Monday, November 29, 2010

The conceptual purity of Thackeray's Henry Esmond

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!


  1. And now it's Esmond. Good question on whether it's teachable. No one would know, I don't think. It's just so far out of the way. I think it loses the toss-up with Pendennis over "which Thackeray do I read now, after enjoying Vanity Fair?" and that's not mentioning Barry Lyndon (and Kubrick and Ryan O'Neal). For a writer with so much talent and skill, with all sorts of supporters, Thackeray had a hard time getting anything right.

  2. Nah, Henry Esmond was available as a Penguin Classic not so long ago. Someone was teaching it. I wonder who, and how.

    You think Pendennis is read more? I have two (weak) data points to the contrary. One is Rohan Maitzen's amusing parenthetical.

    The other is this sentence from Thackeray: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Alexander Welsh, 1968, p. 14: "And I have been guided in my selection also by the impression that too many readers today only know Thackeray as the author of Vanity Fair and Henry Esmond."

    I grant the Kubrick-driven status of Barry Lyndon. That quote above is pre-Kubrick.

    What's that end, though, what hard time? He wrote Henry Esmond! What a novel! What an achievement!

  3. I was initially exposed to Esmond in a graduate course on 19th-c. literature & history, and we spent a lot of time analyzing it in relationship to both Scott and Macaulay. There's a lot to be said about the way the novel dismantles any notion of history as progress (seeing as how the novel is about a complete historical flop); in effect, it's a novel about nothing happening, a non-event. And one in which the narrator's authority is repeatedly undermined by the footnotes...

  4. A novel about nothing, you say? That's better than I expected.

    When I say taught, I'm not counting graduate seminars like the one Miriam mentions. My Penguin is from 1980, with a John Sutherland intro from 1970. And I have a (rarer, I think) Penguin Pendennis from 1972.

    What this tells me is that Thackeray was holding his own through the 60s and 70s, riding on the wave of Gordon Ray's 50s scholarship, his biography and publication of the letters. Thackeray was still thought of as Victorian #2 behind Dickens. Then I think Middlemarch started landing punches on Vanity Fair, after Gordon Haight's 1968 GE bio. In the 60s/early 70s Esmond was probably in the mix against Barchester Towers, and Pendennis was easily taught as a comparison to David Copperfield.

    It's not so much that the quality of Thackeray's novels went down, but that other novels received their attention and due. GE came on strong and Mill wiped out Esmond, and I've talked before about how you would urge people to read Adam Bede before suggesting Esmond too, not to mention that GE already had high school staple Silas Marner in hand, which became more readable as her other works became favorites. And then Trollope surged onto lists too.

    Everybody assumes that WMT is in good shape with Vanity Fair, but I've been very interested in the next step of acquaintance for a very long time. Glad that you liked Esmond so much. WMT's "hard time" is a subject for its own post.

  5. I've been startled by how much Esmond has come up in my recent reading--namely among fin de siecle writers. Pater mentions it as particularly superb of all of Thackeray's work--I think in his essay "Style." Likewise (and no doubt in some emulation), Wilde mentions Esmond as *the* best of Thackeray's works in "The Critic As Artist."

  6. Miriam, thanks for the note. That's very much how I saw the book, too. Sometimes Esmond seemed like a parody of Redgauntlet, with a lot of roles and motives switched around.

    And, of course, Esmond has so much in common with another exasperatingly pure conceptual historical novel you convinced me to read, the awesome Ringan Gilhaize, where all of history inexorably leads to a Great Event, or so the narrator believes. Ah, that would be a fun post, Galt and Thackeray!

    zhiv, thanks for the plausible history of Thackeray's reputation - those Penguin publication dates are real data! If only we knew when the novels dropped out of print. Both Pendennis and HE are still available from Penguin, but only as ebooks.

    What's the connection with Adam Bede? (I did read this). I didn't notice anything specific. The book I am really glad I read before Esmond is Addison and Steele.

    NR, no kidding! Pater and Wilde. And then Trollope and Woolf, too. But it makes sense - Esmond is a "novelist's novel," regardless of what contemporary readers got out of it. It's packed with brilliant little tricks and stylistic touches - what John Crowley calls "skilled and unexpected use[s] of the tools of fiction."

    I should save this for tomorrow. Just one more day on this novel. The holidays squeeze the schedule.

