My thanks to Erica Wagner, Literary Editor of The Times, for her contribution to Dickens and I, My Favourite and Why.
Erica Wagner's latest book, Seizure: A Novel, is published by Faber & Faber and she is now working on a book about the Brooklyn Bridge.
I hated Dickens. Don’t get me wrong – I tried, I really did, to love him. I still have the copy of Oliver Twist I asked my Dad to buy me when I was, I think, about my son’s age now – eleven. It’s a Signet Classic and its spine is cracked from my repeated attempts to read any of it at all. Ugh. One year later, when I was in 7th grade, our class read Great Expectations. Hated that too. I could not make any connection between my New-York-Upper-West-Side life and Dickens’ world. I thought there was no hope. And, frankly, I was fine with that.
And then. And then the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of The Life & Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby came to Broadway in 1981. Another year had passed: I was thirteen. The stories surrounding the show were unprecedented. It was eight and a half hours long! The tickets cost – gasp -- $100 each! (Look at Broadway prices now and this is really quite hilarious, but trust me – it was a ton of money in those days.) My parents – not wealthy people – bought tickets for us, because this was a cast-iron Event, something not to be missed. I thought this to be a colossal waste of money, and went along on the first night (you could see it all in one day on a Saturday, or over two nights) wearing my most grudging and dismissive face.
But now, three decades later, the opening lines of the play – and of the novel – ring clearly in my head. “There once lived, in a sequestered part of the county of Devonshire, one Mr Godfrey Nickleby…” I’ll tell you the truth: tears come to my eyes. I suppose those tears are in part for a lost childhood (and Dickens understood better than most what a lost childhood could mean) but they are also for the real force of the transformation I underwent over the course of two evenings in the Plymouth Theatre. That was it. I was hooked. I got it. There was no turning back. I was no longer excluded and mystified: I was enraptured and involved.
No, Nickleby is not, now, my favourite novel of Dickens’s, by a long shot – it is a testament to the power of Trevor Nunn and David Edgar’s production that in certain respects it brought more depth to the novel than it actually possesses. (Roger Rees’s Nicholas surpassed Dickens’ callow youth, for instance, by a long way.) Great Expectations is my desert-island Dickens, 7th grade notwithstanding; it speaks to my love not only of its author but of myth and fable too in its structure and themes. But I’d also say that of A Christmas Carol, and then the list would begin to grow long. But Nickleby – and the Royal Shakespeare Company – will always have a very special place in my Dickensian heart.