Critical Evaluation

Critical reaction to The History of Henry Esmond, Esquire is as varied as reader reactions are to the characters themselves. William Makepeace Thackeray attempted to offset contemporary charges of “diffuseness” by providing a well-integrated novel; he sacrificed profitable serial publication to do so and concluded that the book was “the very best” he could do. Many critics have agreed with him. Others, however, remain loyal to the panoramic social vision and ironic authorial commentary of the earlier Vanity Fair (1847-1848, serial; 1848, book).

Thackeray cast The History of Henry Esmond, Esquire in the form of a memoir or reminiscence: An old man recounts his earlier life, describing it from the vantage point of a later time and distancing it further with third-person narration. The occasional use of “I” suggests the involved narrator, either at emotional high points or moments of personal reflection. The distancing in time is increased by Esmond’s daughter’s preface, wherein Rachel Esmond Warrington not only “completes” certain details of the plot but also suggests ambiguities in the characterization of her own mother, Rachel, and of her stepsister, Beatrix. Readers of later times reacted favorably to this early use of a central intelligence whose point of view, limited and not omniscient, can suggest the disparities between appearance and reality. The readers’ interpretations of the narrator’s “reliability” can also shift. The question arises whether Esmond is providing a framework within which to reveal only the exemplary and to vindicate himself, or whether he is recollecting as honestly as the self can permit, with the reader knowing more at many points than he.

Thackeray set the novel in the early eighteenth century and attempted to catch the flavor of the Augustan Age, with its military conflicts, its waverings between Church of England and Catholicism, and the problems of its monarchs, William, Queen Anne, George II, and the Stuart Pretender. Thackeray was lauded for his adeptness in suggesting the language and manners of that earlier time without sending readers to glossaries or lapsing into linguistic archness. The novel, therefore, is praised by many critics as a polished example of the historical tale. In this novel, as in Vanity Fair, he is primarily concerned with portraying the social class of masters—primarily the newly arrived and still aspiring scions of society. Their foibles are his special target.


(The entire section is 1028 words.)