  7. This made me laugh. I'm afraid I can't help with your original question (although I've often asked the same thing about Jonson's 'Alchemist' which is brilliant in performance but almost impossibly dense on the page) but the passage you quote reminded me of myself. I can hear my supervisor saying to me, "Yes, but if you make that amendment you'll have a sentence eleven lines long!" Thackeray needed my professor behind him.

  8. I almost agree, Annie. Henry Esmond needed the keen-eyed editing of your professor. Thackeray, though, was writing just as Esmond would.

    Thanks for stopping by - I just visited your blog. The internet needs more Ben Jonson enthusiasm. I've read all of his plays, including the terrible ones, and a number of the masques. I love The Alchemist, but agree that it's a dense one, while Volpone and The Silent Woman, by contrast, reads so much more smoothly. I wonder how that works.

  9. Part of the difficulty with 'The Alchemist' is that it is so full of language specific to the world of alchemy. I suspect that even in the time it was written the audience would have had difficulty following everything that was being said. Fortunately, that's part of the fun becasue most of the characters don't understand what is being said either and once you get it on its feet it simply flies along.

  10. "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? "-this remark of your made me think more on a question I have been pondering-how is the current perception of the canon affected by the fact that what is considered a canon status work is by and large decided by teachers-even in our book blog world we have a large number of educators-do educators, no offense here to anyone, keep themselves or stay just a bit above the mental level of their student audience and does this keep the canon to books that can be taught?

  11. "Esmond’s memoir is not written like a novel – there were none, not like we know them."

    There were possibly fictional memoirs though- Captain Singleton, which is sometimes ascribed- like many others- to Defoe is one of them and Thzckeray may have inspired by some of these.
    The contemporary British author William Boyd has also written a couple of novels in the form of fictional memoirs. Like Pendennis,they confirm the futility except as a feat of fictional virtuosity.

    Would anyone like to argue that the greatest Victorian English novels are in verse- The Ring and the Book and Amours de Voyage?

  12. mel - I deny part of your argument, and grant the other. Educators are important contrbutors to canonization, but that "by and large" goes to far. Readers are important, too, and I would give the largest role to other writers. Great books inspire great books.

    But, does it help a book survive if it's especially teachable? I'm certain that it does. Every Aeshcylus and Sophocles play that survived, and most of the Euripides, were the standard anthology pieces, the teachable plays.

    Roger - I'd love to read that argument, but I can't write it. I still need to read The Ring and the Book and who knows what else. I love that Clough poem, though. It made my Best of 2009 list.

    I agree that Thackeray drew some inspiration from Defoe's books. But Henry Esmond didn't! Or if he did, he was careful to hide the traces. Or, another plausible theory, I missed any direct reference. In a novel featuring Addison, Steele, Swift, Prior, Congreve, and Pope as characters, Defoe was notable by his absence.

  13. Amatuer Reader-ok perhaps the by and large goes to far and I think this process of domination over the canon by teachers at all levels is perhaps culturally a recent event

  14. Well, I don't it's recent. My Greek tragedy example is pretty old!

    Consider the narrowness of the canon in the classical English or French education, or, to go to the origin of the word "canon," the committee process by which ecclesiatical texts were judged canonical or otherwise. Compared to all of this, today's set of teachable books is enormous and chaotic.

    I've considered writing in more depth about what "canon" means, but I'm afraid it might be pure blowhardism. The summary is: the canon is big and fluid.

  15. you are right-I did not really have clearly formulated what I wanted to say-

  16. Interesting posts on Clough.

    "I agree that Thackeray drew some inspiration from Defoe's books. But Henry Esmond didn't! Or if he did, he was careful to hide the traces."

    Of course. No more did Defoe's and others' fictional memoirs mention they were fictional- indeed, they persistently claim not to be fiction and they were presented as non-fiction when they were first published. Some of them turned out not to be fiction anyway, or at least, no more so than modern memoirs- only the facts were changed, to flatter the authors- and not by Defoe, too. Esmond and Barry Lyndon are the logical next step- an apparently truthful memoir with an editor who accepts its truth but which is actually fiction.

  17. I'm quite interested in this fictional memoir subject. That's the premise of a little Villette project I've been thinking about - treat the book as a memoir, not a novel. William Thackeray and Charlotte Brontë write fiction; Henry Esmond and Lucy Snowe write non-fiction.