Henry Esmond by William Makepeace Thackeray was the book I chose for the first category, the 19th century classic. I read Vanity Fair more than a decade ago, for comps. I didn’t love it but I found much to appreciate. Re-reading Jane Eyre with my daughter last month, I was intrigued that Bronte dedicated the book to Thackeray. I was further intrigued to discover that Thackeray’s personal favorite among his books was Henry Esmond.
What a different world Henry Esmond opens before us. I’d just finished a much more recent historical novel, The Wild Swans by Bridget Boland, set in the same period, when I finally sat down with Thackeray’s book. I was soon turning pages quickly. The book is set during the English Restoration, a historical period, that, except for the novel I’d just finished, was a complete blank for me. Thackeray largely filled in that blank, with the complexities of politics, the atrocities, euphorias, treacheries, and absurdities of war, and the mirroring world of the day’s letters and literary men. Into this world, Henry Esmond is born, with a stigma on his birth. In this world, he grows up, learns Latin from a Jesuit, is accepted into a family related to him, is educated at Oxford, goes into the military. But the main interest of the story is the human relationships. The main drama is the drama of love. Though famously softer than Vanity Fair, Henry Esmond is not really more romantic. Rather we see the long term bearing that character has on destiny. Framed as the narrative of an old man writing for his descendants an account of his younger days, a man who even as a boy was something of an “old soul,” its digressions have the quality of wisdom literature (a genre I love), and the whole can be described as “an intellectual reflection upon passion” — with a sudden reversal of the weaving at the end that shows all the knotted threads, the repeated stumbles, humblings, failures, all the colors that have been present all long in a completely different light — something satisfying and resplendent.
Wonderful bringing of history to life. Timeless but jarring look at human relationships in all their often lacerated complexity. I’m glad that this one didn’t pass me by.