Events take place in England at the very beginning of the eighteenth century, during the reign of Queen Anne, the last of the Stuart dynasty. Anna does not have children, and therefore after her death, the throne must go to representatives of another dynasty – Hanover. However, the court party and the military circles want to see Queen Charles Stewart’s brother, who is in exile in France, on the throne. Against this backdrop, the life of the main character of the novel, Henry Esmond, a supporter of Stuart and a participant in the struggle for his accession to the throne. The novel is written in the form of his memoirs.
Henry Esmond is the son of the third viscount of Castlewood, he does not know his mother. After the death of his father, he is brought up by the fourth Viscount Castlewood, in whose castle he lives. The boy has a deep affection for the owner and especially for the hostess, Lady Castlewood, who has two children – Frank’s son and Beatrice’s daughter. Infected with smallpox, Henry becomes the cause of illness and Lady Castlewood, after which she loses her former beauty, but does not deprive Esmond of her favor. On her money, he goes to study in the university, then to devote himself to a spiritual career. Arriving at the manor on vacation before taking the spiritual rank, Henry meets there with Lord Mohen, to whom Lord Castlewood lost a large sum of money on the cards. Mohan feels like a master in the house and tries to seduce
Esmond joins the army and takes part in the war for the Spanish inheritance. The general course of history interferes with the private life of the hero, who is drawn into a whirlpool of events of the widest social scale. A brave and disinterested youth, capable of noble deeds, he sees not only the front side of the war, described in the pages of the court chronicle and official historiography, where only the deeds and exploits of kings and generals are praised. He sees the wrong side: burning manors, devastated fields, sobbing over the corpses of fathers and sons of women, “drunken revelry of soldiers among tears, violence and death.” “I was ashamed of my craft when I saw these atrocities” – so later he tells the story of Henry Esmond’s war to Joseph Addison, writer, poet and journalist, a bright representative of the literature of the early English Enlightenment, appearing in the novel and trying to glorify the victory of English weapons. His brother on pen Richard Style becomes a close friend of Esmond.
In the novel, the “great” general, commander-in-chief of the British army, the Duke of Marlborough, portrayed as a soulless and calculating careerist thirsting for wealth and glory at any cost, is debunked. For him, war is “a game no more exciting than billiards” and he sends whole squadrons to death, as if he puts a ball in the pocket. For the sake of profit, he even conspires with the enemy – the French, and his fame is bought by the blood of thousands of soldiers and officers whom he despises, cheating and insulting. Blotched with titles and honors, he stints at the praise of comrades in arms. “Are we not fighting to make us rich?” – talk about him in the army. “Inside out” of his fame is corruption and venality. In the history of Thackeray was interested in the reverse side of the great events,
Once in the war in Brussels, the hero finds the grave of his mother, who ended her days at the monastery. Returning to London, he reconciles with Lady Castlewood, who now knows his secret. Her daughter, Beatrice, became a beauty during this time, shines at the court of the queen and many times she could already make a brilliant party. But she, unlike her mother, is too picky and vain, she needs a titled hero, like Marlboro, the commander-in-chief, and not the colonel, which is Esmond. He falls in love with Beatrice, but realizes that he has no chance. Finally, when she was already looking at Beatrice as an old maiden, she chooses her husband for a very titled – Duke of Hamilton, awarded the highest Scottish award – the Order of the Thistle and the highest English – the Order of the Garter. However, fate brutally laughed at Beatrice. Just before the wedding, the Duke of Hamilton dies in a duel at the hands of Lord Mohen, the murderer of her father. History again interferes in private life: Hamilton was a supporter of the Stewards’ house and wished for the return of the exiled king. In his death, the party of supporters of the Hanover dynasty was interested. King Charles, who lives in France under the name of Chevalier de Saint-Georges, constantly weaves intrigues with the goal of returning to his homeland and seizing power. His adherence to alcoholic beverages and a dissolute way of life are well known, so not everyone in England believes that he will be a great acquisition for his homeland. However, it is to him that he deals with his cunning plan Esmond in the last hope of winning the heart of Beatrice, who dreams of restoring the power of the Stuarts. Trying to change the course of history, the hero seeks to find happiness in his private life.
Esmond’s plan is based on the external resemblance between the young king and Lady Castwood’s son Frank, who lives in Brussels and is going to visit his mother in England. The King must use the passport of the young Viscount Castlewood and reach England under his name, and then be in the house of Lady Castlewood under the guise of her son until a certain moment, when his appearance should equally stun both friends and enemies, so that the latter do not have time to rally for resistance. This is what happens. However, when she saw the king in her home, Lady Castlewood understands that the hero, before whom she reveres, is “just a man, and not the best.” He begins to trail behind Beatrice and behaves very carelessly. Beatrice is sent to the village, and he rushes after her, forgetting about everything, and misses his chance in history. The Queen is dying, appointed a new lord-treasurer, sympathetic to Charles, the troops are ready to swear to him, and the color of the British nobility is ready to accompany him to the palace, but the challenger is not in London. He sighs under the window of Beatrice, who in the letter herself hinted to him where to find her, not understanding that her frivolity destroys the plans of the conspirators. Carried away with a skirt, Charles loses the crown – on the throne rises George, representative of the Hanover dynasty.
Disappointed with the king and throughout the family of Stuarts, for which the ancestors of Esmond were ruined and shedding blood, Henry refuses and from Beatrice, understanding all of her emptiness and vanity. He does not want to live in England anymore and goes to America with Lady Castlewood, in a marriage with which he finds solace in the declining years.