The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby opens when Nicholas, his sister and mother are left destitute following the death of his father. The novel follows Nicholas as he attempts to provide some measure of security for his family. His subsequent life and adventures include travelling to London to appeal to a wealthy uncle - only to have that uncle take an immediate dislike to him, working for a villainous schoolmaster, attacking the schoolmaster and escaping with one of the abused schoolboys, working as an actor for a theatre company, meeting, falling in love with and later rescuing a beautiful damsel in distress, and finally obtaining a good position with a wealthy and benevolent employer. There are also many interesting subplots including the harassment of his sister Kate, a duel between two noblemen, a suicide, the downfall of a gigolo, business blackmail and much more. In the end though everyone (at least all the good and worthy characters) get to live satisfyingly happily ever after.
In Nicholas Dickens's created a worthy young hero whom the reader could root for and be happy to see prosper through a combination of his own hard work and the well-deserved kindness of others.Nicholas does have some flaws though, especially his quick temper, and these ensure that he is not so unbelievably perfect that the reader can't relate to him. In typical Dickens fashion there is a large cast of supporting characters, many of whom are both well-rounded and memorable. However, if you are looking for a strong, courageous female lead this is not the book for you. Kate tries, she certainly isn't afraid of hard work and attempts to fend off the unwelcome advances that come her way. But she has no success by herself and has to rely on Nicholas for protection. The most memorable female character is probably Mrs Nickleby. Her self centerdness and lack of self-awareness is delightfully horrible, amusing to read but definitely not the stuff of literary role models. One aspect of many of the characters I especially appreciated was their revealing names. You don't even need to have cracked open the novel to know who, out of Wackford Squeers, Mr Cheeryble and Sir Mulberry Hawk, is the generous and benevolent employer, who is the evil schoolmaster with a fondness for using his cane, and who preys on young girls.
Dickens is well-known for using his writing to highlight some of the social problems of his day. The harassment of Kate and the attempted forced marriage of Madeline Bray to ensure her father' s debts are paid off, shines light on some of the difficulties faced by women in nineteenth-century England, while the actions of Mr Squeers and his running of his "school" at Dothebys Hall was a clear indictment of unregulated boarding schools and the lack of care given to orphans.
If you enjoy Dickens but have not yet read Nicholas Nickleby then you should. However, if Dickens is not to your liking I doubt this novel will change your opinion.
Since I've long wanted to visit England, especially London, I'm using this as the "classic set in a place you'd like to visit" for the Back to the Classics Challenge. It would be interesting to visit Dickens's London but I wouldn't want to live there!