Analysis

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 332

The Virginians: A Tale of the Last Century is an 1857–1859 historical novel written by William Makepeace Thackeray, originally published in two volumes. It is a sequel of Thackeray’s 1852 novel The History of Henry Esmond and tells the story of Esmond’s grandsons, George and Henry Warrington—two brothers who discover love, friendship, history, and politics, as they fight on opposite sides in the American War of Independence.

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The novel introduces us to Esmond's daughter, the snobbish Madam Esmond of Castlewood estate in Virginia, and her twin sons, George and Henry Warrington. George is only a half an hour older than his brother, and the two of them have contrasting personalities. George is a bookworm; he is quiet, serious, and could be considered a bit of an introvert. Henry, on the other hand, is playful and outgoing; he enjoys sports and even likes to gamble from time to time. But, even their different personalities couldn’t stand in the way of their strong brotherly bond.

The only thing that puts their sibling love at risk is the revolutionary war. George remains loyal to King George the III, while Henry becomes a general in George Washington’s army. However, George, being the wiser of the two, decides to resign his commission, as he refuses to fight his brother. Thus, the division that war and politics can bring in families and close friends is considered an important theme of the novel. Typical of his style, another thematic representation Thackeray explores is the prevalence of vanity, as he often mocks the characters, especially those who take pride in their conceited and, more often than not, selfish personalities.

Even though many readers consider Henry Esmond one of Thackeray’s best novels, The Virginians gained numerous positive reviews as well, especially for its entertaining narrative and its well-drawn characters. It was described as an easy, but also a slow and a bit tedious read. The book is considered a classic example of a nineteenth-century, Victorian fiction novel.

Places Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 901

Castlewood House (England)

Castlewood House (England). Ancestral seat of the Esmond family, located in south-central England about one hundred miles west of London. At the beginning of the narrative, the colonials George and Harry Warrington look on their English relations with awe and respect; they have been deeply affected by their parents’ nostalgic reminiscences of Castlewood House and have even memorized the estate’s location on the map. After George is thought to have died in General Braddock’s defeat by the French in the Pennsylvania campaign of 1755, Harry travels to England for the first time and cannot help but feel that he is returning to a place to which he belongs—one that constitutes an important part of his heritage.

Over the years, the English branch of the clan has declined to the point that only wealthy relatives who will contribute materially to Castlewood House’s upkeep are welcome. What little income the mismanaged estate does produce is quickly frittered away by its improvident owner, Lord Castlewood, whose passion for horse racing, gambling, and card-playing has left him deeply in debt. The contrast between Castlewood House in England, the home of a prestigious family but in most other respects a drain on society, and Castlewood House in Virginia, a humbler but far more productive property, symbolizes the novel’s characteristic view of the relationship between a mother country that has lost its moral authority and a colony that retains many worthwhile traditional values.

Since Harry is initially assumed to be a poor relation, it is only after the size of his parents’ property and his status as its heir become known that he is suddenly received with open arms. Lord Castlewood, desperately in need of funds to keep the family solvent, now introduces Harry to the estate’s liveliest and most profitable venue, its card room, where even Sundays are devoted to the rituals of gaming and the family chaplain spends more time at the card table than in church. Although certainly amusing as a satiric portrait of upper-class fads and fancies, the card-room scenes also suggest that English society has adopted rituals which reflect its blind pursuit of monetary gain. Thus, Harry’s eventual loss of all of his assets to Lord Castlewood and other aristocratic gamblers means that he is no longer welcome in their homes and must now rely on his intrinsic merits to make his way in the world.

Castlewood House (Virginia)

Castlewood House (Virginia). Site of the Virginia estate of the American branch of the Esmonds. Although most of the novel’s plot is set elsewhere, this property plays an important role in the consciousness of its leading characters. George and Harry Warrington have frequent occasion to remember their birthplace’s comfort and graciousness, whereas their venal English relations are more inclined to picture it as an abundant source of money ripe for the plucking. Throughout, Castlewood House in Virginia represents a place of prosperity and possibility that contrasts with its English equivalent’s moral as well as economic impoverishment.

Lambert home

Lambert home. Country estate of Colonel, later General, Martin Lambert, his wife, and their two daughters in Oakhurst, England. When Harry Warrington suffers a highway accident outside their door, the Lamberts care for him and in the process provide a welcome alternative to what Harry has so far experienced among the English upper classes. The Lamberts’ interest in Harry’s well-being is not motivated by thoughts of pecuniary gain, but arises from a genuine concern for him as a person who is in need of their assistance. The Lamberts and their simple, unaffected approach to life, which is reflected in their unpretentious but comfortable and efficiently run home, represent those traditional English values that the novel sees as threatened by the unprincipled greed of Lord Castlewood and his cronies.

Lambert apartment

Lambert apartment. London residence of the Lambert family—a place as pleasant and welcoming as their country house. It is here that George and Harry fall in love with the Lamberts’ daughters amid further scenes of what the narrative pictures as a nurturing family life.

*Bailiff’s house

*Bailiff’s house. Cursitor Street, London, jail in which Harry is imprisoned for debt after gambling losses and injudicious purchases on credit. That his relatives sanction his incarceration in this bleak, friendless institution underlines how completely they have abandoned him. It is only the reappearance of his brother, George—held captive by the French but finally ransomed—that rescues Harry from his plight. His brother’s blood, at least, proves to be thicker than water.

*London

*London. Capital of Great Britain and center of English social and cultural life, and the background to approximately half of the narrative. As in many of William Makepeace Thackeray’s other novels, notably Vanity Fair (1848), London is viewed as a vital, complex, and rather dangerous place, in which high artistic achievement and highway robbery are equally likely to occur.

*Tunbridge Wells

*Tunbridge Wells. Resort community for the upper classes about fifty miles southeast of London. The rise and fall of social reputation is the common currency of life at “The Wells,” where rumors of Harry’s wealth have preceded him and he is much sought after by marriageable young women and their monstrously ambitious mothers. The town’s obsession with superficial values is portrayed as a more concentrated case of what is wrong with English society in general.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 214

Colby, Robert Alan. “The Virginians: The Old World and the New.” In Thackeray’s Canvass of Humanity. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1979. Contextual analysis of the novel focusing on its origin and the stage it represents of Thackeray’s development as a writer. Interesting discussion of the author’s portrayal of George Washington.

Harden, Edgar F. The Emergence of Thackeray’s Serial Fiction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1979. Discusses the serial structure of five novels, including The Virginians, with focus upon manuscripts and the composition process. Explains how the novels were shaped in view of the fact that they were written in serial installments.

Monsarrat, Ann. “The Virginians.” In An Uneasy Victorian: Thackeray the Man. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1980. Engaging and lucid account of Thackeray’s painstaking work to bring back past heroes of his previous novels in The Virginians. For the researcher who already has some knowledge of Thackeray’s works.

Ray, Gordon. Thackeray. 2 vols. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1955-1958. Biography of Thackeray includes thoughtful essays on the novels. The era and background of the author also is discussed.

Williams, Joan M. Thackeray. New York: Arco, 1969. Brief but lucid exposition of the novel. Excellent starting point for a beginning study of Thackeray’s writings. Gives a straightforward and very readable account of the novel.

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