Friday, March 25, 2016

The Adventure of the German Student

Washington Irving (1783–1859)
From American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps;
also in Washington Irving: Bracebridge Hall, Tales of a Traveller, The Alhambra

Detail from an engraving of The Last Moments of the Girondists, oil painting by German painter Karl von Piloty (1826–1886), from the August 1881 issue of Harper’s Weekly. Image from Wikimedia Commons.
The title of the first part of Washington Irving’s 1824 collection Tales of a Traveller (a sequel to Bracebridge Hall) is “Strange Stories by a Nervous Gentleman,” and it begins with the following lines, written by Irving’s fictional alter-ego, Geoffrey Crayon:
The following adventures were related to me by the same nervous gentleman who told me the romantic tale of THE STOUT GENTLEMAN, published in Bracebridge Hall.

It is very singular, that although I expressly stated that story to have been told to me, and described the very person who told it, still it has been received as an adventure that happened to myself. Now, I protest I never met with any adventure of the kind.
A further misunderstanding, claims Crayon/Irving, was speculation that the “stout gentleman” might be the still-anonymous author of Waverley, Ivanhoe, and other popular novels—a rumor started by Sir Walter Scott himself in the preface to his 1822 novel Peveril of the Peak. (Scott, who had known Irving for several years, was not publicly unveiled as the author of the Waverley novels until 1827.) Crayon further reports that, because of this rumor, the “nervous gentleman” had become “excessively annoyed” by friends and neighbors who believed he had had “a glimpse” of the mysterious author. Of course, all of them—Geoffrey Crayon, the nervous gentleman, and the stout gentleman—were figments of Irving’s imagination, and, Scott had merely played along by linking Irving’s fictional universe to his own.

One of the new stories presented by the nervous gentleman in Tales of a Traveller is “The Adventure of the German Student.” Curiously, Alexandre Dumas used a similar plot for his 1851 story, “La femme au collier de velours,” or “The woman with the velvet necklace,” and if you know the Irving story by that name it’s because some later collections use Dumas’s title instead. It is unknown whether Dumas was inspired by Irving or whether they both drew from a common source. The introduction to Tales of a Traveller acknowledges, however, that “the story, or rather than the latter part of it, is founded on an anecdote related to me as existing somewhere in the French,” and Irving revealed in his journals that the anecdote had been told to him by the poet Thomas Moore.

W hatever the case, it is a rather surprising work of fiction for Irving, whose supernatural tales are known more for gentle whimsy and wry satire rather than the Gothic horror found in this story—one that anticipates Edgar Allan Poe by a good twenty years. H. P. Lovecraft, in his famous essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” commended it for diverging from Irving’s “lighter treatment of eerie themes.”

Notes: The ancient Hôtel de Ville mentioned on page 22 was Paris’s municipal building, established in 1357 and rebuilt in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The building was destroyed by the Commune in 1871. The statue of Henry the Fourth (page 24) was torn down by the populace in 1792 and restored in 1818. The Goddess of Reason (page 25) is a reference to the worship of reason promulgated during the French Revolution by Jacques Hébert and others; the Goddess was personified by Sophie Momoro in an anti-Christian Festival of Liberty and Reason celebrated at Notre Dame Cathedral in November 1793.

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On a stormy night, in the tempestuous times of the French Revolution, a young German was returning to his lodgings, at a late hour, across the old part of Paris. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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