The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

IX. Thackeray

§ 11. The Virginians

In July, 1857, Thackeray followed colonel Newcome’s example by standing as a liberal candidate for a seat in parliament. The electors of Oxford rejected him by 67 votes, thereby doing probably little disservice to politics. His best work in letters had been done, it is true. His fund of invention was not inexhaustible, and, in his early journalistic work, he had shown a tendency to repeat himself, even in his fertile gift of coining appropriate names for his humorous types. The Virginians, appearing in serial parts from November, 1857, to September, 1859, was a chronicle of the descendants of Henry Esmond, the American Warringtons to whom Pendennis’s friend traced his ancestry. There is no falling-off in the matter of style. Thackeray wrote as freely as ever, dropping, with all his accomplished ease, from narrative into reflective digressions, which, if they interrupt the story, are, themselves, as lightly broken off in turn. The general construction, however, is even more careless than usual, and there are portions of the book in which the situations are so prolonged that action seems to hang fire altogether. The brothers George and Harry Warrington are spectators, as their grandfather had been, of stirring historical events; but the elements of history and fiction are less successfully blended than in Esmond. Washington and Wolfe are felt as excrescences upon the story: that one is the friend and adviser of Madam Warrington and the other the intimate of the father of Theo and Hetty Lambert is not enough to give them an indispensable connection with the chief actors. The exigencies of the historical setting are so severely felt that the concluding chapters are little more than an appendix devoted to the American war of independence. Moreover, while the grandsons of colonel Esmond are two very pretty young men, united, even when outwardly opposed, by a firm bond of sincere affection, it must be owned that Harry, with some of George’s brains, would have been less of a blockhead, and George, with a compensating quantity of Harry’s insouciance, would escape the imputation of being something of a prig. Theo and Hetty are charming examples of a type which Thackeray, devotedly attached to his own daughters, drew with tender affection. But, without the family of Castlewood. The Virginians would be a pale and fatigued performance after Esmond and The Newcomes. After Harry, standing upon the bridge at Castlewood, has seen his cousins return to their home in their coach-and-six, followed by the chariot that bore the baroness Bernstein, “a stout, high-coloured lady, with a very dark pair of eyes,” and has received their dubious welcome to the house of his ancestors, the long digression in which the antecedents of his visit to England are related finds us impatient to know more of the children of the boy to whom Esmond had unswervingly resigned his own rightful inheritance. The sins of the fathers have overtaken the children: lord Castlewood is a polite swindler, his brother Will is a boor and blackleg, while his sisters have achieved a notoriety conspicuous even in an age tolerant of scnadal. Nevertheless, the fortunes of this doomed household awaken interest and pity. Lord Castlewood retains his breeding and has not wholly renounced acquaintance with the virtues which he does not practise; while lady Maria’s frustrated attempt to ensnare her young and susceptible cousin with her autumnal attractions, and her eventful infatuation for the actor whom she marries are the theme of a comedy with a strong element of pathos. But the presiding genius of the house, malignantly open-eyed to its faults, sardonically resigned to the destiny which she has chosen of her own free will, but determined that the grandson of the man whose love she has rejected shall not be condemned to share the limbo of vanished fortunes and ruined reputations which is her own refuge, is baroness Bernstein. At the end of Esmond, Beatrix had made her choice, and the baroness, after many years, is still Beatrix, with her beauty gone and ambition defeated, but with her intelligence sharpened and with an undisguised consciousness, quite distinct from remorse, of the relative value of the lot which she has renounced and the risks which she has preferred. Her influence is the most powerful factor in determining the course of events in The Virginians, and, with the moving scene in which she passes out of life, revealing in her delirium the hopes and fears which had agitated her at the crisis of her youth, the real interest of the book is over.