A Monthly Book, #1: Nicholas Nickleby

imageNicholas Nickleby constitutes this year’s entry in my Annual Winter Dickens project. It’s only the second novel he ever wrote (third if you count The Pickwick Papers, which is arguably more a series of sketches than a fictional narrative per se), and there’s a lot of youthful energy fizzing from the pages. Young Nicholas is very much the action hero: he’s frequently physically violent when he feels honour is at stake, usually either his or his sister’s. Wackford Squeers and Ralph Nickleby, the two villains of the piece, are extremely melodramatic: they clench their fists, turn white, and snarl, with astonishing regularity. This level of implicit theatricality makes a good deal of sense in a novel so given to explicit theatricality; the Crummles family, with whom Nicholas falls in, are traveling actors, and many of the best scenes in the book involve them.

Characterization suffers somewhat as a result of this trait. Better and more informed minds than mine have written theses on Dickens’s relationship with the theatre, and on his use (and subversion) of comic and tragic stereotypes in his fiction. The Brothers Cheeryble, who give Nicholas a chance when all hope seems lost, and who delight in doing good works without being thanked, might be better named the Brothers Implausyble. Kate, Nicholas’s beautiful, vulnerable sister, is a classically boring Dickens heroine, as is Madeline Bray, the object of Nicholas’s affections. There are, though, moments of rupture when characters – usually minor ones – confound expectations: the madman in love with Mrs. Nickleby, for instance, in his small-clothes and grey worsted stockings, falling down the chimney.

All this said, it is a tremendously enjoyable reading experience. For all that it’s extremely episodic (and long – 777 pages in my edition), its fictional world also feels smaller than that of Dickens’s later novels; I’m thinking especially of The Old Curiosity Shop, which was the last Dickens I read and which contains several characters whose relevance, even at the time, thoroughly escaped me, whereas pretty much all of the characters in Nickleby recur frequently enough, and have enough to do, that a reader can keep track. The least successful of these, for my money, is John Browdie, who seems to exist mostly so that Dickens can write bad Yorkshire dialect in the depiction of an honest countryman. It’s not subtle, and it’s nowhere near the heights of elegant connectivity that he reaches in Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend: in Nickleby, Dickens’s love of coincidence is still just an excuse for clumsy plotting, instead of a commentary on the fundamental intersectionality of all levels of society. But it’s very fun, and you can sense that with this novel he found his feet.


A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

“Tell Wind and Fire where to stop,” returned madame; “but don’t tell me.”


In an attempt both to write about more of the books I read—not just the ones I get for free off of publishers—and to make that process less intimidating, I’m experimenting with different ways of posting, e.g. not always my usual essay. I’m structuring this review around my Goodreads updates on the book, sharing and annotating them as examples of how my feelings about the book changed as I read. As always, feedback appreciated.

page 38, 8.0%: “I read recently that A Tale of Two Cities was not representative of Dickens, and I can now say that’s pretty much true. I much prefer the fat tomes—Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend. I spent my first reading session of AToTC thinking ‘why can’t this banker arsehole just tell the girl her father isn’t dead? And why does the girl have to be golden-haired? And why do we even care? When does the guillotine come out?'”

Okay, so the opening section of A Tale of Two Cities is kind of weird. It starts with a character whose relevance to the plot isn’t at all clear; Dickens conjures atmosphere, in the meteorological sense, as well as ever (all that mist and mud and darkness on the Dover road! All that fear of being robbed by highwaymen! It’s terribly evocative) but, at least in this section, his prose reads more densely than I remembered it. It’s a little like late-period Shakespeare, where about once a paragraph you go “Hang on, what?” and have to trace the twisted syntax back to its start.

