Henry Esmond, an orphan believed to be the illegitimate son of the late Thomas Esmond, Lord Castlewood. He is seen first as a grave, observant boy and later as an intelligent, levelheaded young man. The novel, though narrated in the third person, takes the form of his memoirs, beginning when he is twelve years old and continuing until his early manhood and marriage. A lonely boy under the guardianship of his kinsman, Francis Esmond, Viscount Castlewood, Henry spends his adolescence at the Castlewood estate. The untimely death of Viscount Castlewood, fatally wounded in a duel, leads to Henry’s discovery that he is the true heir to the Castlewood title. This secret he continues to keep out of affection for his kinsman’s widow and her children. For years he believes himself in love with his beautiful cousin, Beatrix Esmond, and for her sake he becomes involved in a Jacobite plot to secure the English throne for James, the young Stuart Pretender, at the time of Queen Anne’s death. When events prove that he has been deceived in both Beatrix and the Stuart exile, he realizes that the real object of his affection is Rachel Esmond, the youthful mother of Beatrix. With her he emigrates to America, leaving her son Frank in possession of the title and the Castlewood estate.
Francis Esmond, Viscount Castlewood, a hard-living, pleasure-seeking nobleman, the amiable, though hardly devoted, guardian of young Henry Esmond. Having aided in concealing the secret of Henry’s birth, he repents the injustice done the boy and on his deathbed reveals that Henry is the true heir to the Castlewood title.
Rachel Esmond, the viscount’s much younger wife, a quiet, attractive woman whose loyalty to her husband never fails, even when he begins to neglect her for drinking and gambling with his reckless, pleasure-loving London friends. Her chief fault, a tendency to possessiveness, is displayed first toward the viscount and later toward Henry Esmond, whom she marries after the plot to put James Stuart on the throne of England has failed.
Beatrix Esmond, the beautiful and lively daughter of Francis and Rachel Castlewood. As fickle and unstable as she is fascinating, lovely but ambitious and scheming, she accepts Henry Esmond’s attentions when no more suitable admirer is at hand. Her affair with James, the Stuart Pretender, finally reveals to Henry her true nature.
Frank Esmond, the sturdy, unimaginative younger brother of Beatrix Esmond. He is, by virtue of Henry Esmond’s sacrifice, the eventual successor to the lands and title wrongly held by his father, the former viscount.
Father Holt, Henry Esmond’s tutor in boyhood. The priest secretly acts as a Jacobite spy, helping to prepare the way for the return of the Stuart Pretender.
Lord Mohun, a London rake with designs on Rachel Esmond. He kills her husband in a duel.
The duke of Hamilton
The duke of Hamilton, an impetuous young nobleman engaged to marry Beatrix Esmond. He is killed in a duel in which he fatally wounds Lord Mohun.
The duke of Marlborough
The duke of Marlborough, the famous military commander in chief. During the duke’s campaigns, Henry Esmond sees service as a soldier in France and Spain.
General John Webb
General John Webb, the officer to whom Henry Esmond serves as aide-de-camp. Webb becomes involved in a bitter controversy with the duke of Marlborough.
Richard Steele, an early friend of Henry Esmond. Steele is presented as a henpecked husband and lovable scapegrace; his status as a literary man is only lightly accented.
Joseph Addison, a leading Whig of the period as well as a prominent man of letters.