditions, child abuse and abject poverty.
“NN”, however bleak and violent most of its material is, is always overshadowed by the ridiculousness of most of the characters, even the most vile ones. Schoolmaster, Wackford Squeers, rakes in the tuition of his students only to subsequently starve, punish and freeze them to death in unsafe and unsanitary conditions. His character serves as more of a snake oil salesman and less of a monster. He’s doing some awful stuff, but he’s pretty damned funny doing it:
‘Grazing,’ said Squeers, raising his voice, under the impression that as Ralph failed to comprehend him, he must be deaf. ‘When a boy gets weak and ill and don’t relish his meals, we give him a change of diet–turn him out, for an hour or so every day, into a neighbour’s turnip field, or sometimes, if it’s a delicate case, a turnip field and a piece of carrots alternately, and let him eat as many as he likes. There an’t better land in the country than this perwerse lad grazed on, and yet he goes and catches cold and indigestion and what not, and then his friends brings a lawsuit against ME! Now, you’d hardly suppose,’ added Squeers, moving in his chair with the impatience of an ill-used man, ‘that people’s ingratitude would carry them quite as far as that; would you?’
The horror of what happens is completely overshadowed by the humor and tended to alienate me from the characters or at the very least, render me completely unsympathetic for them. I can usually happily wade through the 800 or so pages of the average Dickens, but “NN” seemed inordinately long between the laugh beats which made for a pretty laborious read.
The title character spends the 800 pages consistently escaping bad situations, prosecution for his actions during said bad situations, and still finds time to save an “orphan,” wow the crowds as part of a travelling theater troupe and procure allies and employment at every turn. Nicholas’s mostly happy-go-lucky attitude and moral high ground smugness get a little bit grating, as does his mother’s airheaded monologues and his sister’s constant weeping.
I generally love me some Dickens’, but this one didn’t quite do it for me. Here’s hoping the 2+ hours of Charlie Hunnam will. (Curse you Netflix and your “Very Long Wait”)