The character we meet first is Jarvis Lorry, a banker on his way to France via Dover. At the port, he pauses in an inn to wait for someone coming after him: a golden-haired seventeen-year-old girl. (In this, Dickens never changes: his ideal woman is always small, physically angelic, disgustingly sweet-tempered, and underage.) The girl, it turns out, is the daughter of French physician Alexandre Manette. Her father, thought to be dead for years, has been discovered alive: he’s been kept for eighteen years without charge as a political prisoner in the Bastille. Lorry, for reasons best known to himself and Dickens, doesn’t come right out and tell the girl (Lucie) this; instead, he fannies around saying things like “If someone were to tell you that there was a girl who thought her father was dead, and then it turned out that he wasn’t…” This is a manner of news-breaking I have never understood, and have little patience for, but it gets the job done in the end.

page 100, 22.0%: “Ok, Dickens wins this round—the trial scene is gripping and I now want to know how Darnay and Carton end up in Paris, since so far they’re still in London. I think the legal stuff has really swayed it for me; why is Dickens so good at it?”  

Having read the Introduction, I think the reason Dickens is so good at legal stuff is because he was a court reporter for a time, in his early twenties. Anyway, things pick up five years later, when Charles Darnay is on trial in London for being a French spy. Lucie and Doctor Manette are witnesses at his trial, since they were also passengers with him on the return boat from Calais five years ago. Sydney Carton, a dissolute young lawyer, saves Darnay’s life by pointing out that there’s a strong physical resemblance between the two of them, so that the witnesses can’t be completely sure it was Darnay they saw. (He isn’t a spy, of course, but that isn’t really the point.)

As seems to happen fairly often in Dickens, people who have come together publicly in this manner end up becoming bosom pals. Darnay and Carton both end up visiting the Manettes frequently, as does Jarvis Lorry. Both young men fall in love with Lucie (of course they do! Of course!), and Darnay ends up marrying her. Before he does, he confides a “terrible secret” about his real name to Dr. Manette, who is seriously disturbed by it but promises never to reveal the truth to his daughter. (Because telling the truth to women leads to all sorts of complications!)

page 185, 41.0%: “I have decided that I quite like Madame Defarge. I’m probably not meant to—at least, from everything I heard about this book in childhood, I think I’m not meant to—but she seems like a pretty boss biddy and a champion of the people, so what’s not to like?”

Okay, so here is where things are actually interesting, because I’ll be honest with you: I don’t care that much about the English party. Like, I don’t want Darnay to die, and I want Carton to stop getting wasted every night and realise his full intellectual potential, and etc., but they’re kind of dull and rich-ish and we’re so obviously meant to like them that I don’t really want to. But Madame Defarge is a Bloody Difficult Woman, and therefore worth our attention.

The thing that got me about A Tale of Two Cities—the thing that I think makes it an astonishing book, as opposed to a basically sentimental tale about self-sacrifice—is the way Dickens handles the Defarges. Around page 185, Madame Defarge is being painted as a leader of her people. The women of her poor urban neighbourhood rally around her as they would around a general. She is an intelligence channel, a node in a network of revolutionary spies, a sleeper cell. Her husband does most of the legwork, and she knits names into her register of the condemned, but basically it’s all up in her head. She carries a pistol and a dagger. She is the brains. And she takes the long view:

“I tell thee,” said madame, extending her right hand for emphasis, “that although it is a long time on the road, it is on the road and coming. I tell thee it never retreats, and never stops. …Look around and consider the lives of all the world that we know…the rage and discontent. …Can such things last?”

“My brave wife,” returned Defarge, “…I do not question all this. But it has lasted a long time, and it is possible—you know well, my wife, it is possible—that it may not come, during our lives.”

… “We shall have helped it,” returned madame. “Nothing that we do, is done in vain. I believe, with all my soul, that we shall see the triumph.”

It’s actually quite stirring rhetoric, quite beautiful and inspirational: I believe with all my soul that we shall see the triumph. It’s the sort of thing that oppressed people, from the slaves of the Deep South to the peasants of Siberia to the suffragettes of England, have said throughout history. And, in and of itself, it is righteous.

