(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 643 words.)