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.
For some readers, the novel’s fascination lies in its domestic realism. Commentators find much to explore in the rendering of the marriage conventions. Lord and Lady Castlewood, new heirs to Castlewood, befriend the supposedly illegitimate Henry Esmond and gradually reveal the strained bonds that hold their marriage together. The narrator, Henry, sides with Rachel, seeing that the husband is carousing, unfaithful, and not too intelligent. Henry may lament the fate of such a fine woman, but Thackeray also shows in the dramatic scenes that Rachel, who began by worshiping her husband, is also quite capable of both restrictive possessiveness and emotional repression.
A historical tale and a novel of domestic manners, The History of Henry Esmond, Esquire is also an example of that favorite nineteenth century form, the bildungsroman, or novel of development and education, which is also represented in such popular contemporary examples as David Copperfield (1849-1850) and Great Expectations (1860-1861) by Charles Dickens. Henry remembers his childhood vaguely, a time spent with poor weavers. Brought to Castlewood, he is treated with favor by Lord Castlewood but kept in place as a page. It is only with the death of Lord Castlewood that Henry begins to receive any emotional support, when the new heirs arrive. Thackeray carefully distances Henry to be eight years younger...
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than Rachel and eight years older than her daughter Beatrix. Henry’s growth is the principal subject, but Thackeray also depicts the growth of Frank and Beatrix, children who are alternately spoiled by and emotionally isolated from Rachel. The much sought-after but loveless Beatrix reveals how isolated she was made to feel by the possessive nets her mother cast over the father and then over the seemingly favored brother. When she temporarily consoles Henry, Beatrix reveals motivation for her romantic conquests. Although Henry in the end turns away from her, Thackeray portrays her as a complex personality.
Henry’s progress takes him through Cambridge, imprisonment, and military campaigns; he experiences the loss of one idol after another and gradually acquires knowledge of the ways of the world. The reader watches for his insight to develop, for memory and maturity to coincide. Whether or not Henry achieves that wholeness is yet another point for critics and readers to ponder.
Henry virtuously denies himself his birthright as legitimate heir to Castlewood so that young Frank may assume the title and Rachel and Beatrix can stay ensconced in society, but some might think Henry revels in the self-sacrifice. He has also chosen to believe that Beatrix will admire him for military daring and political plotting. Therefore, when the Stuart Pretender misses a chance for the throne to secure an amorous chance with Beatrix, Henry loses two idols at once. “Good” Henry is settled at the end of the novel on a Virginia plantation in the New World, and his marriage to the widowed Rachel is compressed into two pages. All ends happily, except for those strange overtones and even stranger suggestions in the preface by the daughter of this autumnal marriage. She reminds readers that Henry was writing for a family audience, that his role had been carefully established, and that she, Rachel Esmond Warrington, like Beatrix, had also suffered from her mother’s possessiveness and jealousy.
Ultimately, what readers may enjoy most in the novel is the psychological penetration into love bonds that Thackeray provides through the “unreliable” narrator. Dramatic irony permits the reader more knowledge than Esmond permits himself. As readers circle back in their own memories to the daughter’s preface, the whole range of interrelationships and ambivalences of human affairs unfolds. The characters remain fascinating puzzles long after the historical details fade. Emotional life, the subtleties of rejection and acceptance, time rendered both precisely and in psychological duration—these are the elements that continue to tantalize readers of The History of Henry Esmond, Esquire.