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Around the central story of Nicholas Nickleby and the misfortunes of his family Dickens created some of his most wonderful characters: the muddle-headed Mrs. Nickleby, the gloriously theatrical Crummles, their protegee Miss Petowker, the pretentious Mantalinis, and the mindlessly cruel Squeers and his wife. Nicholas Nickleby's loose, haphazard progress harks back to the picaresque novels of the eighteenth century -- particularly those of Smollett and Fielding -- yet the novel's exuberant atmosphere of romance, adventure, and freedom is overshadowed by Dickens' awareness of social ills and financial and class insecurity. However, as Mark Ford writes in his Introduction to this new Penguin Classics edition, it is precisely these anxieties that "Nicholas Nickleby so often succeeds in transfiguring... into the wildest, most exhilarating forms of comedy."

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