Friday, November 15, 2013

The Stout Gentleman

Washington Irving (1783–1859)
From Washington Irving: Bracebridge Hall, Tales of a Traveller, The Alhambra

“I know of nothing more calculated to make a man sick of this world than a stable-yard on a rainy day.” Illustration by Karl Hermann Schmolze for “The Stout Gentleman” in the 1858 Putnam edition of Bracebridge Hall.
In 1821 Washington Irving and his British publisher, John Murray, were eager to profit from from the extraordinary reception accorded The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., which had appeared serially between June 1819 and September 1820. An international hit, the collection included Irving’s two most famous tales, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” as well as the cycle of stories that would later be known as “Old Christmas.” Until the early weeks of 1822 Irving worked feverishly on a sequel while he was traveling through France and England. The resulting volume, Bracebridge Hall, contained fifty-one tales and sketches set in and around a manor modeled in part after Aston Hall, the estate that had provided the setting for his earlier Christmas stories (and that can still be visited in Birmingham, England).

It’s unlikely that any follow-up could have matched the extraordinary success and acclaim that greeted The Sketch Book, but Bracebridge Hall was nevertheless well received by readers and by most critics. Four thousand copies sold in England alone, and Irving’s always-nervous publisher was able to stop worrying about his business for a short while. Francis Jeffrey, the notoriously difficult-to-please critic for the Edinburgh Review, admitted that he “had received so much pleasure from this book, that we think ourselves bound in gratitude . . . to make a public acknowledgment of it.”

Over the next century, however, the reputation of the book diminished, and by 1912 literary historian William B. Cairns would write that “only ‘The Stout Gentleman’ approaches in popularity” the more famous stories of The Sketch Book. Fifty years later, in his 1962 study of Irving’s writings, the literary critic Edward Wagenknecht would likewise single out “The Stout Gentleman” for praise. (In our opinion, Bracebridge Hall includes a number of other stories ripe for rediscovery, including “Dolph Heyliger,” “The Ghost-Ship,” “Annette Delarbre,” and “The Student of Salamanca.”)

While in England, Irving became close friends with Charles Robert Leslie, a British painter who had spent his childhood years in Philadelphia. In a memoir published in 1860, the year after both men died, Leslie fondly recalled their friendship and described how “The Stout Gentleman” came to be written. During a pleasure trip in the summer of 1821, the two men spent a night at an Oxford inn:
The next day it rained unceasingly, and we were confined to the inn, like the nervous traveller whom Irving has described as spending a day in endeavouring to penetrate the mystery of “the stout gentleman.” This wet Sunday at Oxford did, in fact, suggest to him that capital story, if story it can be called. The next morning, as we mounted the coach, I said something about a stout gentleman who had come from London with us the day before, and Irving remarked that “The Stout Gentleman” would not be a bad title for a tale. As soon as the coach stopped he began writing with his pencil, and went on at every like opportunity.

We visited Stratford on Avon, strolled about Charlecot Park and other places in the neighbourhood, and while I was sketching, Irving, mounted on a stile, or seated on a stone, was busily engaged with “The Stout Gentleman.” He wrote with the greatest rapidity, often laughing to himself, and from time to time reading the manuscript to me. We loitered some days in this classic neighbourhood, visiting Warwick and Kenilworth; and by the time we arrived at Birmingham, the outline of “The Stout Gentleman” was completed.

Notes: An upper Benjamin (page 62) is a type of overcoat. The word ycleped (p. 63) is an archaic word meaning “named” (e.g., a cat ycleped Whiskers), while slammerkin (p. 65) is an old slang word for a slattern. Belcher handkerchiefs (p. 67) were multicolored neckerchiefs named for the boxer Jim Belcher. The phrase sworn at Highgate refers to a popular custom at pubs in the village of that name, where travelers would swear nonsense oaths (such as “I shall not drink small beer while I can get strong”) while holding a ram’s horn attached to a five-foot pole.

*   *   *
It was a rainy Sunday, in the gloomy month of November. I had been detained, in the course of a journey, by a slight indisposition, from which I was recovering; but I was still feverish, and was obliged to keep within doors all day, in an inn of the small town of Derby. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.