Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Nobody reads it. - Henry Esmond, Thackeray's best book - a survey of opinion

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.


  1. "I and would be delighted to read a defense of its 'beauty.'"

    You mean the alliteration of the first sentence, followed by the judicious use of parentheses, and the telescoping of dependent clauses doesn't get your aesthetics on?


    Next time someone asks me a question, I'll answer "faced the fire of the foot" because it sounds so damn cool.


  2. Very glad that you're glad you read it, and that you found it so well done and interesting. A bit upset, perhaps, that you're vowing to read no subsequent Thackeray. No one will be able to tell me which is a better book, The Newcomes or The Virginians. My guess is that it's The Newcomes, which I haven't read. And by the way, it might interest the Balzacian in you that Thackeray sprinkles his characters from other novels around throughout his books, though I can't remember exactly how.

    I do think you'd like Pendennis, if you haven't read it. It comes right after Vanity Fair, right at the same time as David Copperfield, to which it makes a fascinating companion piece. So it's not one of the "later novels" that you've ruled out.

    The other book that's not being mentioned here are WMT's lectures, English Humorists, all about your Addison and Steele as mentioned, along with Fielding as I recall. Smollett? I'd have to look. But he studied up the topic in his casual Cambridge style, wrote the lectures, then wrote the book that masks his obsession with the married Mrs. Brookfield (GRay's "Buried Life"). If you're going to go complete on Hawthorne's Notebooks, you might glance at Thackeray's lectures on the 18th century, no?

    With Clarel, Blithedale, and Esmond out of the way, what could be next? The Spanish Gypsy? Asphodel?

  3. How about The Playground of Europe?

  4. Kevin, you like that "Lille\ brilliant\ illustrated\ skill"? Yeah, me, too. I said I'd be delighted!

    I'm definitely curious about Pendennis, and appreciate the recommendation. Barry Lyndon, too, and I was just reading a book that made English Humourists sound pretty interesting. But those later ones - I mean, who knows, but I'm just being realistic.

    A mountaineering expedition is not crazy. Stephen, Whymper. Lady Isabella Bird in Estes Park, and John Muir. That would be fun. But I think my next "Why on earth are you reading that" books will swerve into Germany, or France.

  5. I love the concept of Thackeray as modern or postmodern, when so often he is taken as the consummate Victorian. (But I guess we can say that about a lot of literature, can't we? I'm reading the Iliad right now and am stunned by how modern parts of it are.)

  6. When I got an e-reader a few months ago this is one of the first books I downloaded. Alas, I haven't gotten to reading it yet, but it's moving up the TBR list due to your posts.

  7. When I recommend Henry Esmond to tricky Modernists, I'm really referring to his style, his technical fooforaw. He might be entirely conventional in his stodgy Victorian attitudes.

    He's not, but it's a separate issue. Or, on the subject of History as Progress, there are many Victorian views - Thackeray expresses a radically different one than Thomas Carlyle or Karl Marx.

    By the way, I see your blog is launched. Best wishes!

    Dwight - odds are, you will be very happy taking this novel to pieces. It really rewards attention.

  8. "Nobody reads it" - I've read it; twice.:) (Poor Thackeray!)

    I know I'm late to this post, but... Have you read Thackeray's "Book of Snobs"?; really good fun - especially with the original (his own) illustrations. If you wish to try more Thackeray, but would prefer lighter fare... (It's short, too.)


  9. I read a bit about The Book of Snobs in Joseph Epstein's little book about snobbery (title: Snobbery) and was almost convinced. So thanks for the good recommendation. I'm now sure I'll get to the short Snobs before the long Pendennis.

  10. I came to this blog post through searching 'Henry Esmond prig'.

    I have never read such a priggish work. Whiggery and priggery. Henry Esmond goes from being a rather noble and generous-hearted youth to a mature cynic. I'm not so glad I finished it myself.

  11. No arguing with Esmond's priggishness. He grows worse, not better.

    Thanks for visiting the site - glad you were led here,