The brilliance of A Tale of Two Cities is in how Dickens shows that righteousness spiraling out of control into bloodlust. By page 345, with Darnay condemned to die for the crimes (which are serious and awful) of his aristocratic ancestors, we have this conversation occurring amongst the Defarges and their co-conspirators:

“The Evrémonde people are to be exterminated, and the wife and child must follow the husband and father.”

“She has a fine head for it,” croaked Jacques Three. “I have seen blue eyes and golden hair there, and they looked charming when Samson held them up.” Ogre that he was, he spoke like an epicure. …”The child also,” observed Jacques Three, with a meditative enjoyment of his words, “has golden hair and blue eyes. And we seldom have a child there. It is a pretty sight.”

That, undeniably, is sick. No Revolution’s aims can be achieved by murdering children, no matter who their parents and grandparents have been. And yet, as Madame Defarge says with dispassion in reply to Lucie’s pleas for mercy, “The wives and mothers we have been used to see, since we were as little as this child… we have known their husbands and fathers laid in prison and kept from them, often enough… We have borne this a long time. Judge you! Is it likely that the trouble of one wife and mother would be much to us now?”

A Tale of Two Cities also captures the sense of what it’s like to live in the midst of civil unrest as a foreigner. The English party—Jarvis Lorry, the Manettes’ servants—are basically safe, since they are not French citizens, but the upheaval in the city is so profound that they can never be sure, from day to day, whether their situation has changed. I imagine it’s a little like being a BBC correspondent in a war zone, or a Red Cross worker: your status ought to be enough to protect you, and often, in a formal sense, is; but no one can account for the mistakes, the accidental car bomb or the ricocheting bullet. In the same spirit of constant fear and vigilance, we see Miss Pross, the Manettes’ housekeeper, set out on her errands: a more English woman you could hardly hope to see, but she still wants to buy the tomatoes as quickly as possible and get back inside. I would like to see someone adapt the story to a modern-day revolutionary zone, perhaps the Sudan in the early 2000s.

Anyway, I’ve now read my Annual Winter Dickens (trademark pending) and I’m glad I did, even though it felt in many ways not very Dickensian. I’m entering the realm of the obscure Dickenses now; the ones left are Barnaby Rudge, Martin Chuzzlewit, Edwin Drood, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, and The Pickwick Papers. Any suggestions for which to tackle next year?

My copy of A Tale of Two Cities is published by Oxford University Press, as part of the Oxford World’s Classics series.

The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins

First published: 1868.

Edition read: Oxford World’s Classics, 1985, ed. Anthea Trodd.

Provenance: purchased from Bookends in Carlisle.

Read: November 2014, sitting up in bed late into the night.


There are a few reliable old warhorse-facts you can trot out about Wilkie Collins and his novel The Moonstone: it was the first detective novel in the English language (dubious), he was friends with Dickens (true), he was a theatrical impresario, also much in the vein of Dickens (also true), he did not behave well to the various women in his life (perhaps this depends on your definition of “good behavior” but I am inclined to say “true” to this as well.) After you’ve mentioned these, you can add that The Moonstone is about the theft of a priceless Indian jewel, make some hrrrumph-ing noises about the legacy of colonialism, and turn the conversation to some more convivial topic. That’s usually as far as it gets.

If you actually read The Moonstone, you’ll notice, first of all, that the whole question of India and the “Hindoos” who seek the jewel is a bit of a red herring. English xenophobia is not the point of this novel at all; what Collins’s plot really does is allow him to examine the myriad ways in which the society he depicts fails to exercise imaginative compassion. It’s about power, usually economic power, and its warping effects on an individual’s judgment, morals, and behavior. It’s also about class differences, about which I think Collins is kinder, subtler, and more interesting than Dickens.

As per usual, though, Wordsworth Classics takes the prize for most-irrelevant-and-vaguely-alarming cover design.

