#130: DICKENS’S NOVEL OF CHIVALRY. The gallivanting success of The Pickwick Papers had set Dickens on his throne of public popularity; that sweet-natured and goofy picaresque was followed by a darker delve into the back alleys of London poverty, Oliver Twist. In Oliver Twist, the occasion of Dickens’s satire was the poorhouse, and his description of these dire places can still make you wince. The door was hardly shut on the publication of that book before Nicholas Nickleby made its bow; its target, famously, was the notorious Yorkshire schools, where parents could dispose of unwanted children into an inexpensive certitude of almost baroque mistreatment and misery. Behind both these occasions—as later on, behind the chancery courts in Bleak House—are the larger topics of human cruelty and hypocrisy, which seem in a special way to belong to Dickens. He attacked these topics with a particular kind of humor—the “savage indignation” of Swift, mixed with his special gift for comic exaggeration. Always the institutions that Dickens goes after are incarnated in individual characters: the horrible Mr. Bumble as the parish beadle, Wackford Squeers as the malignant schoolteacher, Mr. Tulkinghorn as a practitioner of the law (and blackmail). And it’s in that personalization that Dickens found his immortality as an artist. When we look back on a Dickens novel, we barely remember the jumble of the plots or the specific aim of the satire: we remember the wild gallery of characters, more vivid to us than most of history. No one better than Dickens captures us in the wild surprise of being ourselves.
Nicholas Nickleby is the story of a young man trying to make his way in the world after his father’s death has left him responsible for his mother and sister. There is a whole rigmarole of blackmail and hidden relations (parents in Victorian novels are always getting mislaid, like the mother in A.A. Milne’s “Disobedience”), but mainly Nicholas’s adventures just bring him into contact with the rumbustious world of Dickens’s people: a theatrical family, a grasping uncle, the denizens of Dotheboys Hall, angelic twin brothers, a domineering father and his virtuous daughter, all of them carrying the trademark Dickens names. (I opened my copy at random and ran into Henrietta Petowker and Miss Mantalini; you also get Wackford Squeers, Mr.Lilyvick, Newman Noggs and Lord Frederick Verisopht.) It’s balanced between the euphoric good nature of Pickwick and the more forbidding dark of the later works; its gossamer of plot proves just strong enough to hold it together; and it has the human-heartedness, an indignation at human meanness, that is Dickens’s enduring appeal. It’s perhaps only one novel among many on the long Dickens list, but it’s always had my special affection. G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Dickens was always particularly good at expressing…the treasures that belong to those who do not succeed in this world.” He called Nicholas Nickleby a romance, “a young and chivalrous novel,” and therein lies the book’s special character and pleasure.
One of the books that needs writing is a study of the dramatic adaptations of Dickens’s works. The vastness of the novels has always been a bit much to squeeze into a movie, but the new approach of a ten- or twelve-episode series for television has proven an ideal approach, and one wonders how many dramatists have provided this many great opportunities for actors to go charging over the top. Think of Charles Dance as Tulkinghorn, Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, Burn Gorman as Mr Guppy in the 2005 Bleak House, or Eddie Marsan as Pancks in the 2008 Little Dorrit, and you’ve seen actors who’ve had the chance to get outside the reins of purely naturalistic acting (some of this happens in the films of the Harry Potter stories). The 2002 film version of Nicholas Nickleby—it had already been a particular triumph for the Aldwych Theatre in London in 1980—is by no means a great movie, but how many movies offer you Nathan Lane and Barry Humphries as the Crummles, Jim Broadbent and Juliet Stevenson as the Squeers and Christopher Plummer as the lowering Ralph Nickleby, all of them flying at full wingspan? It even, as some of the films do, does well by some of the pathetic and virtuous characters: Jamie Bell is terrifically moving as Smike, and Anne Hathaway brings a determined strength to Madeline Bray, just as Anna Maxwell Martin, in the 2005 Bleak House, gives us an Esther Summerson you don’t want to push down the stairs. Surely there’s a book in all this?