There was “tube strike chaos” according to the newspapers today, which meant it was a very quiet day in the office as most people were “working from home.” I also had a quieter than usual journey to work. I travel on the Docklands Light Railway, which is never considered part of the tube network. It’s very confusing for tourists. When they ask for the nearest tube I say, “Do you mean the DLR?”
No, they never mean the DLR, but they’re quite grateful all the same when they discover it can take them where they want to go.
In fact I had quite a pleasant journey to work and back. I am reading The History of Henry Esmond by William Thackeray. I had to order it from a second hand book dealer because it’s out of print, which is surprising in view of the fact that Thackeray, Trollope and a few others considered it his best novel. Trollope even went further.
I myself regard Esmond as the greatest novel in the English language, basing that judgment upon the excellence of its language, on the clear individuality of the characters, on the truth of its delineations in regard to the time selected, and on its great pathos. There are also in it a few scenes so told that even Scott has never equalled the telling. Let any one who doubts this read the passage in which Lady Castlewood induces the Duke of Hamilton to think that his nuptials with Beatrix will be honoured if Colonel Esmond will give away the bride. When he went from us he left behind living novelists with great names; but I think that they who best understood the matter felt that the greatest master of fiction of this age had gone.
[From Trollope’s Autobiography]
I haven’t yet reached the scene Trollope mentions even though I’ve been reading the book for two months but it’s true that the pathos is there. I think Thackeray put a lot of himself into Esmond. It has the authentic resonance of lived emotion and, once you get past the obscure Jacobite intrigues and turgid circumlocutions, the human drama draws you in and the events dwell in your mind. I put it aside some weeks ago at page 207 because I had too many other pressing concerns, but I’m glad I resumed it in an idle moment, because now, at page 320, it is really enriching my journeys.
George Eliot found the central relationship of the book “uncomfortable.” It is a bit strange. Henry Esmond is an illegitimate orphan who is cheated out of his rightful inheritance by his foster father, Francis, Viscount Castlewood. Henry learns of the deception but continues to love and revere his foster parents (Francis in memory only after he dies in a duel). Henry joins the army and fights in Marlborough’s campaigns in Europe in order to impress his cousin, Beatrix, who is the daughter of his foster mother, Lady Castlewood. He is in love with Beatrix but, although Lady Castlewood approves the match and watches over Henry’s courtship with tender concern, Beatrix is too coquettish and capricious to appreciate him. So she marries the dashing Duke of Hamilton and Henry marries Lady Castlewood. Extraordinary! But, although he is courting Beatrix, Henry’s relationship throughout is really with his foster mother. It is in his encounters with her that you really feel the the full dignity of Henry’s sensitive and generous nature.
I wonder to what extent these relationships are invested with Thackeray’s own intense feelings following the end of his doomed, unconsummated love affair with the married Mrs. Brookfield, if such an affair can ever be said to have an end. I think perhaps all Esmond’s feelings come from Thackeray himself.
Thackeray was being deliberately old-fashioned and clever, writing in the style of Queen Anne’s time. Lanying has reminded me that it’s my duty to be modern and clever in order to give her the kind of novel she craves. I’ll try not to do as Trollope urges then and copy Thackeray’s style. Instead I’ll just try to remember the touching simplicity with which Thackeray has conveyed the authentic human emotions resonating at the heart of this novel. Strange as the relationships are, there is never a false note here. The greatest master of fiction knew above all the importance of emotional truth.