George Gissing: Nicholas Nickleby

It was well for Dickens that, whatever his defects in the conception and in the practice of his art, he possessed in a high degree the artist's conscience. We English, proud of our thoroughness in many departments of life, have never felt that quality to be indispensable to the producer of fiction probably because novel-writing has never been regarded as a road to wealth. The English novelist, especially when success has come to him, is wont to see his art from the reader's point of view; with results too obvious. Dickens, for all that he put his heart into everything he undertook, did not wholly escape this perilous influence; his early and rapid conquest of the public had results which at one moment threatened artistic disaster. In writing Nicholas Nickleby he was often overwearied, often compelled by haste to an improvisation which showed him at anything but his best. The book as a whole is unsatisfactory ever considering the circumstances under which it was composed, the notable thing about it is the vigorous spontaneity of its better parts.

Long before Pickwick was finished, Oliver Twist had been begun, and through much of the year 1837 the author worked alternately at both books. He had engaged to complete another novel (Barnaby Rudge) in the course of 1838, and he was actually tempted into undertaking to begin Nicholas Nickleby early in that same year. Dickens found himself confronted with the impossible. After a great deal of worry, and some little quarrelling, it was decided that Barnaby must be postponed; Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby proceeded together. The first part of Nickleby appeared on March 31, 1838, and twenty numbers, as usual, completed the story. It was illustrated by Hablôt K. Browne.

"It will be our aim," wrote Dickens, a preliminary advertisement to his new novel, "to amuse, by producing a rapid succession of characters and incidents, and describing them as cheerfully and pleasantly as in us lies." Such, too, had been his aim in Pickwick, and probably he foresaw just as little of the course of the narrative in one case as in the other; he relied upon his abounding invention, and, at this time, had not arrived at the conception of a novel as a balanced and elaborated whole. His novel was the eighteenth-century story of adventure; in the Preface to the 1848 edition of Nickleby he glances significantly at the reading of his childhood, when he had "a head full of Partridge, Strap, Tom Pipes, and Sancho Panza"; but with the characteristics of that breezy fiction he combined a tendency traceable to his love of the stage, a melodramatic violence, already manifested in Oliver Twist, and never to be outgrown through all the changes of his mood and manner. So long as he is following the rambles of Nicholas, not much troubling himself as to how they shall end, all goes well but when the progress of his monthly parts reminded him that the story must be knit together to an effective close, he has recourse to theatrical devices, and we lose ourselves amid the tedious unreality of Madeline and Gride and Ralph. The latter part of Nickleby, in so far as it is concerned with these stagy figures, is perhaps Dickens's poorest work. Its picturesqueness -- the quality which often redeems his melodrama -- will not compare with that of the clock-and-lantern villainies in Oliver Twist. When we read of Ralph Nickleby "foaming at the mouth," we feel strangely remote from the delightful world of stage-coach and hostelry which our author has shown us with such inimitable spirit. No less drearily fantastic is the presentment of high-life debauchery in the persons of Lord Frederick Verisopht and Sir Mulberry Hawk. These persecutors of virgin innocence will bear no illumination but that of the footlights; they are, of course, stage-stricken shopboys masking as devil-may-care aristocrats. Let it be remembered, however, that Dickens was a very young man, with experience of life -- however wide in one sense -- necessarily very limited; also, that he was a "radical," with strong middle-class ideas. Even in these unprofitable portions of the story his writing is never insincere; whilst at work he thoroughly believed in his personages, even those which to us seem mere puppets. Some years after, speaking in public, he had occasion to allude to Lord Frederick, and did so with laughing disparagement; but to suppose that he had any such thought whilst writing Nickleby would be a grave misunderstanding of the man and the artist. In the year 1838 he was producing too much and too quickly, but he never consciously sent forth inferior work saying to himself that "it would do."

