Thursday, February 3, 2011

Could Thackeray Keep a Secret?

Henry Esmond is full of secrets.  For a time, Henry's tutor, a Catholic priest, convinces Henry to believe in the Church of Rome but tells him to keep his loyalty a secret.  This same tutor, a supporter of James II both before and after his dethronement, has a secret means of escape from Castlewood should the Whig revolutionaries come looking for him.  Years after using this escape, the old tutor meets Henry again on the continent, where he dresses like a German officer and keeps his identity once more a secret.  Henry's guardian, Lord Castlewood, runs secret plots to take down King William and restore the crown to James -- for a while, that is, until he decides he prefers stability and must now keep his new-found respect for William a secret from the rest of the family.  Neither Henry nor his readers know the identity of his parents for quite a while, and then his father is revealed long before his mother.  Once Henry finds out his true lineage, he determines to keep the knowledge to himself for the good of the rest of the family.  Henry even goes so far as to say that he believes nature keeps a man's character secret even from the man himself, until adversity tests him and brings out his character.  Secrets, in short, seem to form the central theme of the book.

Since secrets play such a pivotal role in Henry's life, and since Henry tells his own story, I can't help wondering if he keeps even more secrets from his reader.  Other narrators do, I believe.  I'm convinced, for instance, that Dr. Watson holds information back in his tales of Sherlock Holmes.  In his narrative style, Watson often implies responses to Holmes without providing the transcript; Watson might report Holmes as saying something like this: "Of course, we'll have to tell the police about this business.  Oh, you wouldn't want that, would you?  Well then, . . . ."  Clearly his nervous interlocutor has evinced or even spoken his dismay, even if we don't hear it verbatim.  Now in speaking to Watson, Holmes's speeches almost never include any lines such as "Oh, you think that remark unfair to you, do you, Doctor?"  But surely Watson occasionally winces at the detective's clever barbs.  Watson simply keeps his responses unreported, as he does so many others, but in these cases removes Holmes's rejoinders, as well, leaving no evidence of his own hurt feelings -- except to a sharp-witted sleuth like myself who makes something out of the dog not barking in the night.

So further reading may reveal more secrets in Henry Esmond or not, but I think there's room for speculation either way.  With a mediocre character, the reader can often imagine what he would do even in a situation not narrated in the book.  With a good character, on the other hand, the reader can guess what he would do but still has doubts, because good characters, like the humans they imitate, are full of surprises and secrets.

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