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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 312

In The Virginians, W. M. Thackeray portrays British society during the late colonial era in North America. Centering on two brothers—George and Harry—he traces their activities in Virginia, where they live on their family plantation, and in England, where they interact with other members of high society. As the revolutionary movement heats up, the brothers find themselves on opposite sides.

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The brothers’ rivalry involves George’s assigned role as future heir to the family’s fortune and lands, as well as his participation in the British army during the wars with the French. The owner of a neighboring plantation is none other than George Washington; he is introduced first as he is building a military career and is in the process of becoming a revolutionary.

When George is captured in the war and presumed dead, Harry takes up the role of heir. Their domineering mother, Rachel (a widowed plantation owner-manager), sends Harry back to England. There he quickly gets into hot water, squandering his money on gambling and falling in love with an older woman. It turns out that George is alive, however, and goes over to rescue his brother from the romantic entanglement and, more importantly, from debtors’ prison. George goes broke buying his brother's release. George falls in love with a girl named Theo and becomes a writer to make money, while Harry becomes a military officer and returns to Virginia.

A surprise twist makes George’s fortune when he inherits from a deceased relative, and he and Theo go to Virginia. Harry, however, discards his loyalty to the Crown and joins up with Washington’s patriots. Although the war wreaks havoc, the brothers manage to remain close, in part through helping Rachel fight for the title to their land. George and Theo end up in England, while Harry never marries and stays in Virginia with their mother.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1080

Although Harry and George Warrington are twins, George is declared the heir to their father’s estate by virtue of having been born half an hour before his brother. Both are headstrong lads, greatly pampered by their widowed mother, Rachel Esmond Warrington, who manages her Virginia estate, Castlewood, much as she managed the mansion in the old country. She never lets her sons forget their high birth, and she herself had dropped the name of Warrington in favor of her birth name, Esmond, so that everyone would remember her noble rank. Rachel is a dictator on her plantation, and although she is respected by many, she is loved by few.

Harry and George are trained according to the place and the time. They learn to ride, to shoot, and to gamble like gentlemen, but they have little formal education other than a small knowledge of Latin and French. Their mother hopes they might pattern themselves after Colonel George Washington, who is their neighbor and her close friend. Harry worships Washington from his youth to his death, but George and Colonel Washington are never to be friends.

When General Braddock arrives from England to command the English troops in the war against the French, Washington and George join his forces. Although Harry is a better soldier, George represents the family because of his position as elder son. Braddock is defeated, and George is reported captured and killed by the French. George’s mother blames Washington for not guarding her son, and Washington is no longer welcome at Castlewood.

Upon George’s death, Harry becomes the heir, and his mother sends him to visit his relatives in England. There he meets his mother’s kinsman, Lord Castlewood; her half sister, Baroness Bernstein; and Will, Maria, and Fanny Esmond, his cousins. Of all of his relatives, only Baroness Bernstein is fond of him. Harry and Will are enemies from their first meeting, and the rest of the family thinks him a savage and tolerate him only because he will some day inherit the estate in Virginia. Harry thinks he is in love with Maria, who is his mother’s age, and sends her many gifts and passionate letters declaring himself hers and asking for her hand in marriage.

Harry is the toast of the country. He spends money lavishly on fine clothes and horses and at first wins thousands of pounds at cards; but when his luck turns and he loses all of his money, most of his former friends have only unkind words for him. Matters become so desperate that he is jailed for his debts, and Baroness Bernstein is the only one of his relatives who offers to help him. Nevertheless, there is a string attached to her offer. She is violently opposed to his intended marriage to Maria and will pay his debts only if he promises to break his word to that lady. Although Harry is tired of Maria, he feels it beneath a gentleman of his position to break his word, and he refuses the Baroness’s help under her conditions. He would rather remain in prison.

There his brother George finds him. George escaped from the French after eighteen months in prison and returned to his home in Virginia, where he and his mother decided that he, too, should visit England. He pays his brother’s debts, and the two boys have a joyful reunion. Harry now has to return to his status as younger brother, and George assumes his place as heir to Castlewood in Virginia.

Before Harry’s imprisonment and George’s arrival in England, Harry made the acquaintance of Colonel Lambert and his family. There were two daughters, Theo and Hetty, whom the twin brothers found charming. Theo and George fell in love, and after overcoming her father’s objections, they were married. At first, they lived in poverty, for George spent all of his money to rescue Harry from debtors’ prison and to buy for him a commission in the army. For a time, George’s only income is from two tragedies he wrote, one a success and the other a failure.

Shortly after Harry receives his commission, he joins General Wolfe and sails for America to fight the French in the colonies. Maria releases him from his promise to her, and he gladly takes leave of his English relatives. About this time, George inherits a title and an estate from an unexpected source. Sir Miles Warrington, his father’s brother, dies; and young Miles Warrington, the only male heir, is killed in an accident; therefore, the title and the estate fall to George. He and Theo now live in comparative luxury. They travel extensively, and one day they decide to visit George’s mother and brother in Virginia.

When they arrive in America, they find the colonies to be in a state of unrest. The colonists are determined not to pay all the taxes that the British Crown levied against them, and there is much talk of war. There is also trouble at Castlewood. Harry marries Fanny Mountain, the daughter of his mother’s housekeeper, and his mother refuses to accept the girl. Harry moves to his own smaller estate, but there is a great tension among the members of the family. George and Theo and their mother are loyal to the king. Harry becomes a true Virginian and follows General Washington into battle. Despite their different loyalties, the brothers remain friends.

Shortly before the end of the war, George and Theo return to England. Although they are grieved at the outcome of the war, it makes little difference in their lives. Harry visits them in England after the death of his wife, but their mother never again leaves Virginia. George and Theo try to persuade Hetty to marry Harry, whom she once loved deeply, but she refuses to leave her widowed father. The only departure from their quiet life comes when Lord Castlewood tries to steal Castlewood in Virginia from their mother after her deed and title are burned during the war. George, however, is able to prevent the fraud and save the estate. Intending never to leave England again, he renounces his right to the Virginia land. Harry returns to Virginia, where he is made a general, to live out his life at Castlewood in the company of his mother. The brothers are destined never to meet again, but their love for each other goes with them throughout their lives.

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