Old Besteller: The History of Henry Esmond, by William Makepeace Thackeray
a review by Rich Horton
This will be one of my longer reviews -- I apologize, but to quote Pascal, I didn't have the time (or, really, the energy) to make it shorter.
Was this 1852 book a bestseller? I don't know -- and I don't know of any lists kept for that period -- but I suspect it sold quite well -- Thackeray was a very successful writer, and very well known and widely celebrated in his day.
These days Thackery is of course still widely read, and remembered as one of the greatest of the Victorian novelists. But I would say that most of his reputation nowadays, at least superficially, is centered on one novel: Vanity Fair. One other novel, The Luck of Barry Lyndon, is reasonably well-remembered because it was made into a film by Stanley Kubrick. But his own favorite among his novels, and a critical favorite as well, at least during the 19th Century, was Henry Esmond. (For example, Anthony Trollope called it "the greatest novel in the English language".)
I decided to read it on almost a whim. I had picked up an old Modern Library reprint of it some time ago. (It's almost a Centenary reprint -- my edition is from 1950.) Cleaning up my bookshelves recently I happened across it, and wondered if I should read it, but then decided to pass -- I figured I didn't have time to tackle such a long book -- it's in the neighborhood of 200,000 words, over 600 pages in my copy. That same day, Gregory Feeley mentioned Thackeray in a Facebook post, and I mentioned by the by that I had just glanced at Esmond but put it back. Greg urged me to go ahead and read it. And I thought, I've read a lot of pretty trivial books recently as part of this Old Bestseller series -- why not read something with real heft? I am very happy I did.
William Makepeace Thackeray was born in India in 1811 -- his father was a secretary for the British East India company. William came to England in 1815 after his father's death. He was educated at Charterhouse School and at Cambridge, but did not take a degree. He spent the next several years more or less wasting his time -- some travel, some apparently desultory studies of law and art, failed attempts at starting two newspapers. His family had money, but Thackery lost some of it by his own efforts and more after a couple of Indian banks failed. So upon his marriage in 1836 he had to support his family, and he turned to writing. He wrote for various magazines (Fraser's and Punch among them), doing reviews, satirical sketches, and some travel writing. He published a couple of novels (Catherine and Barry Lyndon) before becoming famous with the publication of Vanity Fair in 1848. He and his wife had three daughters. One died in infancy. The eldest, Anna Isabella, became a well known novelist in her own right. The youngest married the famous critic Leslie Stephen. After the birth of their third child, Thackeray's wife succumbed to depression, and eventually had to be committed to an asylum. Thackeray died quite young, in 1863. (Indeed his wife, still insane, outlived him by over 30 years.)
Besides the novels already mentioned, in his lifetime Thackeray published Pendennis (1848-1850), The Newcomes (1855), The Virginians (1857-1859), and The Adventures of Philip (1862). The Virginians is a sequel to Henry Esmond, concerning Esmond's two grandsons, who fought on opposite sides in the Revolutionary War. He also wrote a shorter satirical fantasy, The Rose and the Ring, a lesser known pseudonymous Christmas novel, Mrs. Perkins' Ball, and numerous other books: satire, travel writing, parodies, etc.
As the dates of some of the novels mentioned above might suggest, many of Thackeray's novels were published first as serials, and (like Dickens) he often wrote them in parallel with their publication. He felt that this was harmful to their artistic unity, and one reason for his preference for Henry Esmond among his own works was that he wrote it entirely before publication. I don't think it was serialized before book publication (though I could be wrong). Indeed, the original book version was set in a typeface from the 1740s (complete with "s"s that looked like "f"s), the ostensible period of composition of Esmond's "memoirs". The full title of the novel is The History of Henry Esmond, Esq., A Colonel in the Service of Her Majesty Q. Anne. Written by Himself.
The novel was published in three volumes (as common at that time), and the three books are well-divided so as to cover neatly separated parts of Esmond's life (his youth first, his military career second, and his love affair with his cousin, along with his efforts to establish James, the Old Pretender, as Queen Anne's heir, in the third book). The novel opens with an introduction, "The Esmonds of Virginia", ostensibly written by Henry's daughter in 1778, some years after Esmond's death. It is a neat bit of introduction -- telling us how the story will end, offering much praise to Esmond, and even settling a score or two with the half-sister of Henry's daughter, one of the most important characters in the novel.
Then we move to Esmond's own account. His story begins (after a short look at his family history) with a momentous day in 1690 -- the arrival at the Esmond estate of Castlewood of its new Lord, the Fourth Viscount Castlewood. The Third Viscount has just died. Henry, now about 12, has been living there for a few years after he, the illegitimate son of the Viscount, was retrieved from his first guardians. Henry is a quiet, somewhat po-faced, and studious boy. He soon meets the Countess and her young daughter Beatrix. Lady Castlewood is only 19, though she has two children. Beatrix is perhaps 3 or 4. Lady Castlewood is beautiful and very kind, and insists that Henry stay with them, and be raised as another son of the family. Henry immediately forms a close and loyal attachment to her. Up to this point Henry has been raised Catholic, under the influence, mostly, of the scheming Jesuit Father Holt, an associate of the Third Viscount, who used the Viscount's money and influence as best he could to resist the ascension of William and Mary to the throne, and subsequently to plot for the return of the exiled King James II. (And, indeed, Henry's father's death happened at the Battle of Boyne, the final defeat of James II.) In succeeding years, Henry is converted to Protestantism, but remains a loyal Jacobite and Tory, though mostly not a very active one. Indeed, throughout the book, Thackeray (a Whig himself) rather has his cake and eats it too -- portraying in Henry Esmond a man who supports the Jacobite side for reasons of family loyalty (and to some extent principle), but who constantly acknowledges the superior qualities of William IV and later George I to their rivals such as James II and the Old Pretender, called by some James III. Likewise Esmond is very complimentary to many of his Whig rivals.
