Nicholas Nickleby was Charles Dickens’s third novel, after The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, and it is considered his first classic romantic novel. This latter point is important because Nicholas Nickleby marked an important turning point for Dickens, the definitive fork in the road at which he became a writer of fiction rather than journalism, and thereby changed the face of literature forever.
Dickens had been a successful journalist in his so far rather short writing career. (He was only twenty-six when Nicholas Nickleby was published in 1838.) A collection of his journalistic pieces from London newspapers, Sketches by Boz, had been published to enormous acclaim two years earlier. The two novels that followed,The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, are characterized by critics as having the quality of stories stitched together, as literary rather than journalistic ‘‘sketches.’’ Nicholas Nickleby would change that pattern.
The novel was born, however, from Dickens’s journalistic instinct. Dickens had read in the newspapers about the infamous Yorkshire schools. These were institutions located in a rural area outside of London where boys, poor, illegitimate, or otherwise unwanted by their families, were sent to live. Dickens was incensed upon hearing about the lives of these children: scant food, cold and filthy lodgings, physical beatings—and no real education. London papers had followed the story of a schoolmaster named William Shaw, who had been sued by the parents of two boys who went blind under his care. At the trial it was revealed that at least ten boys had gone blind there due to lack of medical treatment. In 1838, just prior to beginning Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens visited Shaw’s school, posing as a man seeking such a place for a widowed friend’s children. Shaw was evasive. Dickens then proceeded to the graveyard, where he discovered twenty-five graves of boys who had died at Shaw’s establishment. As a writer, Dickens felt compelled to do something.
What was it that led Dickens to the decision to draw the public’s attention to the Yorkshire schools through fiction rather than through journalism? Using the form of a novel to discuss the plight of the poor was a new idea at the time. Dickens was gambling on his belief that the public was ready for a new kind of novel, one that addressed social problems and depicted the lives of the poor in a realistic way. This was partly based on the rising rate of literacy among the working class, who had helped make his two previous novels a huge financial success. But perhaps it was also based on his belief that fiction might be a better way to tell the truth about social issues than journalism. Maybe Dickens realized that a writer could explore these issues more effectively in a novel than he could by using what might seem the more direct form of journalism.
In nearly nine hundred pages, Dickens had an unparalleled chance to delve very deeply into whatever aspects of Yorkshire schools that he chose; he could not only describe the conditions at the schools in great detail but he could create enormous sympathy for the boys interred there by personalizing their stories through characters such as Smike. In a novel, Dickens could make the experiences of a single boy real to a reader in a way that journalism, with its generalizing tendencies, its extreme brevity of form, and its insistence on an ‘‘objective’’ tone, could never accomplish.
The emotional as well as intellectual understanding of the boys’ plight that readers took away from Nicholas Nickleby spurred such widespread indignation and public outcry that the Yorkshire schools were rapidly shuttered. Dickens’s gamble paid off. Nicholas Nickleby has the rare distinction of being a novel that actually changed the world. Could a journalist, even one with as profound a writing talent as Charles Dickens’s, have created the same result through the medium of journalism? Perhaps the novel was Dickens’s literary equivalent of Nicholas’s heroic attempt to single-handedly end the abuse of boys at Dotheboys Hall. Instead of threatening legal action or invoking moral precepts, Nicholas simply yells ‘‘Stop!’’ and beats the schoolmaster with a stick.