First serialised from 1838-39, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, to give it its full title, is exactly what it purports to be: the story of Nicholas Nickleby, a young man who loses his father and his home and travels to London with his mother and sister to throw themselves on the mercy of his father's brother, Ralph. However, Ralph hates Nicholas and his 'help' consists of finding him a job in the worst place he can think of at the time. Nicholas duly travels to a terrible school in Yorkshire while his sister, Kate, is left at the mercy of Ralph.
For the most part, I enjoyed Nicholas Nickleby, although I do think it drifted off on occasion. There are some deliberate filler-scenes, such as the travelling stories in the inn, which draw you from the main story, and I was rather impatient for the Portsmouth sojourn to end. That's not to say that some of characters and situations there weren't entertaining, just that it seemed to be a contrivance for keeping Nicholas out of London.
Nicholas himself is a very morally good character, though one humanised by his touches of temper. However, some of the smaller characters are much more memorable; for example, the rates-collector Mr Lillyvick, who is ensnared by an actress, and Miss La Creevy, the first friend the Nicklebys make in London. A few characters just irritated me personally, including Mr and Mrs Mantalini (although I liked Miss Knag) and Mrs Nickleby. Her comic silliness became very annoying and, to be perfectly honest, I didn't want her to survive the novel - or the chapter, come to that.
This is Dickens so there are some excellent societal commentaries peppered throughout. The most potent of these probably comes from one of the novel's most famous characters, the Yorkshire headmaster Wackford Squeers who mistreats the boys under his care quite viciously. However, Ralph Nickleby is a font of wisdom, betraying the dark thoughts of the fortunate in relation to the less so. I found Ralph to be a far more interesting character than the hero, particularly when humanised by the affection he develops for his niece. For me, he was the central character and I cared less about Nicholas in the final pages than I did the supporting cast. Perhaps this was because Nicholas's love for Madeline felt ridiculous in places. I cared less about them marrying than I did about, say, poor Smike's unrequited love.
The characters from this novel who'll live with me are Smike, Squeers and Ralph Nickleby - not much of a commentary on Nicholas himself!
*This book was read as part of the 'Chunkster Challenge 2014' - details here.