In the field of writing Louise Berridge is a gamekeeper turned poacher. She read English at Oxford, then took her study of writers into the classroom, spending 10 years teaching literature at Wellington College in Berkshire. It was only when she moved into television as a script editor in 1991 that she began working with writers directly, and not until she became a producer in 1995 that she claims to have begun to understand story structure through working in the cutting room. After a stint as Executive Producer of EastEnders, Louise finally left television to try writing for herself. She now writes historical novels under the name A.L. Berridge. Her first two novels, Honour and the Sword and In the Name of the King, follow the adventures of the Chevalier de Roland through the turbulent history of 17th century France. Her latest, Into the Valley of Death, is set in the Crimea and is due in June next year. Here Louise writes about Charles Dickens's Nicholas Nickleby.
Louise Berridge on Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens
The first time an interviewer asked my favourite book I stupidly answered just 'Dickens'.
Yet I think I have an excuse. The world of his novels is so unmistakeably the same, the characters so obviously the creations of one mind, that the whole vast canon can sometimes feel like a single work. A real hardened Dickens fan will be able to quote 'Mrs Gamp' by the yard - but ask him which novel she appears in, and count the seconds it takes for the reply.
But when Norm asked me to pick a book, I plumped without hesitation for Nicholas Nickleby. It isn't Dickens's greatest novel, it's early, flawed work and rarely appears as a school set book, but it has an appeal unique to itself, and I have loved it since first reading it at the age of ten.
Like most of Dickens's novels, the story follows the adventures of 'innocents abroad' in an evil world. In this case it's young Nicholas and Kate Nickleby, who are compelled to seek their fortunes in the big bad world of London under the evil eye of their cold-hearted money-loving uncle Ralph. Nicholas's eyes are opened by the brutality of the Yorkshire school where he is sent to teach, and he breaks free to rescue Kate from her uncle's clutches and embark on a life of honest penury. From this they are in turn rescued by the benevolence of the wealthy Cheeryble brothers, whereupon all the good characters band together to save a girl who has been entrapped by a conspiracy of all the bad ones. Ralph has a terrible personal comeuppance, the other villains go to prison, and with one tragic exception everyone else lives happily ever after.
It does not, on the face of it, sound anything special. The moral could be summed up simply as 'the love of money is the root of all evil', Nicholas and Kate are as flatly good as most of Dickens's straight characters, and the plot creaks with contrivance. And yet - and yet! This is one of the most popular works in the canon, a perennial favourite for television adaptations, and the one chosen by David Edgar for his superb stage version. It has magic. It's Dickens first full-length novel, and it simply explodes with the energy of a writer just beginning to discover what he can really do.
The minor characters are sensational. One-eyed schoolmaster Wackford Squeers is one of the most memorable villains ever created - brutal, funny, and even oddly pathetic in his final self-pity: 'U-p, up, adjective, not down. S-q-u-double e-r-s, Squeers, noun substantive, a educator of youth. Total, all up with Squeers!' The comedy is his best and freshest. The sequences with Vincent Crummles (and the loathsome Infant Phenomenon) may be peopled with grotesques of Dickens's imagination, but the humour is drawn from a reality of a theatrical world he knew well, and which in many respects is largely unchanged today. Dickens's comedy can occasionally feel laboured, but in Nickleby it pours out with such guileless ease it could sometimes be described as throwaway. When Fanny Squeers writes, 'My pa requests me to write to you. The doctor's considering it doubtful whether he will ever recuvver the use of his legs, which prevents his holding a pen', it can take us a second to see the joke.
And it's London. London in its full riotous life as he never wrote it again. It's the same place of poverty and corruption he describes in Oliver Twist, Dombey and Son and Bleak House, but his heroes this time come to it as adults and without the level of fear experienced by Dickens's children. We see dark things here, but again and again the emphasis returns to the light. The square where the Cheerybles keep their office is a dingy enough place, but to Tim Linkinwater 'there ain't such a square as this in the world. I know there ain't'. Tim keeps a blind blackbird in a cage - but the blackbird sings. I'd never seen London when I read Nicholas Nickleby but I understood 'the London feeling' years before I experienced it myself.
These are all terrific qualities in a novel, but there's something else, something unique, just one moment in the whole book that lifts it into a class of its own. The moment that defines Nicholas Nickleby for me, and which I now realize has affected me more profoundly than I ever knew, is the one where our young hero finally stands up to the monstrous Squeers to prevent him beating helpless Smike. He warns him, he speaks high-flown and deeply improbable dialogue - and then he throws away Victorian values and beats him. He beats the schoolmaster with his own cane.
It's a glorious anarchy, of course, and bound to thrill anyone who's ever suffered under an unjust teacher, but its appearance in a Victorian novel is anyway staggering, the complete antithesis of the Christian suffering of Helen Burns in the Yorkshire school in Jane Eyre. It's an incredibly satisfying, dramatic moment, but I would argue it's also the most cathartic and extraordinary Dickens ever wrote. When I watched the Royal Shakespeare Company perform it on stage, the audience actually stood and cheered. It has become almost an archetype all its own, and when I first saw the film Destry Rides Again, I recognized it at once in the moment the pacifist sheriff played by James Stewart finally snaps and goes for his gun. I've seen it many times since, and I'm horribly aware I've probably tried to write it too.
Dickens never repeated it. His heroes tend to be essentially passive creatures, who are saved by benevolent god-like figures but rarely take vigorous action themselves. Their power is in moral virtue, and it's only Nicholas who also has a strong right arm. But while the violence gives the scene its energy, it's what it represents that matters most: a hero who actively takes on moral responsibility. Nicholas is an innocent, and at Dotheboys Hall he needs saving badly, but when he meets someone even weaker he takes action to save them both. It was a concept that clearly fascinated Dickens, and he'd already tried a rehearsal of it in Oliver Twist. When Nancy stands up to Bill Sykes to protect Oliver from a beating she uses exactly the same words Dickens would later give to Nicholas: 'I will not stand by and see it done.'
That single sentence sums up what I think I really took from Nicholas Nickleby. It's been said better in words commonly ascribed to Edmund Burke: 'The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing'. But I believe in it, and I've never forgotten my first encounter with it in Dickens's novel. In writing this post I've only just and rather embarrassingly realized how central it is to my own first book.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]