Sunday, March 26, 2023


Washington Irving (1783–1859)
From Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now

“Washington Irving Room, Red Horse Hotel, Stratford-on-Avon,” c. 1910, postcard printed by Raphael Tuck & Sons, London. Other than the addition of the man in the middle, the arrangement of elements in the painting is virtually identical to that of a photograph included in A. Van Doren Honeyman’s illustrated guidebook Bright Days in Merrie England (1901). Image: eBay.
In September 1831 Martin Van Buren, the newly appointed British minister, arrived in London, where Washington Irving had worked for the previous two years as a secretary at the American legation. Irving had planned to resign his position that year and return to the States in order to focus on his writing and on the family business, but he agreed to serve as chargé d'affaires until the new minister arrived. Before Irving went home, however, he took Van Buren and his son on a three-week excursion through England, including an obligatory stop at Stratford-upon-Avon, the hometown of William Shakespeare.

A decade earlier, in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Esq., Irving had written about his first visit to Stratford in July 1815. His essay mentioned a memorable stay at the Red Horse Inn, where, for the weary tourist, “The arm chair is his throne; the poker his sceptre, and the little parlour of some twelve feet square, his undisputed empire.” He was in for quite a surprise upon his return, though, as he related to his sister Catherine:
We next passed a night and part of the next day at Stratford-on-Avon, visiting the house where Shakspeare was born and the church where he lies buried. We were quartered at the little inn of the Red Horse, where I found the same obliging little landlady that kept it at the time of the visit recorded in the Sketch Book. You cannot imagine what a fuss the little woman made when she found out who I was. She showed me the room I had occupied, in which she had hung up my engraved likeness, and she produced a poker which was locked up in the archives of her house, on which she had caused to be engraved, “Geoffrey Crayon’s Sceptre.”
Although literary tourists had been making pilgrimages to Stratford ever since the actor David Garrick had hosted the Shakespeare Jubilee in 1769, Washington Irving’s little essay in The Sketch Book exponentially increased the flood of visitors to the small market town. “Americans, in particular, followed the tourist trail set out by Irving,” writes Julia Thomas in Shakespeare’s Shrine, “and, as they did so, appropriated or laid claim to Stratford-upon-Avon, transforming this quintessentially English site of pilgrimage into a curiously American one.” Tourists visited the home where Shakespeare was born and lived, with its ever-increasing accumulation of dubious “relics” (ranging from the playwright’s tobacco box to the little chair used by his son, Hamnet, who had died as a boy), and the gravesite and funerary monument in Holy Trinity Church. Those willing to stay an extra day could travel to the estate of Sir Thomas Lucy, who allegedly had Shakespeare arrested and punished for poaching deer and who was believed to have been the inspiration for the character of Justice Shallow in The Merry Wives of Windsor. (There is little evidence for any aspect of this tale.) Much to Irving’s dismay, however, another destination had been added: the Red Horse Inn parlor and the room in which Irving had slept in 1815 had been turned into lucrative shrines of their own.

Four years later, in 1835, the journalist Nathaniel Parker Willis, an overseas correspondent for the New York Mirror, came to Stratford. “I had stipulated with the hostess that my baggage should be put into the chamber occupied by Washington Irving,” he reported to readers of the newspaper. Willis met with Mrs. Gardiner, the same proprietor who had hosted Irving:
“I have brought up, mem,” she said, producing a well-polished poker from under her black apron, before she took the chair set for her at the table—“I have brought up a relic for you to see, that no money would buy from me.”

