A book with great societal impact
I don't want to say much about the quality of the novel itself. I find it the most two-dimensional of all his novels (and I've read the Old Curiousity Shop, which is full of grotesqueries!). But I do want to provide some perspective as to the background of this novel.
Before Dickens wrote this novel, some friends of his brought to his notice of horrid boarding schools in the Yorkshire area. Dickens traveled the countryside incognito, visiting the schools and some people in the area. He found that these schools were being run under the principle of being storehouses for unwanted boys. "Natural" children, inconvenient children from a first marriage, children of widowers who didn't have time to bring up their boys were shipped off to these schools, never to come home for the holidays, and under most circumstances the boy wouldn't make it to the age of 18 at which time he would be ejected from the school with no useful learning.
Part of the motivation of this novel was to bring this practice to light -- many of the people in Yorkshire did not know what was going on the schools and those who did know did not see what they could do about it.
Then Nicholas Nickleby started to be published. Like all of his novels, this book came out in 3-chapter installments. Well before the book was halfway over, people spontaneously gathered around some of these schools, ejected children and masters alike, and set the buildings to torch. By the end of publication, the infamous Yorkshire schools were totally gone.
So keep this in mind while reading this book, which seems juvenile and flat compared even his previous two novels, Oliver Twist and the Pickwick Papers. This is the only of Dickens' novels to have an immediate and profound impact in his society. When was the last time you heard of a novel creating effective activism in a community?
Now that was for a book review, and was based on my own reading and listening to Dickens enthusiasts. They may have oversold the situation. Specifically, Dickens himself was one such enthusiast. In the preface of the book, written after the serialization ended in 1839, this is what Dickens himself claims:
This story was begun, within a few months after the publication of the completed "Pickwick Papers." There were, then, a good many cheap Yorkshire schools in existence. There are very few now.
Of the monstrous neglect of education in England, and the disregard of it by the State as a means of forming good or bad citizens, and miserable or happy men, private schools long afforded a notable example. Although any man who had proved his unfitness for any other occupation in life, was free, without examination or qualification, to open a school anywhere; although preparation for the functions he undertook, was required in the surgeon who assisted to bring a boy into the world, or might one day assist, perhaps, to send him out of it; in the chemist, the attorney, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker; the whole round of crafts and trades, the schoolmaster excepted; and although schoolmasters, as a race, were the blockheads and impostors who might naturally be expected to spring from such a state of things, and to flourish in it; these Yorkshire schoolmasters were the lowest and most rotten round in the whole ladder. Traders in the avarice, indifference, or imbecility of parents, and the helplessness of children; ignorant, sordid, brutal men, to whom few considerate persons would have entrusted the board and lodging of a horse or a dog; they formed the worthy cornerstone of a structure, which, for absurdity and a magnificent high-minded LAISSEZ-ALLER neglect, has rarely been exceeded in the world.
We hear sometimes of an action for damages against the unqualified medical practitioner, who has deformed a broken limb in pretending to heal it. But, what of the hundreds of thousands of minds that have been deformed for ever by the incapable pettifoggers who have pretended to form them!
I make mention of the race, as of the Yorkshire schoolmasters, in the past tense. Though it has not yet finally disappeared, it is dwindling daily. A long day's work remains to be done about us in the way of education, Heaven knows; but great improvements and facilities towards the attainment of a good one, have been furnished, of late years.
Of course, Dickens was so popular, his books often went through multiple editions. I am not quite sure when he wrote that, other than it was after October 1839, when the novel finished being published in its monthly number
Here is a different source about what happened:
Sadly schools like Dotheboys Hall really did exist. In early 1838 Dickens and Hablot Browne, the illustrator of Nicholas Nickleby, visited Yorkshire to get a first hand look at the situation. It was a very short visit, just two days, but it was enough to gather all the material they needed.
During their visit they called on William Shaw, the headmaster of Bowes Academy. In 1823 Shaw had been prosecuted for neglect after two pupils became blind because of beatings and poor nutrition. The situation improved somewhat after the investigation. However even after the investigation it was common for one pupil to die at Bowes Academy every year.
....not quite the obliteration of Yorkshire schooling claimed above. Here is a research paper on Dickens and Victorian education (and he had much to say in Hard Times on this subject, and a lot in pretty much all his non-historical novels, though not quite as pointed as in Hard Times.)
When Dickens turns his attention to fee-paying establishments for boys, they are treated far more seriously, and the perspective is generally that of the anguished pupil. Such is the character of Dotheboys Hall in Nicholas Nickleby, run by the sadistic Wackford Squeers (NN8, 9, 12, 13). The novel served as a vehicle for exposing the dreadful conditions in the Yorkshire schools -- those private venture boarding schools which catered for unwanted -- often illegitimate -- children, who were kept throughout the year at cheap rates. Dickens travelled under a pseudonym to visit these establishments with Phiz in 1838, and denounced them as examples of "the monstrous neglect of education in England"; he claimed that Squeers and his school were "faint and feeble pictures of an existing reality, purposely subdued and kept down lest they should be deemed impossible" (1839 preface to NN). In Nicholas's first sight of the "bare and dirty" classroom the hopeless situation of the boys (Squeers's "proper and natural enemies") is highlighted: "With every kindly sympathy and affection blasted in its birth, with every young and healthy feeling flogged and starved down, with every revengeful passion that can foster in swollen hearts eating its evil way to their core in silence, what an incipient Hell was breeding here!" (NN 8). Pathos is elicited through the character of Smike, a "crushed boy" whose "long and very sad history" is punctuated by "stripes and blows, stripes and blows, morning, noon, and night" (NN 7, 12); his suffering and eventual death are directly attributable to Squeers's sadistic regime. This formidable -- and largely undeniable -- attack on such schools lent imaginative weight to indictments which had been circulating about such places as William Shaw's Bowes Academy at Greta Bridge, and helped to speed their demise.
A little more realistic take -- Dickens helped the destruction of the schools along, but it wasn't necessarily as quick as Dickens claims.
Still, that's quite the impact for a novel.