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

IX. Thackeray

§ 9. Esmond

The History of Henry Esmond, published in 1852, is connected with Pendennis by the very slight bond of its hero’s relationship to George Warrington. Thackeray had already displayed his predilection for history in Barry Lyndon and in the historical setting of portions of Vanity Fair. In Esmond, he applied his powers to a drama of the close of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth century, with a wide knowledge of the social and literary history of the age. He was guilty of a certain number of anachronisms; for, while Scott’s lordly inattention to chronology was not acceptable to Thackeray’s idea of the historical novel, his conscientiousness did not carry him to the length of verifying his references with the painful care of George Eliot. But he had an advantage over other writers of historical fiction in the fact that his style adapted itself admirably to the art of telling a tale of the past in language suited to the supposed time of action. The love of Esmond for Beatrix, his gradual disillusionment, his recognition of the love that may be his for the asking, are told in language that is no mere attempt to recover the vanished graces of an archaic literary form, but is Thackeray’s own spontaneous English, always akin to that of his eighteenth-century models, and wrought by his vivid imagination of the past into conformity with the style of his chosen period. Esmond, even in using the third person, has a difficult story to tell; for the situation on which his narrative is founded is a change of sentiment in a heart as honourable as that of Dobbin, and it is further complicated by the fact that his marriage with lady Castlewood, after his long devotion to her daughter, is not that retreat upon a sure stronghold which Pendennis, after his filtration with Blanche, made to the willing Laura, but is the true reward of his deserts. Thackeray’s complete sympathy with his hero enables Esmond to tell the story without affectation or egotism: it even surmounted the dangers of the delicate experiment of making daughter and mother the successive objects of the same man’s love. His restrained humour, which allowed him to smile compassionately at Esmond’s infatuation for Beatrix, endowed him with the double gift of seeing life through Esmond’s eyes and from his own point of view at the same time; and, where Esmond must, of necessity, exercise reticence at the risk of being misunderstood, Thackeray’s appreciation of the position suggests those touches and turns of phrase which reveal the truth. If Esmond was misled by the fen-fire of Beatrix’s attractions, there are few of his readers who, on the first sight of Beatrix descending the staircase, candle in hand, in all the splendour of her young beauty, have not fallen under that spell. And its removal, as he awakens to her heartlessness and mercenary ambition, is told with a warmth of sentiment, far removed from sentimentality, which carries the reader with it. This story of love and self-sacrifice, set in an atmosphere of history which has its unobstrusive influence upon the plot, is the most perfectly conceived and carried out of Thackeray’s novels. The style, if more carefully studies than usual, shows no abatement of its charm. Seldom in English literature has the emotion founded upon the ties of relationship and friendship in everyday life, and hard to describe because it is natural and common, been touched so skilfully or with such truth to nature as in the gentle gravity of Henry Esmond; and even the most intransigent sceptic, with Esmond before him, is forced to confess that its “cynical” author had visions of a world of which meanness and pretentiousness were not the ruling passions.

During the period from 1847 to 1852, Thackeray reached the height of his fame. Vanity Fair had brought him into sudden renown, and, from that time, he shared with Dickens the preeminence in contemporary fiction. In 1846, after six years of living in lodgings, first in Jermyn street and afterwards at 88 St. James’s street, where most of Vanity Fair was written, he made a home for himself and his daughters at a house in Young street, Kensington, from which he moved, in 1853, to 36 Onslow square. Until 1852, he continued to be a frequent contributor to Punch, and, at this time, his ingenuity in writing light verse, abounding in quaint rimes and ludicrous conceits, was freely exercised. If The Ballads of Policeman X are not poetry, they are, at any rate, some of the most spontaneous expressions in rime of the humour which can find food for merriment in the prose of ordinary life; and Thackeray’s more serious verse, unambitious of the higher achievements of lyric poetry, embodies a kindly philosophy, fostered by his favourite Horace, which touches the deeper chords of feeling lightly and gracefully. From Christmas to Christmas appeared the series of books beginning in 1847 with Mrs. Perkins’s Ball, in which Mr. Titmarsh commented, with the aid of his pencil, upon the eccentricities of his social surroundings. In 1850, the same guileless author took his readers abroad in The Kickleburys on the Rhine and excelled his earlier Legend of the Rhine in Rebecca and Rowena, to which Richard Doyle supplied the illustrations. The versatile Michael Angelo himself, however, illustrated the last and best of Christmas Books, The Rose and the Ring (1855), a perpetual joy to the “great and small children” to whom it was dedicated. Fresh from the writing of Pendennis, Thackeray, in 1851, succumbed to the temptation of lecturing. His lectures entitled The English Humourists of the Eighteenth Century, first delivered at Willis’s rooms in the summer of that year, and in America, at the end of 1852 and beginning of 1853, were, financially, very profitable. As criticism, they can hardly be said to do justice to the literary side of their subjects: they are simply Thackeray’s impressions of men whom he judged through their works as he judged the characters of his novels. The simple rule of life which he laid down with earnes emphasis in the epilogue to Dr. Birch and his Young Friends,

  • Who misses, or who wins the prize?
  • Go, lose and conquer as you can:
  • But if you fail, or if you rise,
  • Be each, pray God, a gentleman,
  • is not, however, a safe criterion for the impartial estimate of literary worth. Thackeray’s severe condemnation of Swift is more than unjust: his disgust with Sterne’s indecency and habit of pose naturally obscures his discernment of the qualities which made Tristram Shandy an influence far beyond the bounds of England; while the author of Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones needs no defence because he shared the habits of his age. The moralist was too prominent in his second series of lectures, The Four Georges, delivered in the United States and London in 1855 and 1856. Thackeray could not fail to be interesting in his dealings with the eighteenth century. But the memory of George IV had not yet passed into the remoteness of history, and, by training and conviction, Thackeray belonged to the party which had seen in “George the Good, the Magnificent, the Great” an object for savage detestation; and, if the loyalty with which Scott bent before his august patron in his lifetime was extravagant, it was, at any rate, mingled with an appreciation of his princely tastes and qualities to which Thackeray was blind.