Anthony Trollope said in his autobiography that this is "the best novel in the English language," supplanting his first choice, Pride and Prejudice. We will just have to disagree about that. I don't think it is even William Thackeray's best novel, though I've only read two of them so far. To my mind, it can't compare with Vanity Fair, let alone Pride and Prejudice, and I certainly wouldn't recommend it as an introduction to his books.
As the title suggests, it is the autobiography of Henry Esmond, written late in his life for his descendants. It is told mainly in the third person, with occasional notes from family members. At the time of its writing, Esmond has been living for many years on the family's Virginia estate, a grant from King Charles I. The estate, the family and Colonel Esmond himself are introduced in a brief Preface by his daughter Rachel Esmond Warrington, dated in 1778. The preface includes some key information about the Colonel and his wife, also named Rachel, and their immediate family, including her son Frank and daughter Beatrix from a previous marriage
When we meet Henry himself, in the first chapter, it is 80 years earlier. A twelve-year-old boy, he is living alone at the family estate of Castlewood, in Hampshire. His cousin Francis, the fourth Viscount Castlewood, who has just succeeded to the title and estate, arrives with his wife and their two young children. As the Viscountess tours the house, she comes across Henry in a gallery, and he falls instantly in love:
she had come upon him as a Dea certè, and appeared the most charming object he had ever looked on. Her golden hair was shining in the gold of the sun; her complexion was of a dazzling bloom; her lips smiling, and her eyes beaming with a kindness that made Harry Esmond's heart to beat with surprise.Henry determines to devote his life to the lady and her family. He has been left orphaned at the death of his father Thomas, the 3rd Viscount Castlewood, but his place in the household was precarious even before that. Acknowledged as Thomas's bastard, he lived his first years with Huguenot weavers in London, before his father brought him to Castlewood. His father's wife, though aging, still hoped to produce an heir, and she initially resented her husband's son. Life in the household was precarious in other ways. The Castlewood family has always been loyal to the Stuarts, which cost them heavily at times. One of the second Viscount's sons was killed defending the house against Cromwell's forces, and another died at the Battle of Worcester. The family was "concerned in almost all of the plots against the Protector," and after the Restoration they were high in favor with Charles II. They stand as loyally by James II, equally concerned in plots to restore him or his son to the throne. Their Jacobite politics run all through Henry Esmond's story, though he himself admires William of Orange as the greatest king England ever had.
Henry finds a surrogate mother in the new Viscountess, Rachel, and becomes almost a step-brother to her children Frank and Beatrix. Lady Castlewood schemes to send him to Cambridge, so that he can be ordained and appointed to the family living of Castlewood. Henry feels no call to the ministry but accepts her choice. However, his education and his future career are cut short when he is drawn into standing as a second in a duel between Lord Castlewood and the notorious rake Lord Mohun, who has designs on Rachel. Henry is briefly sent to prison for his part, and after an angry parting scene with Lady Castlewood, he determines to join the army.
Serving under the Duke of Marlborough, he sees action at Blenheim and other major battles in various campaigns against the French. When he returns to London on leave, he falls in with literary men like Richard Steele and Joseph Addison. He also falls deeply in love with his cousin Beatrix, now a maid of honor at Queen Anne's court and the toast of London. She has no plans to throw herself away on a poor bastard cousin, though she enjoys tormenting him. He spends much of his time on leave pursuing her, when he isn't pouring out his frustrated love to Beatrix's mother, who both wants him to succeed and doesn't, partly because she believes her daughter unworthy of him. In the end, Henry gives up his military career. He accepts the Virginia estates from the 5th Lord Castlewood and settles down to a happy life as a plantation owner. His daughter assures us in her preface that his slaves were perfectly happy and well-treated, and that he was "as courteous to a black slave-girl as to the governor's wife."
There were definitely things I liked about this book. It is historical fiction, and Thackeray created a literary voice for Henry that sounds authentic - to me at least, though I have read very little from the late 17th and early 18th centuries. I studied British history in college, and have read some since, but I am not as familiar with the Stuart period, the Glorious Revolution or Queen Anne's reign. The edition I read is an old Classics Club hardback, without the notes or supplemental materials that I'm used to in Penguin or Oxford editions. I ended up doing some quick supplemental reading on my own. I was lucky enough to tour Blenheim on my last visit to England, so I had at least some background on Marlborough, who plays a big part in Henry's military career. Thackeray did a good job of blending his fictional and historical characters, though it sometimes took me a while to figure out which was which. I had heard of Joseph Addison, of course, but did not recognize Richard Steele, with whom he founded The Spectator. (Henry helps Addison with his great poem The Campaign, commemorating Marlborough's victory at Blenheim.) I also enjoyed the twists of the Jacobite plotting, however misguided and unsuccessful. Henry has quite a shock when he actually meets the Chevalier of St. George, or James III as the Castlewood family usually refers to him.
I really enjoyed Henry's military exploits, his literary friends, and the Jacobite adventures. Unfortunately, they are woven into the story of his love for Beatrix, whom he hopes to win by military or literary fame. She is a bit of a Becky Sharp character, and he knows she will never accept him, but he can't accept that. So he goes off to war, comes home, moons over her, is rejected, whines for hours to her mother, goes back to war, and starts the whole cycle over again. He is rather a glum character at the best of times, and this brings out the worst in him. I found the repetition of these scenes, and his complaining, very tedious after a while, and I started to dread his returning to England. I had visions of smacking him like Cher in Moonstruck: "Snap out of it!" It was especially disconcerting, and a little creepy, that he spends so much time detailing his love for Beatrix to her mother, and that Rachel tries to convince her daughter to marry him, when we know from the preface that Henry marries Rachel in the end. There are hints throughout the book that Rachel has been in love with Henry for many years, though I can't figure out what she sees in him. She tries to disguise it as maternal love, calling him her third child (which is also a little creepy), and her children tease her about it, sometimes in front of Henry. To be fair, Henry does perform a service for the family, admittedly at great cost to himself. He does it willingly and in secret. Over the course of the story, each member of the family discovers the secret, and each time the story of the service is told again, and there is an emotional orgy of praise and thanks and repentance and reconciliation, which after a while also become tedious. I learned of this secret from a family tree that I came across while searching for cover images, which I couldn't resist copying out. Like maps in travelogues, I find genealogies very helpful in family sagas like this one, even if they contain spoilers.
In the end, I found this book interesting more than compelling, though it did keep me reading despite my frustrations. As I said, I don't think it can compare to Vanity Fair. I still have The Newcomes and Pendennis on the TBR shelves, both of which Trollope praised as well.