The story is told by seven narrators, which understandably tends to alarm first-time readers. The actual events, however, are linear: each character is being asked to write down what he or she remembers about the events leading up to the theft of a diamond, and each character’s memories cease to be relevant quite conveniently at the point where the next character’s memories begin. The diamond in question is a yellow gem which was left to Rachel Verinder, the daughter of a prominent Yorkshire family, by her uncle, who is rumored to have done some rather unsavory things in military service in India. She is to receive the diamond on her eighteenth birthday. The day arrives; the diamond is delivered; she wears it throughout the evening and all through her birthday dinner; the guests retire; she puts the diamond away in a cabinet in her own room; the next morning, it’s gone. No one knows where it is. After a good deal of incompetence from the local police force, enter Sergeant Cuff from London, who is a celebrity in the vein of Sherlock Holmes and possesses the tenacity and implacability of a Poirot. (He is also, rather charmingly, a keen amateur rose grower.) It is Cuff’s idea to ask witnesses and guests to write down what they remember of the whole affair, in an attempt to get at the truth.

In this sense, of course, The Moonstone looks very much like a detective story, although whether it’s the first in the English language or not depends on your opinion of The Murders In the Rue Morgue (published twenty-seven years earlier) and Bleak House (published sixteen years earlier). The details of the plot, however, show how easily detective stories lend themselves to social commentary, especially on a microcosmic level. Much of the novel is concerned with the idea of privacy, particularly women’s privacy, and the violation of private female space. You don’t need to have read Freud to realize what kind of story this is: a young woman has a priceless jewel stolen from her bedroom in the dead of night after a celebration of her newly minted adulthood, and reacts with strong but inconsistent emotion to her loss. The men who busy themselves looking for her lost treasure–her cousins, the detective, the butler of the house–are bewildered by her response: “Why–having lost her Diamond–should she object to the presence…of the very people whose business it was to recover it?” The novel isn’t an allegory about lost virginity, I should add; there are too many other competing and contradicting themes for it to be so straightforward. But there are very intriguing resonances, as Rachel desperately tries to keep the theft a private or at least a family matter, and the men around her first annex for themselves the authority of “recovering” the jewel, and then insist on dragging all the details into the light, much against her wishes.

The question of female privacy also feeds into the heavy class focus that Collins brings to the novel. The Verinder family’s female servants are forced to submit to a police search of their bedrooms and personal belongings, which alienates them almost at once from any desire to be cooperative. The servants, most of whom have served the house faithfully for generations, are resentful and ashamed that the facade of their being “part of the family” can break down so easily, and that their masters can demonstrate how little they think of their inferiors. The lack of regard for the feelings of poor women is most painfully demonstrated in the subplot between Rosanna Spearman, a crippled servant at the house, and Franklin Blake, Rachel’s cousin and the family’s prodigal son. Rosanna falls in love with Blake instantly, and although he never looks at her twice, she forgets her place–as a poor woman and an unattractive one–so far as to dream about what would happen if he did. Her misery drives her to commit suicide. Her fate is viewed with sorrow, but without particular pity, by most of the characters, including the otherwise-sympathetic butler Gabriel Betteredge, and by Blake himself. The very idea of the loss of social hierarchy is absolutely inconceivable in the world of The Moonstone; the realization that Rosanna was aiming high, even if only in her imagination, prevents either of the men from mourning her death humanely, distracted as they are by the perceived impudence. Her love is described as “monstrous”. Only Lucy Yolland, the daughter of a local fisherman and one of Rosanna’s few friends, declares, “I loved her”, and refuses to call Blake “Mr. Franklin” (a deferential form of address) because of what she sees as his responsibility for Rosanna’s death. Betteredge, who despite being likable is also a pompous blowhard, is enraged by her disrespect in precisely the same way as he is disappointed by Rosanna’s. Both women fail to accept the codes of behavior and belief that more powerful members of their society use against them. It is not just that they are women who dare to express their feelings, although that is bad enough; it is that they are poor women who dare to do this. “People in high life,” Betteredge notes, “have all the luxuries to themselves–amongst others, the luxury of indulging their feelings. People in low life have no such privilege.”

