Advanced Reading Survey: Henry Esmond by William Makepeace Thackeray

I’ve decided that on Mondays I’m going to revisit the books I read for a course in college called Advanced Reading Survey, taught by the eminent scholar and lovable professor, Dr. Huff. I’m not going to re-read all the books and poems I read for that course, probably more than fifty, but I am going to post to Semicolon the entries in the reading journal that I was required to keep for that class because I think that my entries on these works of literature may be of interest to readers here and because I’m afraid that the thirty year old spiral notebook in which I wrote these entries may fall apart ere long. I may offer my more mature perspective on the books, too, if I remember enough about them to do so.

I wrote about Vanity Fair a few weeks ago in this series; The History of Henry Esmond, Esq. is a different sort of book from Thackeray’s more popular Vanity Fair. Because of personal problems caused by the unstable mental condition of Thackeray’s wife, Henry Esmond was written during a period of deep depression for the author which accounts for the lack of comedy and the somber tone of the novel.

Henry Esmond: an orphan who should rightfully have been the fourth Viscount Castlewood.
Francis Esmond: fourth Viscount Castlewood.
Rachel Esmond: Francis’s wife and later Henry’s
Frank Esmond: fifth Viscount Castlewood, son of Francis and Rachel
Beatrix Esmond: Francis and Rachel’s daughter
Thomas Esmond: third Viscount Castlewood; Henry’s father
Isabel Esmond: Thomas’s wife
James Stuart: exiled pretender to the throne of England


“‘Tis not the dying for a faith that’s so hard, Master Henry—every man of every nation has done that—’tis the living up to it that is difficult.”

To see a young couple loving each other is no wonder; but to see an old couple loving each other is the best sight of all.

So a man dashes a fine vase down and despises it for being broken. It may be worthless —true: but who had the keeping of it, and who shattered it?

As there a thousand thoughts lying within a man that he does not know till he takes up the pen to write, so the heart is a secret even to him who has it in his own breast.

If there be some thoughts and actions of his life from the memory of which a man shrinks with shame, sure there are some which he may be proud to own and remember: forgiven injuries, conquered temptations (now and then), and difficulties vanquished by endurance.

From the loss of a tooth to that of a mistress, there’s no pang that is not bearable. The apprehension is much more cruel than the certainty.

Our great thoughts, our great affections, the Truths of our life, never leave us. Surely they cannot separate from our consciousness; shall follow it whithersoever that shall go; and are of their nature divine and immortal.

My thoughts thirty years later:

I remember enjoying the story of young Henry Esmond very much. It’s an exercise in historical fiction for Thackeray, set in the 1700’s. The book was full of intrigue and historical characters that mingled with the fictional characters. The Virginians, a book I never read, is a sequel to Henry Esmond.

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