|"Nicholas Astonishes Mr. Squeers and Family" by "Phiz" |
But then there are the books that are so well-crafted, written with such passion and with characters that are so developed they have a pulse, that all my numbness is dispelled and I react with a physical, outward action. Smiles, laughter, tears, frowning: these are all common reactions when reading such a book. Such a book, that is, as Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby.
I was even prepared beforehand for the emotional turmoil this book put me through. I had seen the movie where Jamie Bell dies. Little did I suspect that this cinematic adaptation could ill prepare me for the sorrow, the exultation, the belly laughs and the angry rages I was to endure on this emotional rollercoaster of a novel.
Nicholas Nickleby enters the story as a young teen, fatherless, with a grieving mother and sister to support. They turn to his uncle Ralph Nickleby, who is an unrepentant Scrooge with a heart as hard as the coins he misers away. Ralph shows them “charity” by getting Nicholas a teaching position at the boy’s boarding school, Dotheboys, while sending Nicholas’ sister Kate to work as a seamstress.
Dotheboys school is run by the villainous Mr. Squeers, a one-eyed mangle of a man with a wife as crooked and malicious as he is, a coarse and narcissistic daughter (who immediately falls in love with Nicholas) and a pig of a son (who commanders all the care packages sent to the school’s pupils). All four Squeers have enslaved a charity pupil called Smike, who they’ve mistreated into being a malnourished cripple. Nicholas befriends Smike, comforts him, and teaches him how to read. He defends not only Smike but all the other poor boys against the Squeers.
At this juncture of the plot, Nicholas Nickleby changed my life. Smike runs away but is retrieved and tied up by Mr. and Mrs. Squeers. Just as Mr. Squeers is about to lay into Smike with a whip, Nicholas intervenes, taking the whip from the evil schoolmaster and turning it on him. The other Squeer family members join in the scuffle, but they are no match for Nicholas, who beats the tar out of them.
I cheered out loud. I pumped my fist. I shouted for Nicholas to go! Go! Go! As he and Smike ran away and took to the road. I smiled and nodded with approval as a passerby gave them aid.
Who could have known that a book—mere tree pulp marked with lines and dots of ink, mind you—could have such a violent effect on my being?
I think Charles Dickens knew.
Recommended Reading Age: 13+Parental Notes: Violence, villainy, and a man tries to ruin Kate Nickleby’s reputation (he fails, and gets the Squeers Tarring Special from her brother when Nicholas returns home).
Availability: You could read it free on Kindle, I guess…but I don’t settle for anything less than an edition containing Phiz illustrations. I prefer the Everyman Cloth Hardcover and so should you.
Adaptations: The 2002 version is really well done considering how much material they tried to cram into two hours. My only quibble is that Anne Hathaway’s accent slips somewhat. Also Jamie Bell dies. There is an 1982 stage version available on DVD called The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby which is longer but is kind of interesting to watch (since a small set of actors play several different characters each). And finally there is a 2001 adaptation by BBC which I didn’t like as much even though it featured Tom Hiddleston being a drunken loutish extra.