An idly curious question, to begin, for any English professors who wander by: is William Thackeray’s The History of Henry Esmond, Esq. (1852) teachable? Everything is teachable, so what I really mean is, under what circumstances would you want to teach it?* The novel is fraught, as they say, with difficulties.
Henry Esmond is absolutely brilliant, dazzling even, but dazzling only from a certain distance. Page to page, sentence to sentence, it can look like an awkward, disorganized, prosaic mess. I don’t expect anyone to get very far with this sample, even though it describes a reasonably thrilling heroic feat:
By the besiegers and besieged of Lille, some of the most brilliant feats of valor were performed that ever illustrated any war. On the French side (whose gallantry was prodigious, the skill and bravery of Marshal Boufflers actually eclipsing those of his conqueror, the Prince of Savoy) may be mentioned that daring action of Messieurs de Luxembourg and Tournefort, who, with a body of horse and dragoons, carried powder into the town, of which the besieged were in extreme want, each soldier bringing a bag with forty pounds of powder behind him; with which perilous provision they engaged our own horse, faced the fire of the foot brought out to meet them: and though half of the men were blown up in the dreadful errand they rode on, a part of them got into the town with the succors of which the garrison was so much in want. (II.15, “General Webb Wins Battle of Wynendael”)
The passage is entirely typical of a part of the novel, at least. The novel’s subtitle is A Colonel in the Service of Her Majesty Queen Anne, Written by Himself, which is accurate, up to a point. The book is a novel by Thackeray, but also a memoir by Colonel Esmond, written in Virginia in 1740. Both books describe Esmond’s peculiar childhood, his military exploits, and, in a gesture towards a novel-like plot, his unrequited love for his beautiful cousin. The plot is superb, actually, but Thackeray keeps it a secret for about two-thirds of the novel. It’s a “How far will a man go for a beautiful woman” sort of story.
The memoir, and thus the novel, is written with the assumption that the reader is familiar with the events of the War of Spanish Succession, the rise and fall of the Duke of Marlborough, and the political fortunes of the claimants to the English throne. Or at least as familiar as the reader of 1740 would be, which means quite a bit more knowledgeable than the read of 1852, or 2010. I have done my share of reading from the period, and still had to look up this and that.
The Duke of Marlborough, just as an example, is also referred to as His Grace, the Commander-in-Chief, Churchill, and – I’ve forgotten at least one more. Esmond’s choice is based on the circumstance of the reference, and signifies Esmond’s curiously full range of attitude, from respect to contempt, towards the Duke. None of this is explained. Who, in 1740, would think that necessary?
It’s all so pure.** The language is a simulacrum of that of the age of Queen Anne. Esmond’s memoir is not written like a novel – there were none, not like we know them. I wonder if the fictional composition date is a nod to Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, published the same year, and commonly called the first English novel. Thackeray’s historical novel is not written like a Walter Scott novel, though, again, I suspect a direct reference, since a good part of Henry Esmond’s plot is about the restoration of the Stuarts. When Robert Louis Stevenson chose to write historical novels, he picked the same historical thread.
Henry Esmond is an uncompromising conceptual novel of extraordinary facility. Anthony Trollope, in his little 1879 book, Thackeray, is as amazed as I am: “No one who has not tried it can understand how great is the difficulty of mastering a phase of one’s own language other than that which habit has made familiar” (124-5). Thackeray is stone-faced, and unforgiving to the reader, yet somehow creates a genuine novel, a masterpiece.
* The Little Professor described a list of “imaginary courses.” Those Brockport kids should be signing petitions and staging sit-ins to get her to teach them, especially the one on Browning’s The Ring and the Book. Undergrads never know what’s good for them.
** The novel was originally published to look like an 18th century book, including an antiquarian typeface!