Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Thackeray the Historian

Thackeray's Henry Esmond really puzzled me at first.  It begins with a family history inexplicably told twice, but something else mystified me even more than that.  When Henry finally appears, his story is attractive enough: we first see him left alone in Castlewood Estate until the new Lord and Lady Castlewood arrive, who instantly prove to be welcoming and accepting.  But that happy tableau doesn't seize the attention the way Vanity Fair's Becky Sharp does when she throws a dictionary out the carriage window in her first scene.  Although I had only read one novel by Thackeray before, I thought I knew what to expect, and found myself surprised.

My surprise lasted a couple of days until I read a little about the book.  Set in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Thackeray set out to write a novel not just about that period, but as if it had been written then.  It is written in the first person (sort of; Henry himself serves as narrator, but he usually refers to himself in a Dolesque third-person), so it makes sense that Henry should tell his story in a fashion like that of stories he has read.  But Thackeray put an unusual amount of effort into the project, doing copious research on the politics, literary style, celebrities, and news of the times, and even had the publisher print the book in an eighteenth-century font in order to make it look more like an authentic autobiography.

So then the pieces fell into place: the book's style surprised me because Thackeray set out deliberately to write a novel not in his usual style.  Like Tom Jones and Roderick Random, for instance, Henry has sexual dalliances (although Thackeray doesn't describe them in his Victorian times with the detail that Fielding used in his) that do not keep him from being the protagonist.  By contrast, such characters in nineteenth-century novels must be either secondary comic characters or pitiable brothers of more central characters or downright villains.  Also, Thackeray's descriptions of events and even of characters' passions have the objective tone of the Age of Enlightenment.  Of his caretakers, Henry says at one point,
My lord was exceeding gentle and kind.  Whenever he quitted the room, his wife's eyes followed him.  He behaved to her with a kind of mournful courtesy and kindness remarkable in one of his blunt ways and ordinary rough manner.  He called her by her Christian name often and fondly, was very soft and gentle with the children, especially with the boy, whom he did not love.
True to the analytical ways of the period, Thackeray's Henry simply sets about cataloguing Castlewood's characteristics, the way a Jane Austen girl might coolly list the features of a suitor.

Of course the story includes a beautiful face that drives Henry mad (another reading coincidence: see the posts from last month on Plato's Phaedrus): the face of Castlewood's lovely daughter, Beatrix.  Henry says, "A pair of bright eyes with a dozen glances suffice to subdue a man; to enslave him, and enflame him; to make him even forget," never referring to himself directly, but always confining this illness to the generic "a man."  When he finally describes Beatrix physically, he makes her stunning effect clear, but not by showing the reader how stunned he is.  Instead, he says that "she was a brown beauty; that is, her eyes, hair, and eyebrows and eyelashes were dark.," and tells us clinically that her "shape was perfect symmetry, health, decision, activity."  Many a twentieth-century author would no doubt locate the symmetry and the activity more precisely for us.

Along the way, Thackeray gives his reader a lot of English history.  Henry's story takes place in counterpoint with the Protectorate, the Restoration, tensions between Catholics and Anglicans and Dissenters, the Glorious Revolution, tensions between Tories and the first Whigs, Queen Anne's suitability to both parties, and Marlborough and the battle of Blenheim.  I've read about this history, and I've been to Blenheim Palace, where the Dukes of Marlborough (and their cousin Winston Churchill) have lived for several centuries, but I don't remember ever reading a novel set in this period.  So now that I know that the book is what it's supposed to be, and not what I expected it to be, it's been -- I'll not say "fun," as I might with a nineteenth-century novel -- but, appropriate to the time, enlightening.

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