William Makepeace Thackeray is popularly believed to have conceived the idea for The Virginians after seeing two swords, mementos of the Battle of Bunker Hill, mounted in the manner described in the opening of the novel in the library of a contemporary historian named Prescott. While such anecdotes are often false, Thackeray did visit Prescott and later outlined to American novelist John Esten Cooke a plan for the novel that is, indeed, strongly suggested by the opening of the work. The story was to take place during the American Revolution and was to include two brothers as the predominant characters who would take different sides in the conflict and who would be in love with the same woman. The war itself was to be given major emphasis. Obviously, Thackeray failed to adhere very closely to this plan, and the significant shortcomings of the work are probably chargeable to that regrettable fact. Thackeray faced two problems in the writing of The Virginians that well may have been responsible for his seemingly pointless deviation from a sound, organized plan. One of the problems is inherent in the writing of a sequel novel: The author is faced with the twin constraints of fidelity to previous characterizations and compatibility with an established history. Such constraints, as other authors have proved, are almost invariably detrimental to artistic achievement. The second problem arises from Thackeray’s commitment to write the novel in serial form, which placed him under a compulsion to provide regular monthly installments that could wait neither for adequate historical research nor for proper artistic attention. Whether these problems were, in fact, the cause of Thackeray’s abandoning many of the details of his original plan is, of course, mere speculation and is deserving of no more consideration than speculation warrants. What is clear, however, is that the compelling opening of the work suggests a promising study in comparative values and conflicting loyalties in a novel of epic scope. This promise is in no way delivered. What readers are given instead is a largely shapeless work that begins promisingly enough but dawdles through stretches of irresolute composition and culminates in a series of major events that are crammed into a hasty denouement.
In The Virginians, as in most of Thackeray’s works, readers must bestow what critical acclaim they might feel inclined to give it principally on the artful characterizations it contains and on the value of its social commentary. Thackeray’s settings somehow never quite emerge as definitive places, in marked contrast to later Victorians Thomas Hardy and Joseph Conrad, whose settings are so powerfully conceived that they become virtual characters in their own right and often influence events directly. Thackeray’s descriptions of physical environment seem somehow deficient, as if he painted with temperas diluted with too much water. He succeeds in rendering only a faint impression of the precincts in which his characters move. Furthermore, the...
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