Enthralling Books: Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens

This is one in a series of essays about enthralling books. I asked my friends and colleagues to recommend a book that took over their life. I told them the book didn't have to be a literary masterpiece. The only thing that mattered was that the book captivated them and carried them into the world within its pages, making them ignore the world around them. I asked: "Did you shirk responsibilities so you could read it? Did you call in sick? Did you read it until dawn? That's the book I want you to tell us about!" See all the essays in the Enthralling Book series here. -- Mark

Nicholas nickelbyNicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens

An enthralling book, I reckon, is a function of two things: the book's virtues itself and one's opportunity to be enthralled. Back in my high school days, I had enough time on my hands that I could throw myself into a big fat novel and plow my way through it in three or four days (particularly in the summer). I took on most of the best selling potboilers by Irving Wallace, Leon Uris, and James Michener and considered myself reasonably engaged.

But for true enthrallment, I have to point to that icon of adolescent true-believerhood, Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. So help me, I read through my Signet mass paperback edition twice, underlining passages, and taxing the binding to the point that I had to rubberband my copy to keep its pages together. I may have been 16 at the time.

Is Atlas Shrugged a great book? Not as I see things now. But Ayn Rand had the knack of writing with a total conviction that appealed to teenagers seeking a grand belief system. She was also influenced by (and a defender of) novelists in the vein of Alexander Dumas, and some of this rubbed off on her novels. Engrossing reads, especially for the young.

But my favorite enthralling book is Charles Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby. I came to Dickens late in life. I had to read Great Expectations and Oliver Twist in high school English classes, but I'd not been won over by either book. Decades later, I came upon a facsimile edition of Dickens' original Nicholas Nickleby's monthly chapter editions, illustrations included, and took a chance. Once I began reading, I was totally sucked in.

As I later learned, this was from Dickens' early prime period, prior to the death of his wife's sister, on whom he had a secret crush. After her very premature death, Dickens settled into a quasi-tragic mode in his books. But Nicholas Nickleby preceded that. Not that NN isn't full of tragedy and misery, but it is so over-the-top and the descriptions so droll that I found myself laughing out loud at the oddest junctures.

My enjoyment was enhanced by Phiz's illustrations which capture and drive home the book's overall farcical tone, and by the reproduction of all the ads that ran in the original periodical monthly chapters. (Aromatic Spirits of Vinegar! Labern's Botanic Cream! Eight Day Clocks!) It's a pity that this edition, originally published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 1982, is now out of print; it's the next best thing to time travel. As is Nicholas Nickleby, no matter what edition you pick up. If you've never read it, I encourage you to give it a go. You're in for a grand time.

Buy Nicholas Nickleby on Amazon


  1. Something I have suggested to folk before now is to try reading Dickens in those original monthly instalments – treat it like a serial tv show.  It doesn’t feel nearly as intimidating, and you get an extra respect for his ability as a writer since he was (as they often accuse those tv shows of doing) “making it up as he went along” without being able to make massive retcon revisions. 

    Plus Dickens is a seriously funny writer.

    1. I agree. That’s a great way to read Dickens since he crafted his writing knowing his readers would be following the story in installments. Naturally, such a style makes generous use of cliff-hangers which can seem a bit cheesy or over-wrought if one is reading the book in a standard novel format. Also, as you mentioned, deadlines inspired his best work.
      To all fans of Dickens’ earlier period, “The Pickwick Papers” is also superb. I reserve it for times in the year when the Black Dog is hounding me, and it’s guaranteed to help me through a rough period. It’s funny and loaded with the excellent characterizations– almost caricature, but a bit too real– that Dickens does so masterfully.And though it’s what I consider upbeat Dickens: no innocents dying of small-pox at the side of the road, spitting up their last consumptive blood clot as an aristocrat’s carriage drenches them in mud, he assails lawyers, money-grubbers and lick-spittles with the mature and keenly vindictive skill with which he skewers the same in “Bleak House.”Finally, “Bleak House” is essential Dickens. It’s a mature work and it’s not a light read but it’s an outstanding, powerful work.

  2. Currently finishing up Barnaby Rudge, so I’ll put NN next on deck. Incidentally, Amazon has many of Dickens’ (and others’) books available for FREE in e-book form.

    1.  Wells is fine and good, but for a good read, I more often turn to A. E. J. Elliot, OBE.  Try his “Thirty Days In The Samarkand Desert With The Duchess Of Kent” for some real pathos.

  3. I had that facsimile edition, too — it was marvelous. However, I think his crush on his wife’s sister was anything but secret — it’s just that no one in his family seemed to think there was anything wrong with it. It was a different time.

  4. My 8th-grade drama class mounted a surprisingly ambitious staging of Nicholas Nickleby wherein I played mean old Uncle Ralph.  As preparation, our teacher had us watch the nine-hour RSC/Channel Four production (our own version wasn’t that ambitious), and even though it took us two weeks to get through it, we never got bored.

    I’m putting the book on my reading list.  Haven’t thought of it in years.

  5. For me, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (Notre-Dame de Paris) is totally enthralling, and I also found that the longer the translation is, the cooler the book is, because that means they’re leaving in Hugo’s monumental digressions, which were his real reason for writing this amazing epic of horrid love and betrayal by the beautiful people. The only adaptation that ever captured the essential feeling of the book (though sacrificing enough subplots for four more books) was the Classics Illustrated version, illustrated by EC veteran George Evans.

    The I, Claudius two-book set is also fanfarkingtastic and worthy of multiple rereads.

  6. Actually, I think his sister-in-law died BEFORE he wrote Nicholas Nickelby. If I remember correctly, she passed away in 1837, when he was writing The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist simultaneously. :) I think I read somewhere that it was the only time he ever missed publishing a serial on time…
    Nicholas Nickelby was serialized soon afterwards, though,  in 1838-39.

    1. Charlotte: right you are! Thanks for correcting my obviously faulty timeline, written from memory. Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit is also a hoot, and it was written after Mary Hogarth’s death as well. Leaving his sister-in-law out of it, the fact remains that I’ve gobbled up the early Dickens novels like irresistible pastries and just bogged down in his middle and late period works. A certain lightness and humor that was there to begin with seemed a rarer commodity as the years went by, for whatever reason. 

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