Henry's young career, then, is portrayed -- his earlier education by Father Holt, then his first years with the new Viscount, his wife and children -- and Henry's attempts to help educate the younger chldren. Henry finally is given enough money to go to Cambridge -- the plan is that he will become a clergyman and get the living at Castlewood. In the mean time we are shown the deterioration of the marriage of Lord and Lady Castlewood. I thought this one of the best parts of the book -- it seemed emotionally real, and believable, and only too familiar, as well as something of a commentary on the treatment of women in that society.
The critical episode that concludes the first segment of the book -- and also concludes Henry's college career -- is the murder by the despicable Lord Mohun (an historical figure apparently quite as bad a person as portrayed by Thackeray) of Lord Castlewood. Henry acts as Lord Castlewood's second, and is sent to prison (duelling was illegal). Mohun, meanwhile, is convicted of murder and then essentially pardoned because he is a member of the House of Lords.
The second part, then, is primarily focussed on Henry's military career, which is on the whole fairly successful. Henry fights, over a number of years, in the War of the Spanish Succession. The key General for England in this war was the Duke of Marlborough, and Esmond's rather harsh portrayal of Marlborough is one of the controversial elements of the novel. In Esmond's view (and perhaps Thackeray's?) Marlborough was a brilliant military man but cynical and opportunist and unwilling to allow any credit to go to anyone but him (or those who could go him political good). Esmond also is quite honest and regretful of the terrible toll of war on the civilian populations in the way. That particular war, despite a great deal of English success on the battlefield, ended in sort of a dispiriting draw, which seems appropriate to the themes of the novel.
This part also discusses Henry's friendship with Richard Steele (of Addison and Steele), whom he meets first when Steele is in the Army, and later becomes close to while Steele and Addison are writing the Spectator. Addison is given some play as well. Esmond also makes a critical discovery -- in fact, he is not a bastard -- his father had married Henry's mother before Henry was born, though the then abandoned her, and she left the baby with his first guardians and entered a nunnery. Henry makes the noble decision not to contest his inheritance -- in great part because of his love for the Lady Castlewood and her children, Beatrix and Frank, who is now the Fifth Viscount Castlewood. And, indeed, Henry and Frank spend a great deal of time together in the Army, and Frank ends up marrying a Belgian woman.
Finally the third section primarily deals with two aspects: Henry's rather one-sided love affair with his cousin Beatrix, and Henry's involvement with a plot to have the so-styled James III come to England as Queen Anne is dying, hoping that she will name him her heir. It is really no spoiler to say that neither affair comes to a successful end from Henry's point of view -- except that from another point of view -- the older Henry's, for one! -- both affairs end in very much the way they should have. It is historical fact, of course, that Anne was succeeded by George I of Hanover -- and Esmond points out at length his opinion that George was by far the better man, and better King, than James would have been. Henry is a Tory, but Thackeray was a Whig, and Thackeray has his main character, despite his nominal Toryism, promote the Whig side at almost every chance. Henry's political views, and his Jacobitism, are seen as purely the result of family loyalty -- his personal inclinations are clearly for the Whigs, and for William and Mary, Anne, and the Hanovers.
As for his affair with Beatrix, this is one of the most wonderful aspects of this book. Henry is enchanted with her from the moment he sees her as a woman, instead of as his young girl cousin. And Beatrix never seems to see him as anything but her loyal and rather dour cousin -- the boy who tried to teach her Latin and other subjects when she was a child, the rather prudish and overserious adult. But over many years she remains Henry's object of desire -- even as he knows that she will not make anyone happy. Beatrix herself has several serious -- and rich -- suitors, eventually settling on the Duke of Hamilton, a much older man and a widower. Yet this too comes to grief at the hands of the evil Lord Mohun (another actual historical incident). But after all this, Henry -- exiled to America after his part in the plot to put James III on the throne -- marries Beatrix' mother, and Henry's quasi-stepmother, the Dowager Countess of Castlewood, and they live happily for many years in Virginia.
That's rather a strange resolution (though it's something we know from the beginning of the novel, as it is revealed in the introduction). It has been clear for a long time that Rachel is in love with Henry -- Henry's own feelings are less clear. Surely he loves Rachel, but much of that love seems more as that of a son. And surely Rachel is the better woman. Yet -- even this is ambiguous. For our source on this is Henry himself -- and indeed our source on Beatrix' worthiness as Henry's object of desire is in great part her mother -- whose motives are in question. And, indeed, Beatrix' rejection of Henry is perhaps not so clear -- there is a significant scene in which she complains to Henry that he keeps trying to prove himself worthy of her love, when perhaps what she really wanted was a man who wouldn't take no for an answer. The whole question of the truth of this triangle is one of the fascinating and strange aspects of this novel.
At any rate, as must be clear, I loved this book. I haven't discussed the prose much -- but it is, to my taste, magnificent. It is Victorian prose, of course -- the sentences are long and complex, but perfectly structured. As such it may not be to the taste of many modern readers, but for me it works beautifully. The characters, too, including the historical personages, come entirely to life. The incidents are fascinating, sometimes hard to believe. The Henry/Beatrix affair is emotionally wholly believable, and the relationship between Henry and his eventual wife, Rachel, is quite strange but also rings true to me -- and is quite moving. My description is perhaps too prosy and has too much plot summary -- though much more happens than I mention! And, as with most great novels, there is a fair amount of comedy as well. I recommend it very highly.