Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1242
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 scantly defined settings cannot be well defended by the argument that the environment in which Thackeray’s characters pursue their thoughts and actions is of significantly less importance to his purpose than are the motivations and the social interfaces of those characters. In a novel titled The Virginians, character and setting ought to be inextricably bound. The central theme of the work—insofar as one can be said to exist—is the contrast between the innocence and simplicity of the New World and the corruption and sophistication of the Old World. This contrast was, ultimately, the cause of the revolt in the colonies and no small contributor to the success of that revolt. Furthermore, it is the very hub about which the central conflict was surely intended to revolve; it, however, does not achieve this function. Included among the reasons why must be the lack of delineation of a physical as well as a societal identity, for the New Eden engendered the altered values that finally made the separation of England and the colonies a matter of more than mere distance.
The Virginians, however, does contain a relatively effective contrast of social life in England and in Virginia, but the predominance given to English society is excessive and at the expense of a complete treatment of plantation life in America. Furthermore, the effectiveness of the contrast is frustrated by Thackeray’s failure to provide a parallel contrast between the twins. An attempt is apparent, but it is ineffectual because of the lack of structure of the work. The novel becomes not so much a story of conflict between brothers who respond to the sound of different drums but separate stories of characters who only incidentally are twins. The motivations are not fully developed; the brothers seem to move independently rather than in opposition to each other, and, as a consequence, the conflict that should have been the very core of the novel is essentially nonexistent.
If there are major failures in the work, there are major triumphs as well. Numbered among the foremost of these is the singular and fascinating portrait of the Baroness Bernstein, the former Beatrix of The History of Henry Esmond, Esquire (1852), now an old woman. The Baroness is a minor masterpiece of characterization in a period of literature when authors did not yet consciously employ the subtlety of psychological motivation. Sapped by satiety of all interest and emotion except a single passion for cards, the Baroness’s capacity for humanity appears to be as shriveled as her body. Nevertheless, under the stimulus of Harry and George Warrington and the memories of their grandfather that they invoke in her, the Baroness briefly regains the capacity for human feeling with which she was endowed before a life of decadence and wealth displaced it with selfishness and callous indifference. The Baroness’s final scene, in which she falls asleep over her cards during a visit of George and rouses to a lost contact with reality, possesses a vivid reality and an impressively dramatic impact.
The secret of Thackeray’s most successful characterizations seems to lie in the deft and subtle touches of inner conflict with which he invests them, and this is true of the better-drawn members of the cast of The Virginians. Beatrix displays a strength of character that is less incipient than it is suppressed by the society in which she moves. Parson Sampson’s betting, card playing, dicing, drinking, and telling of “lively” jokes, despite his moral convictions, “humanize” the unreverent reverend and serve to suggest that all men are susceptible to corruption, regardless of calling.
Although less captivating than the Baroness and less skillfully drawn than either she or Parson Sampson, Mrs. Esmond Warrington nevertheless stands out as a notable characterization as well. What makes her role in the novel significant, however, is the careful juxtaposition of her and the Baroness, her half sister. The effectiveness of the contrast points to the intended but unachieved parallel effect with George and Harry. Additionally, the central protagonists are emphatic failures. Harry’s weaknesses do not fit him either for sympathy or for the interest a villain would generate, and George’s benevolent nature is of the smug, self-satisfied kind that alienates rather than endears.
The novel contains much that is interesting, much that is delightful, and some social comment worthy of the making. The novel offers as much or more to the social historian of Thackeray’s era as it does to the reader who wishes to know about Virginia in the eighteenth century.
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