It is, therefore, the duty of people in high life to exert themselves to imagine, and to empathize with, the feelings of people in low life: people, that is, who cannot indulge their feelings because they literally cannot afford to do so. The Moonstone abounds with relationships where this sort of imaginative empathy fails miserably between two individuals: Franklin fails to understand Rosanna, Rachel fails to understand Franklin. The most bleakly comic instance of this is the relationship between Drusilla Clack, a poor relation of the Verinders, and Lady Verinder, who is dying of cancer. Drusilla is an evangelical Christian; instead of trying to make Lady Verinder more comfortable, holding her hand, or even listening to her, Drusilla plies her with tracts about hell and salvation, right up to the point of the older woman’ s death. (These are not without comedy value; their titles are masterpieces of hyperbolic hysteria. My favorite is “Satan Among the Sofa-Cushions.”) The evidence of Ezra Jennings, meanwhile, is essential in understanding the irreparable damage that can be done to a person by failing to extend empathy towards them. He is mixed race, hailing from the colonies (probably Jamaica or another Caribbean island), shunned by the locals despite his evident skill as a doctor’s assistant, and we gather that his past is marred by the loss of a loved one and by the weight of unfair suspicion being cast upon him for his racial difference. The introduction to my copy of The Moonstone, written by Anthea Trodd of Keele University, suggests that the vagueness of Jennings’s sufferings is because his real value to the plot lies in his medical knowledge of opium, and that by “passing up prime opportunities for extended pathos,” Collins strengthens his story. Apparently, in other works, his tendency is to push the moral point too far; here, his “concise and inexplicit treatment of the character suggests that he understands that any competent reader needs few suggestions to take Ezra’s history as read.” I agree with her to a point, but I disagree that the purpose of Jennings is solely to provide information about opium (useful though that is). It may be his function within the plot, but within the narrative, he is perhaps the most tragic example of the obscurity that overcomes a kind and brilliant person when the imaginative empathy of his neighbors–fueled, in this case, by racism–does not reach him.

And equally, that imaginative empathy never reaches Rachel. Her male friends and relations are confounded by her; her mother does not understand her either; and any attempt to explicate her is met with the need for qualifications and contingency. Here is Mr Bruff, her lawyer, considering her attitude towards disaster: “Rachel Verinder’s first instinct…was to shut herself up in her own mind, and to think it over by herself. This absolute self-dependence is a great virtue in a man. In a woman, it has the serious drawback of morally separating her from the mass of her sex…I strongly suspect myself of thinking as the rest of the world think in this matter–except in the case of Rachel Verinder. The self-dependence in her character was one of its virtues in my estimation.” She can be made an honorary man; her “self-dependence” bestows that upon her, while the discussion of “virtue” situates her securely in the realm of the feminine, albeit a feminine characterized by special strength, like Britannia or Artemis. Yet she is never allowed to tell any part of the story in her own voice. It is as though the stories of the other men have to prove to us that she is worthy, but by the time they have done that, the story’s over. (Her virtue, in the masculine sense, is also at least partly cemented by the fact that the sole female narrator, Drusilla, disapproves of her.) The Moonstone, at the end of the novel, is found; I’m not sure that Rachel, despite her supposedly happy marriage, ever is.


For more by Collins, see:

The Woman In White, ed. John Sutherland (Oxford: Oxford University Press,  2001)

Armadale, ed. Catherine Peters (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

No Name, ed. Virginia Blain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Basil, ed. Dorothy Goldman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

For more on Collins’s work and context, see:

Wilkie Collins, Peter Ackroyd (London: Chatto & Windus, 2012)

Wilkie Collins: Women, Property and Propriety, Philip O’Neill (London: Macmillan, 1988)

Wilkie Collins, Medicine and the Gothic, Laurence Talaimach-Vielmas (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2009)

‘In the Secret Theatre of Home’: Wilkie Collins, Sensation Narrative, and Nineteenth-Century Psychology, Jenny Bourne Taylor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)