In Dickens's correspondence with Forster, it is evident, from first to last, that, however desirous he might be of keeping his public in good humour, and of supplying them with moral examples, he always conceived himself to be a very close and faithful student of human character. The theories of so-called "realism" had, of course, never occurred to him; a novel, to his mind, was a very different thing from a severe chronicle of actual lives; for all that, the Preface to Nickleby closes with a remark which shows that he held himself a "realist" in portraiture. "If Nicholas be not always found to be blameless or agreeable, he is not always intended to appear so. He is a young man of an impetuous temper and of little or no experience; and I saw no reason why such a hero should be lifted out of nature." It was a protest, doubtless, against the school of fiction favoured by Mrs. Wititterly. We smile at the suggestion that Nicholas is an uncompromising study of human nature, but Dickens thought himself, and was thought, to have done a bold thing in taking for his hero this penniless youth of the everyday world. Had he not been even bolder in his choice of theme for Oliver Twist? He was opening in truth a new era of English fiction, and the critic of our day who loses sight of this, who compares Dickens to his disadvantage with novelists of a later school, perpetrates the worst kind of injustice! Dickens is one of the great masters of fiction, who, by going straight to life, revitalized their art. That he did not see life with the eyes of a later generation can scarcely be brought as a charge against him; that his individuality affected his vision is no more than must be said of any artists that ever lived.

Nicholas himself, being the "hero" of the book, is (as in so many novels old and new) one of its least interesting characters. To feel the author's vigorous originality we must turn to the figures which are nowadays commonly spoken of as grotesques -- to Squeers and Newman Noggs, to Mr. Crummles and Tim Linkinwater arid Mr. Kenwigs. These, however grotesque, are living persons, and I think they live not merely by the imaginative power of the novelist; one and all of them Dickens may very well have met. To insist upon the "unreality" of such pictures is to evince slight acquaintance with the life of the lower middle-class, or very imperfect observation. What may be reasonably objected to them is this: that Dickens does not show us the whole man, only certain of his more peculiar aspects. But whatever is given has been truly observed and faithfully rendered in the spirit of the artist. Nay, these figures could not be so amusing, so delightful, but for their genuine humanity. Mr. Squeers, no doubt, had moments when he was not quite the Squeers we know; Mr. Mantalini was not at all times so vivacious, so choice in speech; but our author has shown us these persons on the side that took his fancy, and very wisely abstains from any efforts to complete the portrait. Contrast them with Ralph Nickleby, in whose case Dickens goes out of his way to attempt what we nowadays call analysis; the reflections at the beginning of Chap. XLIV do not impress one and certainly help to make "unreal" a character very well presented earlier in the book. In this matter of deliberate analysis Dickens always failed; though much more elaborate, his discussions of Mr. Dombey are very little more to the point than this moralizing paragraph on the secret mind of Nicholas's uncle.

With Nickleby Dickens began his lifelong warfare against the bad old methods of education. It is in Dotheboys Hall that the interest of this book really centres; to attack the "Yorkshire schools" was his one defined purpose when he sat down to write, and it seems probable that much more space would have been given to Dotheboys had not the subject proved rather refractory. Here, as always, in dealing with social abuses, Dickens had to reconcile painful material with his prime purpose of presenting life "as cheerfully and pleasantly as in him lay." How is one to show in a cheery and pleasant light the spectacle of a number of starved and tortured children? It is done by insisting once and only once on the horror of the situation, and thence onwards keeping the reader mirthful over every detail that can be turned to merriment. One paragraph, admirably written (see Chap. VIII), puts before us the picture in all its hideousness; in the next we read, "And yet this scene, painful as it was, had its grotesque features, which, in a less interested observer than Nicholas, might have provoked a smile"; whereupon comes Mrs. Squeers, "presiding over an immense basin of brimstone and treacle," and the porridge which "looked like diluted pincushions without covers," and the "first class in English spelling and philosophy." These Dotheboys chapters served their double aim; they led to a practical reform and delighted the young novelist's vast circle of readers. It is doubtful whether any writer ever succeeded so well, and so easily, as Dickens in this most difficult endeavour. Nickleby taught him his power as a social reformer, and it is not the least wonderful feature of his career that again and again he repeated this success, combining, with much felicity, the moral and the artistic purpose, generally incompatible.

One of Mr. Squeers's victims accompanies us through the book; but, precisely because this figure is meant to be consistently pathetic, it fails of its effect. Smike is a mere shadow, never either boy or man. On the stage the part has commonly been played by a woman; as also that of Jo, the crossing-sweeper; a significant fact. Smike and Jo reveal the weakness of the master. Of true pathos there is abundance in his novels, but those passages are lightly touched think of the Marchioness in The Old Curiosity Shop, and of the little maid called Charley in Bleak House. Sentimentality is a mark of the great semi-educated class from which Dickens sprung and to which, unconsciously, he so often addressed himself. In Smike he indulged a native proneness to the idly lachrymose; where he is truly pathetic, his genius overcame the fault of birth and breeding.

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