The History of Henry Esmond (William Makepeace Thackery, 1852)

An historical fiction set against the backdrop of the Restoration, beginning with the fictional Henry Esmond’s birth after the death of Oliver Cromwell, and ending with his failed attempt to install James III on the English throne at Queen Anne’s demise. Afterwards, Henry leaves the politics and intrigues of Europe for the New World and becomes a planter in Virginia (this story continues in Thackery’s follow-up novel, The Virginians).

Henry Esmond is taken in as a young child and raised by the Castlewoods, his cousins. He’s presumed to be the bastard child of Marquis Esmond, but in fact, his father and mother were secretly wed. The Castlewoods descend from old Esmond’s second, illegal marriage. By right, Henry is the head of the house and should hold the title, but he’s so obliged to the kindness of his foster parents that he’s quite content to let them have the honors. Henry and his family are Jacobites and seek to restore James III, currently in exile in France, to the throne. They manage to smuggle him into the country, but up close, they discover that their idol falls far from the mark and are not at all disappointed when the scheme fails.

I found the love story element more than a little off-putting, and it kept me from enjoying the book more than I otherwise might. For most of the novel, Henry is in love with his sister, and at the end, marries his mother. Yes, by blood they’re only half-cousins, but Henry was raised as Beatrix’s sister and Lady Castlewood’s son and it’s still really, really squicky to think about them being romantically involved.

The story largely takes the form of a first person memoir written by Henry himself and addressed to his grandchildren, edited by his daughter evidently after Henry’s death, and with a few other sections (mostly historical footnotes) by Thackery undisguised.

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