I was up all of last night hrawd reading Nicholas Nickleby. Hrawd. The book is really just a preliminary - and inferior - sketch in preparation for David Copperfield, but such is the superiority of Dickens to all other writers that if David Copperfield didn't exist, this would be the best book ever.
The two books are built around the same elements: an idealized yet presumably autobiographical central character, forced by circumstance into contact with the lower classes, who comes away from the experience with the opinion that the lower classes are lower for a reason, and they need to stay down there. Philosophically, Dickens is the child of Adam Smith and the parent of Darwin; he expresses the same idea as all three - that our world, though imperfect, is rationally organized by means of competition and self-interest - but demonstrates the idea by a method that is more empirical than the other two: character studies which are as detailed as a journalist's, artistically presented, but pretty honest (although I think he's full of shit about himself).
But while David Copperfield is a masterpiece, and is perfect, this book doesn't have as much to live up to. What a fucking relief. Although it is "officially" considered a work of middle-period Dickens, this book is actually the final product and embodiment of the Early Dickens style - more political, more caricatures, more picaresque - just as David Copperfield signals the birth of Late Dickens.
Nickleby is like Dickens' 800-page proto-Copperfield blog post, with even the kitchen sink thrown in, and a lot less time and care taken in the passages where Dickens pontificates at length on the attractiveness of his own chin. The plot isn't as tight, but its holes and meanderings let in social satire that is even stronger than David Copperfield, written to be read, not in the form of a book, but as a weekly serialization. There's a scene where Nick beats a schoolteacher's ass, fucking awesome. Nick's foxy sister, Kate, is probably Dickens' best young female character; her dialogue is written so well it makes you think Charlie probably had a choach that people don't know about. After all, T.S. Elliot was secretly a woman, just his pen name was George.
What is missing from the altogether richer trove of material that is Early Dickens, is the perfect Dickensization of the Late Dickens style. I didn't come away from this book with nearly as much knowledge about everyone's hairline as I did from David Copperfield. Very disappointing. Artistically, here he is still wannabe Thackeray - extemporizing, moralizing...blogging, in short - and in that arena nobody, not even Big Dick, can make pace with the Peace.
But the Dickens philosophy is all here, undiluted by the constraints of aesthetic perfection and the ideological moderation that comes with age. Class, Dickens tells us, is the expression of Evolution (the New God) in human society. Class structure - being the result of human will, and competition throughout generations of humanity's surnames, noses, chins and hairlines - is logical and should not be fucked with, although the Superman - who I can't imagine being anything but upper-class in Dickens' world - will find class divisions somewhat arbitrary in his own life, and will cross class barriers, at least for a time, just for shits, and to show that he can.
But there is ample room for Jesus in the Dickens class hierarchy as well, which is what makes him the greatest novelist and political philosopher of all time, instead of being relegated as a "Great Douche of World History" like Herbert Spencer. The Jesus Juice is contained in his repeated descriptions of what Jim Scott refers to as the "Hidden Transcript" of politics in society: the embezzling clerk, gossiping seamstress, and cook who's pissing in the turtle soup balances the universal scales of Good and Evil. Dickens believes in a "Noble Savage of the Lower Class" (presented in Nickleby as lovable Smike) who, like his H-class Superman counterpart, can safely transcend social boundaries, so long as he 1) knows his role and 2) finds a Superman Sponsor. If you can't evolve up, says Dickens, then at least evolve sideways, and you've done what you can. That is all ye know, and all ye need to know.