Dickens' first pass at a romantic novel and a fine romance it is too, centred on a young hero of conspicuous gallantry and peopled with pantomime villains and damsels in distress by the seeming coachful. Simon Vance handles it all with wit and dexterity, relishing the various dialects and stages of youth or decrepitude in the array of characters. I can't resist mentioning in this context the preposterous provincial thespian Vincent Crummles, and wishing that Dickens had found more for him, through Vance, to say. Amid all the swashbuckling exploits, though, Dickens finds time to depict in Ralph Nickleby one of his most chilling portrayals of evil, a man as close to purely malicious as ever was committed to paper, but withal restrained, subdued, sardonic, and wholly believable. Some critics have found fault with the characterisation, and one can concede that point, particularly in relation to the impossibly cheery Cheeruble brothers and their almost transparent ward Madeline Bray. There is also a drawn out side story involving the fawning relatives of a petty government official with little connection to the main plot that would clearly be a candidate for "abridgment". However to make too much of these points would be carp unduly at what in the end is intended as, and succeeds extravagantly as, no more than a ripping yarn.
To tackle this novel in any form is no idle pastime, but requires a serious commitment of time and intellect. With its complex interweaved narrative strands (alternating between Esther's first-person narrative and that of a nameless omniscient narrator), its extensive cast of characters, and its frequent digressions, it poses a particular challenge as an audiobook. It is the kind of novel that should have an index, and which in paper form would have had me often searching back through the pages for a reminder about who had said what to whom and when. Since this was not supported in my audio reader, there was no alternative but to soldier on through the thicket. A novel this dense in character and incident would challenge the greatest actor, but with Peter Batchelor on top form my interest never flagged. If I had one quibble it would be with the production itself - the frequent "re-recordings" are spliced in rather too abruptly, distracting from the flow of words. As for the story itself, Dickens' usual slow buildup is taken to extremes here, but the eventual payoff is as moving as he ever achieved elsewhere. The difficulty for the modern reader is to comprehend how a lawsuit can simply continue under its own momentum without any prospect of conclusion for generations despite the best will of its parties to end it. This undermines its effectiveness as the central narrative device that underpins the action of the novel, but as a critique of the legal system of the time, it was epoch-making and quite possibly history-changing. The greatest incidental pleasure is to be had in the minor comic characters such as the paragon of "deportment", Mr Turvidrop, and the evangelist Mr Chadband with his orotund sermonising (ministers of any stripe rarely fare well in Dickens' hands). Serious Dickens fans simply must attempt this, but best you know what to expect beforehand. You will be glad if you can make it to the end.
This of all Dickens' novels is perfectly suited to the audiobook format. With its picaresque, episodic style, it can be consumed in reasonably-sized bites without fear of losing the thread of a complicated plot. Dickens' framing device of an editor presenting a series of recollections by Pickwick club members, with occasional editorial interpolations, is abandoned fairly early in favour of a straight narrative style, to this listener's mild relief. David Timson strikes the perfect light comic tone for the narrator and creates the huge gallery of characters with unfailing invention and variety. Woven into the narrative of the main characters are tales told by incidental raconteurs from all walks of Victorian life - lawyers, actors, vicars, travelling adventurers, and landed gentry. The language is full of Victorian delights - characters asking each other to "Have the goodness to ...", endlessly fussing about what is "respectable", calling each other "My dear sir...", and all the while getting through snuff by the boxful, particularly my favourite, the diminutive lawyer Mr Perker. Timson's greatest comic heights come in the arguments between Sam Weller and his irascible father, with their idiosyncratic dialects that must read very oddly on the page but sparkle with humour in Timson's sure hands. Thirty-two hours have never passed so pleasantly.
Peter Batchelor does more then justice to Dickens' epic fictionalised memoir. As a first-person narrative it is ideally suited for the intimacy of the audiobook format, and Batchelor is throughout at one with the material, his deep baritone rolling on with unflagging verve through the yarn's decades. Unavoidably he recedes a little on the female parts, particularly the vapid ingenue Dora, but his range and variety on the male characters is vast. My favourite was the Cockney climber Uriah Heep, but the country boatman Dan Peggotty's tones were rich and dark as gravy on the ear. Dickens' themes of upbringing and maturity are woven densely through the story, which is studded with moving moments as well as richly comic scenes, mostly involving the hapless Mr Micawber. After 32 hours the end left me wanting more.
Tadhg Hynes brings a staggering range of character and emotional tone to bear on Dickens' late masterpiece. By turns suspenseful, moving, and irresistibly comic, Hynes' performance could not conceivably be bettered. Maintaining distinctive voices for each character, Hynes does the job of an entire troupe of actors, while maintaining the restraint and wry detachment of Dickens' narration. As a first introduction to audiobooks I found this rendition, all 19 hours, left me wanting more.
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