Today’s the 200th birthday — or would be, if he was still alive — of the best-known novelist of his time, a man in fact who was popular as the dickens. In recent years I’ve begun reading more of his books, including five in 2011: Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, A Christmas Carol, The Chimes, and Great Expectations. This year, I hope, I’ll get around to Oliver Twist, The Cricket on the Hearth, The Haunted Man, and (maybe) Hard Times or Martin Chuzzlewit.
Sure his best-known works are really long (remember, he got paid by installment), especially for these fast-paced times, but not very ‘Victorian’ or ‘classic’ in any sense. The books are enormously interesting, and — since we’re all amusing ourselves to death — often very funny. Amazing character names, too: Scrooge, Uriah Heep, the Artful Dodger, Charity Pecksniff, Sloppy, Smallweed, Sweedlepipe, Inspector Bucket, Tiny Tim, Edwin Drood, Fagin, Magwitch, Mr. Fezziwig, Newman Noggs, Tommy Traddles, the evil dwarf Quilp, and the rest — almost 1,000 different individuals in all.
This terrific want ad from chapter 3 of Nicholas Nickleby features my favorite name of all — the one, the only Wackford Squeers: “With this exordium, Mr. Ralph Nickleby took a newspaper from his pocket, and after unfolding it, and looking for a short time among the advertisements, read as follows: EDUCATION.— At Mr. Wackford Squeers’s Academy, Dotheboys Hall, at the delightful village of Dotheboys, near Greta Bridge in Yorkshire, Youth are boarded, clothed, booked, furnished with pocket-money, provided with all necessaries, instructed in all languages living and dead, mathematics, orthography, geometry, astronomy, trigonometry, the use of the globes, algebra, single stick (if required), writing, arithmetic, fortification, and every other branch of classical literature. Terms, twenty guineas per annum. No extras, no vacations, and diet unparalleled. Mr. Squeers is in town, and attends daily, from one till four, at the Saracen’s Head, Snow Hill. N.B. An able assistant wanted. Annual salary 5 pounds. A Master of Arts would be preferred.”