Kind-hearted commenters have directed me to many other writers who have expressed their high opinion of The History of Henry Esmond. Virginia Woolf thought it was Thackeray’s best novel, as did Anthony Trollope.
Walter Pater, in Appreciations (1889) calls it “a perfect fiction” (Newman’s Idea of a University is, in the same sentence, “the perfect handling of a theory”, and the Mallomar is “the perfect marshmallow-filled cookie”) – “Thackeray’s Esmond, surely, is greater art than Vanity Fair, by the greater dignity of its interests.” By its what, now? Pater often loses me somewhere along the way.
Oscar Wilde declares that “Esmond is a beautiful work of art because he wrote it to please himself.”* That “because” should make a fellow nervous. I refer readers to the not-so-brief quotation from Henry Esmond I posted yesterday, and would be delighted to read a defense of its “beauty.” Not what he meant; I know.
What all of these writers, even Trollope, a true follower of Thackeray, have in common is a particular interest in style, in writerly tricks and effects, in difficulty, what John Crowley calls “a skilled and unexpected use of the tools of fiction.” Other writers, and critics like me, are delighted with the “how” of the book, while the “what” slips into the background.
Henry Esmond is, after all, filled with duels and deathbed confessions and kings in disguise, the usual melodramatic claptrap. Am I supposed to take all of that seriously? I do, actually, but that’s because of Thackeray’s writerly skill – all that fuss seems surprisingly natural.
Trollope, again, in Thackeray (1879):
I told Thackeray once that it was not only his best work, but so much the best, that there was none second to it. “That was what I intended,” he said, “but I have failed. Nobody reads it. After all, what does it matter?” he went on after awhile. “If they like anything, one ought to be satisfied. After all Esmond was a prig.” Then he laughed and changed the subject, not caring to dwell on thoughts painful to him. (Ch. V, 124)
Gee, poor Thackeray. Trollope, as I mentioned yesterday, was impressed by the difficulty of Thackeray’s task, his simulation of the language of the early 18th century, of Addison and Steele and Swift, all of whom are actually characters in the novel. Trollope suspects that the feat was so difficult that it actually damaged Thackeray’s later books – once he had mastered this new hybrid style, he was never able to free himself from it.
I will never know, because I am never going to read those later novels. Who are we kidding? I’m just glad I somehow was convinced to read Henry Esmond. It’s a bit like Melville’s Clarel – it’s hardly an injustice that it is read less, even a lot less, than Vanity Fair. Esmond is a prig, and his story has no Becky Sharp. It’s a specialized novel. Modernists and postmodernists should all read it carefully, even if it damages their sense that they invented everything valuable in literature.
I had sort of planned to move back to Hawthorne tomorrow. No one will complain is I spend one more day on Henry Esmond, will they? After all, blog posts are awfully easy to skip.
* "The Soul of Man under Socialism" (1891) in The Artist as Critic, ed. Richard Ellmann, 1968, p. 280.