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THE FOUR GEORGES
We know exceedingly little of the genesis and progress of Esmond. It did not seem to be a part of our lives as Pendennis was,' says Lady Ritchie, though she wrote part of it to dictation. She only heard Esmond spoken of very rarely'. Perhaps its state was not the less gracious. The Milton girls found Paradise Lost a very considerable part of their lives-and were not the happier.
But its parallels are respectable. The greatest things have a way of coming all so still' into the world. We wrangle-that is, those of us who are not content simply not to know about the composition of Homer, the purpose of the Divina Commedia, the probable plan of the Canterbury Tales, the Ur-Hamlet. Nobody put preliminary advertisements in the papers, you see, about these things: there was a discreditable neglect of the first requirements of the public. So it is with Esmond. There is, I thought, a reference to it in the Brookfield letters; but in several searches I cannot find it. To his mother he speaks of the book as 'grand and melancholy', and to Lady Stanley as of cut-throat melancholy'. It is said to have been sold for a thousand pounds-the same sum that Master Shallow lent Falstaff on probably inferior security. Those who knew thought well of it--which is not wholly surprising.
It is still, perhaps, in possession of a success rather of esteem than of affection. A company of young men and maidens to whom it was not long ago submitted pro
nounced it (with one or two exceptions) inferior as a work of humour. The hitting of little Harry in the eye with a potato was, they admitted, humorous, but hardly anything else. As representing another generation and another point of view, the faithful Dr. John Brown did not wholly like it-Esmond's marriage with Rachel, after his love for Beatrix, being apparently the fly in the ointment' to him. Even the author could only plead' there's a deal of pains in it that goes for nothing', as he says in one of his rare published references to the subject: but he was wrong. Undoubtedly the mere taking of pains will not do; but that is when they are taken in not the right manner, by not the right person, on not the right subject. Here everything was right, and accordingly it' went for' everything. A greater novel than Esmond I do not know; and I do not know many greater books. It may be 'melancholy', and none the worse for that it is' grand'.
For though there may not be much humour of the potato-throwing sort in Esmond, it will, perhaps, be found that in no book of Thackeray's, or of any one else's, is that deeper and higher humour which takes all life for its province-which is the humour of humanity-more absolutely pervading. And it may be found likewise, at least by some, that in no book is there to be found such a constant intertwist of the passion which, in all humanity's higher representatives, goes with humour hand in hand-a loving yet a mutually critical pair. Of the extraordinarily difficult form of autobiography I do not know such another masterly presentment; nor is it very difficult to recognize the means by which this mastery is attained, though Heaven knows it is not easy to understand the skill with which they are applied. The success is, in fact, the result of that curious' doubleness'-amounting, in fact, here to something like triplicity-which distinguishes Thackeray's attitude and handling. Thus Henry Esmond, who is on the whole, I should say, the most like him of all his characters
(though of course' romanced' a little), is himself and the other fellow', and also, as it were, human criticism of both. At times we have a tolerably unsophisticated account of his actions, or it may be even his thoughts; at another his thoughts and actions as they present themselves, or might present themselves, to another mind and yet at other times a reasoned view of them, as it were that of an impartial historian. The mixed form of narrative and monodrama lends itself to this as nothing else could and so does the author's well-known, much discussed, and sometimes heartily abused habit of parabasis or soliloquy to the audience. Of this nothing has yet been directly said, and anything that is said would have to be repeated as to every novel: so that we may as well keep it for the last or a late example, The Virginians or Philip. But its efficacy in this peculiar kind of double or treble handling is almost indisputable, even by those who may dispute its legitimacy as a constantly applied method.
One result, however, it has, as regards the hero-spokesman, which is curious. I believe thoroughly in Henry Esmondhe is to me one of the most real of illustrious Henrys as well of Thackeray's characters-but his reality is of a rather different kind from that of most of his fellows. It is somewhat more abstract, more typical, more generalized than the reality of English heroes usually is. He is not in the least shadowy or allegoric: but still he is somehow 'Esmondity' as well as Esmond-the melancholy rather than a melancholy, clearsighted, aloofminded man. His heart and his head act to each other as their governing powers, passion and humour, have been sketched as acting above. He is a man never likely to be very successful, famous, or fortunate in the world; not what is generally called a happy man; yet enjoying constant glows and glimmers of a cloudy happiness which he would hardly exchange for any other light. The late Professor Masson-himself no posture-monger or man of megrims, but one of genial
temper and steady sense-described Thackeray as apart; and so is the Marquis of Esmond. Yet Thackeray was a very real man; and so is the Marquis too.
The element of abstraction disappears, or rather retires into the background, when we pass to Beatrix. She also has the Ewigweibliche in her-as much of it as any, or almost any, of Shakespeare's women, and therefore more than anybody else's. But she is very much more than a type-she is Beatrix Esmond in flesh and blood, and damask and diamond, born for the destruction of mankind' and fortunately for the delight of them, or some of them, as well. Beatrix is beyond eulogy. Cease! cease to sing her praise!' is really the only motto, though perhaps something more may be said when we come to the terrible pendant which only Thackeray has had the courage and the skill to draw, with truth and without a disgusting result. If she had died when Esmond closes I doubt whether, in the Wood of Fair Ladies, even Cleopatra would have dared to summon her to her side, lest the comparison should not be favourable enough to herself, and the throne have to be shared.
But, as usual with Thackeray, you must not look to the hero and heroine too exclusively, even when there is such a heroine as this. For is there not here another heroine-cause of the dubieties of the Doctor Fidelis as above cited? As to that it may perhaps be pointed out to the extreme sentimentalists that, after all, Harry had been in love with the mother, as well as with the daughter, all along. If they consider this an aggravation, it cannot be helped but, except from the extreme point of view of Miss Marianne Dashwood in her earlier stage, it ought rather to be considered a palliative. And if they say further that the thing is made worse still by the fact that Harry was himself Rachel's second love, and that she did not exactly wait to be a widow before she fell in love with him-why, there is, again, nothing for it but to confess that it is very