I have mixed feelings about Dickens. At one end of the scale, Bleak House is a masterpiece and it’s hard to carry off a preachy anti-capitalist tale and make it heartwarming, but A Christmas Carol does just that. The other end of the scale is far from terrible. The Pickwick Papers is a fun collection of tales that never quite coheres (perhaps was never really meant to), and Hard Times takes that preachiness, removes the heartwarming and leaves a book I found a slog.
Nicholas Nickleby falls somewhere between those ends. Like a lot of Dickens, if he was publishing today, creating a complete work rather than a series of episodes, a good editor would have cut a lot of extraneous characters and sub-plots, perhaps leaving something that felt more like a single novel. This isn’t really a criticism of Dickens as a recognition of the world he was writing for, but as a modern reader familiar with the novel as a form, Dickens in general and Nickleby in particular, feels disjointed and flabby.
On the plus side the language, even in the worst of Dickens novels, is masterful, fun and a constant delight. More than enough to cover up the most tedious of plot diversions. Characters are generally well drawn, although in this case, male characters are painted with a wide-ranging palette (albeit with broad strokes) but female characters tend to be either idiots, or pure, chaste and in need of rescuing.
In summary, if you’ve never read any Dickens before, don’t start here (wait until Christmas and read A Christmas Carol, it’s short and delightful). If you’ve got a few under your belt, this is middle-ranking. Not as sublime as some of the later work, but more assured than some of the earlier work.