Saturday, January 27, 2007

This might be "Dear John" for dear Henry

Long, long ago in a country far, far away, people actually enjoyed reading books like this. Not long ago, I commented that I would like to read Thackeray as I read Dickens--one new novel each year--but that it is more difficult to find copies of Thackeray's books.

Now I know why.

I've been working on The History of Henry Esmond for nearly three months. I'm over halfway through the book, and I'm still waiting for the story to grow interesting. Perhaps if the political background information, as well as the literary environment of Addison and Steele (who appear as characters in the book) were more familiar to me, I might appreciate it more. But not necessarily.

I can hardly believe the author of the riotous Vanity Fair, with its biting satire of Victorian mores and its irreverent, tongue-in-cheek tone, is also the author of Henry Esmond. Was Thackeray having a bad year?

Or is it, as I suspect, that this novel falls into that category of "timely" rather than "timeless" literature. The foreward suggests that this book was Thackeray's best, but I can hardly believe it. It's only the third novel by Thackeray that I have read, but the others (Vanity Fair and Pendennis) were much better. I'm sure this book meant something to Thackeray's contemporary English readers. It was a work of historical fiction, and as the history was their history, they were probably more connected to it than I can be.

The question before me now is whether or not to finish this book. It has been renewed from the library twice, and the deadline for returning is looming near. I'm either going to finish it up in the next two weeks, or I'm going to abandon it. I can't make up my mind. I don't often leave books unfinished, and if I owned it, I might just put it aside planning to finish it later. But I am tired of renewing it, and tired of feeling obligated to read it before other things, and I am most definitely tired of Henry Esmond, who doesn't seem to do much of anything in spite of studying at Oxford, participating in a duel which lands him in jail for a year, and joining the army and going off to war.

If anyone is thinking of reading Thackeray, I would say, "Oh, do--definitely do." But pick up Vanity Fair and let Henry Esmond continue collecting dust while the bindings fall into disrepair and publishing houses pass it over in the search for interesting classics to reprint.


At 4:26 PM , Blogger Dominion Family said...

Having just realized when I read Parnassus on Wheels a couple of years ago I forgot to read The Haunted Bookshop I decided to read it. This, of course, put me on a similar path that you are on because I thought of reading Henry Esmond. Thank-you for stopping me. I am already reading several slow books and don't need to try another one.

Have you ever read any Carlyle?

At 11:51 PM , Blogger At A Hen's Pace said...

Thanks for this review. There are too many books and life is so it's always nice to know which ones aren't worth it!


At 5:17 AM , Blogger Laura said...

I am glad you reviewed this book, as I've wanted to read it for several years now. Isn't part of it set in Virginia?

I still want to read it, but I'm glad to know that it won't be a show-stopper!


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