The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

X. Dickens

§ 5. Nicholas Nickleby

The faults of Oliver Twist, and the tendencies and methods which brought about those faults, reappear in Nicholas Nickleby. But the book is on a very much larger scale; it is very much more varied in scene and character; and almost all the new elements as well as the reversions to Pickwickian ways are sheer gain. It would, indeed, be amazing—were there not many examples of similar blindness in life and literature—that Dickens, whose portrayal of the weakness of the stage and its population makes one of the most delightful features of the book, should (obviously without the least consciousness of what he was doing) have put beside the Crummleses and in fuller and more constant presence a stage-acting and stage-speaking hero in Nicholas; a stage-heroine in Kate; a stage-villain in Ralph, and a second ditto combined with a stage bad fine gentleman in Sir Mulberry; a stage silly aristocrat with a few better touches in lord Frederick; stage supers in Pyke and Pluck and the Wititterlys and others; almost all these, moreover, being of a very inferior stage kind. Yet, even this part provides one atoning comic moment when lord Frederick pronounces Shakespeare “a clayver man,” and a really fine, if distinctly melodramatic, finale in the duel and the scene more immediately leading up to it. Luckily, too, this element is practically merged in, altogether overweighted and counter-influenced by, “metal more attractive.” The sordid misery and brutality of Dotheboys hall, unlike things of the same general class in Oliver Twist, are not too long dwelt on, are enlivened with excellent comedy and afford opportunities for more than one exhibition of the most refreshing and least mawkish poetical justice. Mrs. Nickleby atones for her son and her daughter and her brother-in-law and a whole generation of stage Nicklebys twenty times over. The more sentimental “facets,” as they may be called—the Smike part and the Cheeryble part and Madeline’s sufferings from her again too histrionic papa—may appeal differently to different persons; but the liberal provision of other matter should reconcile reasonable doubters. Mr. Crummles and those about him remain, like all the best things in Dickens, joys unspeakable and inexhaustible for ever; and they are not ill-seconded by the Mantalinis, the Kenwigses and others, especially Newman Noggs, who is, perhaps, that one of Dickens’s avowed grotesques who has had least justice done to him. The book, in fact, has regained and displayed, in more variety than Pickwick, if less uniformity, that quality of abundance, of “God’s plenty,” to use a famous phrase, of production without reproduction, and variation without obvious mechanical effort, which only the greatest “makers” in verse and prose possess.