The History of Henry Esmond

by William Makepeace Thackeray

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Book I - The Early Youth of Henry Esmond


The actors in the old tragedies, as we read, piped their iambics to a tune, speaking from under a mask, and wearing stilts and a great head-dress. ‘Twas thought the dignity of the Tragic Muse required these appurtenances, and that she was not to move except to a measure and cadence. So Queen Medea slew her children to a slow music: and King Agamemnon perished in a dying fall (to use Mr. Dryden’s words): the Chorus standing by in a set attitude, and rhythmically and decorously bewailing the fates of those great crowned persons. The Muse of History hath encumbered herself with ceremony as well as her Sister of the Theatre. She too wears the mask and the cothurnus, and speaks to measure. She too, in our age, busies herself with the affairs only of kings; waiting on them obsequiously and stately, as if she were but a mistress of court ceremonies, and had nothing to do with the registering of the affairs of the common people. I have seen in his very old age and decrepitude the old French King Lewis the Fourteenth, the type and model of kinghood—who never moved but to measure, who lived and died according to the laws of his Court-marshal, persisting in enacting through life the part of Hero; and, divested of poetry, this was but a little wrinkled old man, pock-marked, and with a great periwig and red heels to make him look tall—a hero for a book if you like, or for a brass statue or a painted ceiling, a god in a Roman shape, but what more than a man for Madame Maintenon, or the barber who shaved him, or Monsieur Fagon, his surgeon? I wonder shall History ever pull off her periwig and cease to be court-ridden? Shall we see something of France and England besides Versailles and Windsor? I saw Queen Anne at the latter place tearing down the Park slopes, after her stag-hounds, and driving her one-horse chaise—a hot, red-faced woman, not in the least resembling that statue of her which turns its stone back upon St. Paul’s, and faces the coaches struggling up Ludgate Hill. She was neither better bred nor wiser than you and me, though we knelt to hand her a letter or a wash-hand basin. Why shall History go on kneeling to the end of time? I am for having her rise up off her knees, and take a natural posture: not to be for ever performing cringes and congees like a court-chamberlain, and shuffling backwards out of doors in the presence of the sovereign. In a word, I would have History familiar rather than heroic: and think that Mr. Hogarth and Mr. Fielding will give our children a much better idea of the manners of the present age in England, than the Court Gazette and the newspapers which we get thence.

There was a German officer of Webb’s, with whom we used to joke, and of whom a story (whereof I myself was the author) was got to be believed in the army, that he was eldest son of the hereditary Grand Bootjack of the Empire, and the heir to that honor of which his ancestors had been very proud, having been kicked for twenty generations by one imperial foot, as they drew the boot from the other. I have heard that the old Lord Castlewood, of part of whose family these present volumes are a chronicle, though he came of quite as good blood as the Stuarts whom he served (and who as regards mere lineage are no better than a dozen English and Scottish houses I could name), was prouder of his post about the Court than of his ancestral honors, and valued his dignity (as Lord of the Butteries and Groom of the King’s Posset) so highly, that he cheerfully ruined himself for the thankless and thriftless race who bestowed it. He pawned his plate for King Charles the First, mortgaged his property for the same cause, and lost the greater part of it by fines and sequestration: stood a siege of his castle by Ireton, where his brother Thomas capitulated (afterward making terms with the Commonwealth, for which the elder brother never forgave him), and where his second brother Edward, who had embraced the ecclesiastical profession, was slain on Castlewood Tower, being engaged there both as preacher and artilleryman. This resolute old loyalist, who was with the King whilst his house was thus being battered down, escaped abroad with his only son, then a boy, to return and take a part in Worcester fight. On that fatal field Eustace Esmond was killed, and Castlewood fled from it once more into exile, and henceforward, and after the Restoration, never was away from the Court of the monarch (for whose return we offer thanks in the Prayer-Book) who sold his country and who took bribes of the French king.

What spectacle is more august than that of a great king in exile? Who is more worthy of respect than a brave man in misfortune? Mr. Addison has painted such a figure in his noble piece of Cato. But suppose fugitive Cato fuddling himself at a tavern with a wench on each knee, a dozen faithful and tipsy companions of defeat, and a landlord calling out for his bill; and the dignity of misfortune is straightway lost. The Historical Muse turns away shamefaced from the vulgar scene, and closes the door—on which the exile’s unpaid drink is scored up—upon him and his pots and his pipes, and the tavern-chorus which he and his friends are singing. Such a man as Charles should have had an Ostade or Mieris to paint him. Your Knellers and Le Bruns only deal in clumsy and impossible allegories: and it hath always seemed to me blasphemy to claim Olympus for such a wine-drabbled divinity as that.

About the King’s follower, the Viscount Castlewood—orphan of his son, ruined by his fidelity, bearing many wounds and marks of bravery, old and in exile—his kinsmen I suppose should be silent; nor if this patriarch fell down in his cups, call fie upon him, and fetch passers-by to laugh at his red face and white hairs. What! does a stream rush out of a mountain free and pure, to roll through fair pastures, to feed and throw out bright tributaries, and to end in a village gutter? Lives that have noble commencements have often no better endings; it is not without a kind of awe and reverence that an observer should speculate upon such careers as he traces the course of them. I have seen too much of success in life to take off my hat and huzzah to it as it passes in its gilt coach: and would do my little part with my neighbors on foot, that they should not gape with too much wonder, nor applaud too loudly. Is it the Lord Mayor going in state to mince-pies and the Mansion House? Is it poor Jack of Newgate’s procession, with the sheriff and javelin-men, conducting him on his last journey to Tyburn? I look into my heart and think that I sin as good as my Lord Mayor, and know I am as bad as Tyburn Jack. Give me a chain and red gown and a pudding before me, and I could play the part of Alderman very well, and sentence Jack after dinner. Starve me, keep me from books and honest people, educate me to love dice, gin, and pleasure, and put me on Hounslow Heath, with a purse before me, and I will take it. “And I shall be deservedly hanged,” say you, wishing to put an end to this prosing. I don’t say No. I can’t but accept the world as I find it, including a rope’s end, as long as it is in fashion.

Anton Chekhov
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Susan Glaspell
Mark Twain
Edgar Allan Poe
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Herman Melville
Stephen Leacock
Kate Chopin
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson