The History of Henry Esmond, Esquire, a Colonel in the Service of Her Majesty Q. Anne, is the book that Thackeray considered to be his best piece of writing. Set in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, it presents history as Thackeray thought it should be presented. That Thackeray did not have a high opinion of the historians of his time precludes the blend of fact and fiction in this gentleman’s memoir. Henry Esmond tells his own story, which is meant to be the hero’s autobiography. Thackeray’s blend of the relationships of private manners and historical events is characteristic of most of his other works, and the false pathos of the artificial, self-imagined hero collapses when everything is viewed from the porch of everyday life.
Henry Esmond grew up at Castlewood under the guardianship of Thomas Esmond, Viscount Castlewood. Henry was aware of some mystery concerning his birth, and he vaguely remembered living as a very young child with weavers who spoke a language other than English. When the viscount met his death at the battle of the Boyne, young Henry was cared for by his new guardians and distant cousins, Francis and Rachel Esmond, and their children, Beatrix and Frank. Thus begins the major thematic integration of the novel: Henry’s love of two women, of Rachel, the loveliest woman he had ever seen, and of Beatrix, her daughter, for whom his courtship becomes almost tedious to the reader.
Henry Esmond reflects a very personal part of Thackeray’s own life. His wife, Isabella, was institutionalized for insanity in 1840, leaving him bereft of a family life, something that was very important to Thackeray. As a result of this, he became enamored of the already married Jane Brookfield, but this relationship became a drawn-out platonic affair. While he was writing Henry Esmond, Thackeray’s love for her came to a sad crisis in September, 1851. His letters of the time indicate his painful feelings during this period, which greatly affected the tone of this “grave and sad” book.
Henry Esmond introduces Thackeray’s readers to yet another Victorian fantasy world, much as Vanity Fair had done. First, the sexual theme begins when Henry, twelve years old, sees Rachel for the first time. He loves her as a son would, and he identifies her as his surrogate mother. As time passes, the relative ages of son and mother are reversed, and Henry becomes her “tutor”; he appears to be “older” than her, and by book 3, chapter 4, he feels as if he is her “grandfather.” Thus, when Henry’s love for Beatrix, who is one of the most fascinating women in all of English literature, is dead at last, the reader should not be surprised when Henry at thirty-five, marries Rachel, who is forty-three and, the reader is assured, looks younger than her own daughter.
There is something obviously Oedipal in this relationship, and Thackeray’s almost reverential worship of his mother comes to the surface in Henry Esmond. Critics and his reading public alike were quick to sense something was amiss, and charges of incest were levied at the protagonist, Henry Esmond.
The second theme of the story is also a fantasy. When Henry discovers that he is the real Lord Castlewood, the legitimate son of the viscount, he, out of consideration for Rachel, conceals his identity so that she and her children will not be disinherited. When the truth is finally revealed, the aristocrats who have slighted him do him homage. Even Beatrix, previously scornful of the humble Esmond’s courtship, repents and considers it an honor to know him.
Henry Esmond represents, then, the culmination of middle-class wish fulfilment. Its hero is nobler than the nobles, yet he of his own volition remains a commoner. At the end, Esmond immigrates to America, thus rejecting the institutions of the aristocracy.