At this date, Thackeray’s Esmond has passed from the domain of criticism into that securer region where the classics, if they do not actually “slumber out their immortality,” are at least preserved from profane intrusion. This “noble story”–as it was called by one of its earliest admirers–is no longer, in any sense, a book “under review.” The painful student of the past may still, indeed, with tape and compass, question its details and proportions; or the quick-fingered professor of paradox, jauntily turning it upside-down, rejoice in the results of his perverse dexterity; but certain things are now established in regard to it, which cannot be gainsaid, even by those who assume the superfluous office of anatomising the accepted. In the first place, if Esmond be not the author’s greatest work (and there are those who, like the late Anthony Trollope, would willingly give it that rank), it is unquestionably his greatest work in its particular kind, for its sequel, The Virginians, however admirable in detached passages, is desultory and invertebrate, while Denis Duval, of which the promise was “great, remains unfinished. With Vanity Fair, the author’s masterpiece in another manner, Esmond cannot properly be compared, because an imitation of the past can never compete in verisimilitude or on any satisfactory terms with a contemporary picture. Nevertheless, in its successful reproduction of the tone of a bygone epoch, lies Esmond’s second and incontestable claim to length of days. Athough fifty years and more have passed since it was published, it is still unrivalled as the typical example of that class of historical fiction, which, dealing indiscriminately with characters real and feigned, develops them both with equal familiarity, treating them each from within, and investing them impartially with a common atmosphere of illusion. No modern novel has done this in the same way, nor with the same good fortune, as Esmond; and there is nothing more to be said on this score. Even if–as always–later researches should have revised our conception of certain of the real personages, the value of the book as an imaginative tour de force is unimpaired. Little remains therefore for the gleaner of to-day save bibliographical jottings, and neglected notes on its first appearance.
1: “Never could I have believed that Thackeray, great as his abilities are, could have written so noble a story as Esmond.”–WALTER SAVAGE LANDOR, August 1856.]
In Thackeray’s work, the place of The History of Henry Esmond, Esq., a Colonel in the Service of Her Majesty Q. Anne. Written by Himself –lies midway between his four other principal books, Vanity Fair, Pendennis, The Newcomes, and The Virginians; and its position serves, in a measure, to explain its origin. In 1848, after much tentative and miscellaneous production, of which the value had been but imperfectly appreciated, the author found his fame with the yellow numbers of Vanity Fair. Two years later, adopting the same serial form, came Pendennis. Vanity Fair had been the condensation of a life’s experience; and excellent as Pendennis would have seemed from any inferior hand, its readers could not disguise from themselves that, though showing no falling off in other respects, it drew to some extent upon the old material. No one was readier than Thackeray to listen to a whisper of this kind, or more willing to believe that–as he afterwards told his friend Elwin concerning The Newcomes –“he had exhausted all the types of character with which he was familiar.” Accordingly he began, for the time, to turn his thoughts in fresh directions; and in the year that followed the publication of Pendennis, prepared and delivered in England and Scotland a series of Lectures upon the English Humourists of the Eighteenth Century. With the success of these came the prompting for a new work of fiction,–not to be contemporary, and not to be issued in parts. His studies for the Humourists had saturated him with the spirit of a time to which–witness his novelette of Barry Lyndon –he had always been attracted; and when Mr. George Smith called on him with a proposal that he should write a new story for L1000, he was already well in hand with Esmond,–an effort in which, if it were not possible to invent new puppets, it was at least possible to provide fresh costumes and a change of background. Begun in 1851, Esmond progressed rapidly, and by the end of May 1852 it was completed. Owing to the limited stock of old-cut type in which it was set up, its three volumes passed but slowly through the press; and it was eventually issued at the end of the following October, upon the eve of the author’s departure to lecture in America. In fact, he was waiting on the pier for the tender which was to convey him to the steamer, when he received his bound copies from the publisher.