Dickens had a genius for revealing the social ills of the England in which he lived through poignant tales of worthy characters who battle and suffer from those ills. In the process, he lightens the reading experience with his marvelous wit, his gift for characterization, and his clear compassion for the protagonists he creates.
In this tale, the protagonist, Nicholas Nickleby, is the son of a widow, well-meaning but amazingly circumstantial and self-involved, and his namesake, who was a respectable landowner until an unwise investment at the urging of his wife lead him to financial ruin. At the opening of the tale, Nicholas, his beautiful sister Kate, and their mother have traveled to London to throw themselves on the mercy of Nickleby Sr.'s brother Ralph who is wealthy. Ralph is as nasty as he is rich, and this leads the family to experience a number of the country's ills which they might otherwise have been spared. Nicholas is packed of to the Yorkshire countryside to work under Mr. Squeers, a horrible schoolmaster who takes in vulnerable boys and starves and beats rather than educates them in exchange for their tuition. Kate is consigned to work in a seamstress's shop, and she and her mother are lodged in a tiny unkempt property of Ralph's. In the course of the tale Kate is placed at the mercy of lecherous gentry, Nicholas escapes, rescuing a runaway boy, and joins a theater company, and eventually joins forces with various other reputable and kind hearted folk to battle back against the various evil schemes of his uncle.
This book is VERY long, but it is an enjoyable, if not gripping read. At times it reminded me of A Christmas Carol, but Ralph is not so easily influenced as was old Ebeneezer Scrooge, despite being at one point visited by a Marley-like figure from his past (not yet dead, and not yet fully repentant, but nonetheless offering a chance to make reparations for one of his early evil deeds). I'm glad to have hung in there through this lengthy read, although at times I thought I might never get to the end.