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Old 28th Mar 2014, 22:01   #1
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Default Nicholas Nickleby

Did you have to read Dickens at school? Did you like it? Not me. But I’ve recently begun a return to him after many (MANY) years – at the rate of about one a year, so far. This time round I read Nicholas Nickleby, considering it a personal challenge to get through it in less than a month, casting envious glances at the teetering pile of Unreads in the corner, stupidly forgetting that this was not at all how Dickens was read at the outset. But more of that in a moment.

I hadn’t realised how funny the chapters involving the terrible Dotheboys Hall are made to be. I don’t know whether Dickens consciously lifted the mood with the idiotic Squeers family. I was a bit surprised, as he’s not one to shy away from grim detail when children are suffering.

I was less surprised by the other humour scattered throughout the book. The mad neighbour who throws cucumbers (yes, cucumbers) over the wall of his garden at Mrs. Nickleby to indicate his admiration for her made me laugh out loud and was possibly my favourite scene, followed closely by her son’s anxious comment to his mother:

You know, there is no language of vegetables which converts a cucumber into a formal declaration of attachment”.

Mr. Mantalini and his ludicrous terms of endearment for his wife, aka “my existence’s jewel”– with demnition every other demn half-sentence - were very funny; the antics of the Crummles and the infant phenomenon tickled me less, but really there’s so much of this book there’s bound to be something in it for everyone’s amusement.

Towards the end I got rather weary of the melodrama – chapters of grimness, mostly involving death, interspersed with the fluffy-head ramblings of Mrs. Nickleby and the inevitable pairings-up of various characters – but I have tried to imagine how it would have been to read this book in monthly instalments, as it was received by its first readers. No doubt a very different effect: compare with waiting for the next episode of a favourite TV series rather than gorging on the box set. There is probably more satisfaction to be had at the book’s romantic resolutions and come-uppances of various baddies if you have had to wait for ages to find out whodunnit and how.

All in all, I suppose, the plot came second to the characters, and so I found it entertaining and worth the hours and hours and HOURS of reading required. A short essay by Michael Slater at the back of my edition points out that such was the success of Nicholas Nickleby, and the waiting for each part so intense, that it was on stage in London before Dickens had even finished writing it; a plagiarism, Nickelas Nickelbery, was issued in weekly parts; extra illustrations and pottery figures of the main characters were sold; and there was even a sequel, Nickleby Married.

(Incidentally, the illustrations and chapter headings are fantastic. I hope they’re reproduced in all editions. I read the Penguin English Library edition – I love these new jacket designs, the type is lovely, and this volume of well over 1,000 pages was Ł6).

***If anyone else has revisited a book or author after considerable time and had a very different experience to their initial findings, I’d be interested to know about it. I suppose it could also go the other way – did you have a favourite book as a teenager that you find a few decades later to be boring codswallop?
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