She turned it over in my hand, and I read on one of the flat sides at the bottom—“GEOFFREY CRAYON’S SCEPTRE.”
When Willis and his companion inquired how she knew that this poker was the same poker used by Irving, she responded:
“Why, sir, you see there’s a Mr. Vincent that comes here sometimes, and he says to me one day—‘So, Mrs. Gardiner, you’re finely immortalized. Read that.’ So the minnit I read it, I remembered who it was, and all about it, and I runs and gets the number three poker, and locks it up safe and sound, and by-and-by I sends it to Brummagem, and has his name engraved on it, and here you see it, sir—and I wouldn’t take no money for it.”
“Among all my many loiterings in many lands, I remember none more intellectually pure and gratifying, than this at Stratford-on-Avon,” Willis concluded. “My sleep in the little bed consecrated by the slumbers of the immortal Geoffrey, was sweet and light; and I write myself his debtor for a large share of the pleasure which genius like his lavishes on the world.”

The number of accounts by nineteenth-century literary figures about their own pilgrimages to the Red Horse Inn could be extended infinitely. “At Stratford I handled, too, the poker used to such good purpose by Geoffrey Crayon,” reported New-York Tribune correspondent Margaret Fuller in 1846. “The muse had fled, the fire was out, and the poker rusty, yet a pleasant influence lingered even in that cold little room, and seemed to lend a transient glow to the poker under the influence of sympathy.” Even the usually skeptical Ambrose Bierce paid homage when he, “by the merest accident, blundered into the famous ‘Red Horse Inn. . . . I took my meals in the ‘Irving Parlor,’ seated in the ‘Irving Chair’ (duly labelled with a brass plate), stirred my fire with the ‘Irving Poker’ (‘Geoffrey Crayon’s sceptre’), and gazed my fill at Irving in every style hanging against the papered walls.” Bierce was particularly impressed that, unlike other overpriced English tourist sites, he was presented with “a most moderate bill for most comfortable and gentlemanly accommodations.” The British novelist Mary Elizabeth Braddon opens Asphodel (1881) during "the season of American tourists doing Stratford and its environs, guide book in hand, and crowding in to The Red Horse parlour, after luncheon, to see the veritable chair in which Washington Irving used to sit.” By the end of the century, Thomas notes, the glorified poker “was wrapped up in an American flag and only brought out on special occasions.”

Both the chair and the poker seem to have vanished from public view by the mid-1930s. Today, the building that housed the Red Horse Inn is a Marks & Spencer department store. Irving’s essay, however, remains in print and we present it below.

Notes: The town of Stratford-upon-Avon is in the district of Stratford-on-Avon, but the names were often used interchangeably in nineteenth-century sources.

The Santa Casa of Loretto [Loreto], in Italy, is said to be the house in which the Virgin Mary lived at the time of the Annunciation, miraculously transported to the spot by angels at the end of the thirteenth century, just before Christian forces were expelled from the Holy Land. British engraver and author Samuel Ireland published his Picturesque Views on the Warwickshire Avon in 1795. The book’s anecdotes about Shakespeare and his times (including those quoted by Irving) are local traditions and legends, but shortly before publishing the book, Ireland fell victim to a series of Shakespearean forgeries, ranging from deeds, letters, and manuscripts to two complete plays, all fabricated by Ireland’s 19-year-old son and many of which initially fooled numerous “experts.” Reginald Scot, a member of Parliament during the 1580s, published The Discoverie of Witchcraft in 1584, a skeptical treatise exposing the charlatanism behind conjuring and similar practices.

In his footnote describing country gentlemen in the decades after Shakespeare, Irving quotes English cleric (later bishop) John Earle, who in 1628 anonymously published the humorous work Microcosmographie, or a Peece of the World discovered, in Essayes and Characters, poking fun at contemporary society and manners. Irving’s next quote, about “Mr. Hastings,” is from Remarks on Forest Scenery, and Other Woodland Views (1791) by English cleric and travel writer William Gilpin, although Gilpin was quoting a passage from John Hutchins’s History and Antiquities of Dorset (1784). .

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To a homeless man, who has no spot on this wide world which he can truly call his own, there is a momentary feeling of something like independence and territorial consequence, when, after a weary day’s travel, he kicks off his boots, thrusts his feet into slippers, and stretches himself before an inn fire. . . .
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