Perhaps I should mention that, whatever yesterday’s post might have suggested, I’m not so sure that Henry Esmond is William Thackeray’s best book. For one thing, I’ve only read two of them, and he wrote a heap. For another, I prefer Vanity Fair. Henry Esmond is more technically accomplished. How that translates into better and best, I’ll leave to others.
Perhaps I should not have mentioned any of this. I leave all sorts of things unmentioned, and jokes unexplained. Why else did I adopt Lil’ Thackeray as a mascot, as soon as I discovered him, forlorn and alone, at the end of Chapter IX of Vanity Fair. Or not forlorn – he could be perfectly content. Without the mask, it is hard to read his expression.
Henry Esmond begins with a mask. Or almost begins. This is the beginning of the novel’s second preface:
The actors in the old tragedies, as we read, piped their iambics to a tune, speaking from under a mask, and wearing stilts and a great head-dress. 'Twas thought the dignity of the Tragic Muse required these appurtenances, and that she was not to move except to a measure and cadence.
Esmond invokes Greek tragedy, and John Dryden, before turning to the Muse of History:
She too wears the mask and the cothurnus, and speaks to measure. She too, in our age, busies herself with the affairs only of kings; waiting on them obsequiously and stately, as if she were but a mistress of court ceremonies, and had nothing to do with the registering of the affairs of the common people. [A brilliant bit about “little wrinkled” Louis XIV is snipped] I wonder shall History ever pull off her periwig and cease to be court-ridden? Shall we see something of France and England besides Versailles and Windsor?
Esmond, writing long after the events of his memoir, sounds like a mid-twentieth century social historian, not that he writes about the common people himself. Or, rather, he radically denies that the kings and heroes are any better or worse than anyone else. No man is a hero to his valet, that’s the theme, although, in his own memoir, Henry Esmond is in fact a hero to his valet, which is a fine, fine joke. Esmond continues: Queen Anne as a “hot, red-faced woman. Cato, the Stoic Roman, is imagined “fuddling himself at a tavern with a wench on each knee.” He ends this three page introduction with a vision of his own hanging:
"And I shall be deservedly hanged," say you, wishing to put an end to this prosing. I don't say No. I can't but accept the world as I find it, including a rope's end, as long as it is in fashion.
Thackeray’s novel is a sustained attack on the idea of heroism, a swing at Thomas Carlyle and others. The Great Men are not so great, except perhaps for the unappreciated Henry Esmond, and the reader has some reason for doubt there, too.
The novel actually begins with another preface, by Esmond’s daughter. She has apparently prepared her father’s memoir for publication in 1778. Looking back, I’m amazed how much of the novel’s thematic material is packed into these first pages, the two prefaces, how much of even the plot is actually covered. But the first-time reader has no idea who any of the characters are, or why Esmond is sneering at kings and queens, so it’s all just so much fog.
We’re given a long paragraph, for example, on the history of Mrs. Thomas Tusher, a character who is never in the novel, not under that name, so even the attentive reader is unlikely to remember that we’ve already been told the end of her story. This is exactly – exactly – the trick Nabokov uses in the John Ray, Jr. preface to Lolita (1955). Thackeray, like Nabokov, is a supremely clever novelist. Others can judge the value of cleverness in novels, the value of looking behind the mask to find the face, itself another mask.