Nicholas Nickleby

by Charles Dickens

A book with great societal impact

September 2000

I don't want to say much about the quality of the novel itself. I find it the most two-dimensional of all his novels (and I've read the Old Curiousity Shop, which is full of grotesqueries!). But I do want to provide some perspective as to the background of this novel.

Before Dickens wrote this novel, some friends of his brought to his notice of horrid boarding schools in the Yorkshire area. Dickens traveled the countryside incognito, visiting the schools and some people in the area. He found that these schools were being run under the principle of being storehouses for unwanted boys. "Natural" children, inconvenient children from a first marriage, children of widowers who didn't have time to bring up their boys were shipped off to these schools, never to come home for the holidays, and under most circumstances the boy wouldn't make it to the age of 18 at which time he would be ejected from the school with no useful learning.

Part of the motivation of this novel was to bring this practice to light -- many of the people in Yorkshire did not know what was going on the schools and those who did know did not see what they could do about it.

Then Nicholas Nickleby started to be published. Like all of his novels, this book came out in 3-chapter installments. Well before the book was halfway over, people spontaneously gathered around some of these schools, ejected children and masters alike, and set the buildings to torch. By the end of publication, the infamous Yorkshire schools were totally gone.

So keep this in mind while reading this book, which seems juvenile and flat compared even his previous two novels, Oliver Twist and the Pickwick Papers. This is the only of Dickens' novels to have an immediate and profound impact in his society. When was the last time you heard of a novel creating effective activism in a community?

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Mary Pat Campbell, last updated 11 June 2001