The Best-loved Book of the Victorian Era

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The Heir of Redclyffe, Charlotte M. Yonge, 1853

Get ready for the single most popular book of the Victorian Period (according to something I read, which I did not fact check, because this is a blog not a Ph.D. thesis. If any universities would like to award me a Ph.D. for this project, I will find some evidence to support that claim.) Everyone and their mom read this book. Girls, boys, men, women, cats, dogs and canaries all read this book, but you don’t have to, because I am going to tell you everything you need to know.

First of all the characters:

Guy Morville—the hero

  • He’s the main guy, a Byronic hero, but sweeter.
  • Floppy chestnut hair.
  • Somewhat effeminate, non-threatening build.
  • Heir to Redclyffe, a dark gothic castle perched on a peak overlooking rugged moors and stormy seas.
  • Guy’s father married the daughter of a traveling musician, much to the dismay of Guy’s grandfather. The father died in a tragic horse riding accident before the grandfather could forgive him.
  • Guy lives in constant fear of turning out like his impetuous father. He subjects himself to an absurd amount of self-discipline. Seriously, any time he enjoys something, he starts thinking “Oh shit, I’m having fun. My dad liked to have fun, and then he died. So, I better not ever have any fun.”
  • Loves animals.
  • Willing to risk his own safety for the wellbeing of any person or animal.

Phillip Morville—the antagonist

  • Half of my annotations in the books are just the word “douche” next to things that Phillip says.
  • Guy’s cousin and next-in-line to be Heir of Redclyffe.
  • Resents Guy, because he wants to be the heir.
  • Generally thinks the worst of everyone.
  • Pompous, conceited, hypocritical ass with a chip on his shoulder the size of Gibraltar.
  • Stands around at parties saying super pleasant stuff like “She’s very Irish” in a scornful tone whenever anyone says something nice about another human.
  • Involved in the military.
  • Part of the gentility, but doesn’t have enough money to marry.
  • Just about the least likable character imaginable.
  • Tall, handsome, manly.

The Edmonstone Family—there are 7,000 of them, but I’ll only mention the ones who matter. They are all somewhat related to Guy and Phillip.

Laura

  • The eldest.
  • No discernible personality, except obedience to authority, I guess.

Amabelle

  • Yes, that’s her name.
  • Loves flowers.
  • That’s basically it. (Women don’t need personalities, y’all.) She’s sweet and innocent and all that a female character in a Victorian novel is supposed to be.

Charles

  • Only son.
  • Crippled.
  • Funny.
  • The only one in the entire Edmonstone family with the good sense to see that Guy rules and Phillip drools.

Mother and Father

  • Also appear in the novel.

The action of the novel chiefly consists of Phillip trolling Guy and ruining his life. Phillip constantly belittles Guy. He’s a serpent hissing evil thoughts into the ears of the Edmonstones, trying to turn them against Guy. Phillip portrays him as a dangerous, temperamental person, a time-bomb whose horrible inherited traits bubble under the surface waiting to boil over. Meanwhile, Guy is doing his damned best and being sweet to everyone, but those silly Edmonstones have too much respect for Phillip to see that he’s the horrible, dangerous one.

Phillip begins to worry that Laura will fall in love with Guy, because Guy is smart and nice to her, and she watches him from the window while he does sexual things like bale hay with his shirt off (to make a soft seat for a lady to sit on. He’s a gentleman, not a farmer!). Phillip’s resentment toward Guy builds, because Phillip doesn’t have enough income to marry Laura while Guy can marry whenever he wishes, because he has that craggy castle. Phillip secretly proposes to Laura and makes her promise not to tell. Covertly getting engaged to the eldest daughter is the single worst thing a young man can do to a family, so Phillip is being a giant dirtbag by Victorian standards. His romance with Laura is revolting. He’s very paternalistic and moralizing, constantly telling her what to do as if he’s some moral authority, when he’s actually persuading her to violate her parents’ trust. Laura is essentially robbed of the joys of youth, because she’s overwhelmed by her guilty secret. Phillip sucks.

Guy and Amabelle fall in love and much to everyone’s (except Phillip’s) joy, get engaged. Shortly thereafter Guy helps a shady relative out with his gambling debts. Phillip witnesses this and starts spreading rumors that Guy has been gambling. Guy, having promised his uncle that he would never speak about their arrangement, refuses to explain the truth to the Edmonstones. Like so many frustrating literary characters, he does the honorable thing even when it’s the thing that causes the most pain to the best people and helps the evil people get exactly what they wanted. The Edmonstones disown Guy and the engagement is broken off. As you can imagine, Phillip is extra smug about this even though his secret love affair with Laura continues.

Eventually, after much soul-searching and doing nice things for people, Guy manages to be such a magical angel person that the Edmonstones forgive him. He marries Amabelle and they go gallivanting about Europe, being happy and young on mountaintops in Italy and so on. During one excursion silly little Amabelle tries to reach a flower on a steep slope and almost falls to her death. Of course, our dashing hero saves her.

The honeymooners bump into Phillip, who is still a worthless twit. Guy mentions that they are altering their plans to go to some Italian city due to reports of terrible infectious disease. Wannabe alfa-male Phillip just can’t let Guy be right about anything. So, he insists on going there out of sheer obstinacy. The more Amy and Guy plead with him not to go, the more he has to prove.

Phillip goes to Deathtown and despite his profound egotism falls gravely ill. Guy, being the best person in the known world, follows Phillip to Deathtown and patiently nurses him back to health. Selfless Christian that he is, Guy risks his health to save the succubus who has spent his whole life trying to screw Guy over. The power of Guy’s goodness converts Phillip. He realizes that Guy has been really swell this whole time and that he, Phillip, has been truly repugnant. After finally gaining the approval of a male authority, Guy is free to succumb to the illness that Phillip gave him. Yep, he dies. Phillip lives. Twist! Phillip has been the Heir of Redclyffe all along.

Everyone in the world is sad. Amabelle has a baby. She never remarries, because she just can’t.

And that’s the most popular book of the Victorian Era.

You might like The Heir of Redclyffe if:

  • you’re a teenager with great reading comprehension skills.
  • you want to access your sentimental teenager side.

You might not like The Heir of Redclyffe if:

  • you just don’t have time for long novels of insignificant literary merit.

Final thoughts:

It’s not terrible. Revision: it’s not terribly written. There are some good lines in there. The book is a bit trite, overly sentimental and long, but it’s ok. Like most bestsellers, it’s fun, but lacks substance.

A Victorian Defense of Unwed Mothers

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Ruth, Elizabeth Gaskell, 1953

 Today’s blog post comes with a real life embarrassing story!

I am with my mother and her friend enjoying the wild wonder of our cabin in West Virginia. Watching birds, looking at trees, tubing down the beautiful Cacapon River. Short of taking a trip to Wales, this is the perfect spot to get a picture for Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell.

Poor Ruth, an unwed mother abandoned by her lover, tries to kill herself by jumping into a Welsh river. To get the shot, I need to position myself on the opposite bank from the photographer, so he can get both me and the river in the frame. So, I put my Victorian dress and shawl in my backpack and, against Mom’s protests that the current is too strong, start the arduous process of wading across the shallow part of our rocky little river.

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Arriving safely on the other side, I scramble around the banks until I get as close to both the rapids and the photographer as possible. I put the dress and shawl on over my summer clothes and start trying to look forlorn and suicidal. A few minutes later, I am pretty confident I have something usable. Time to take some risk, try something different. “What else should I do?” I shout across the river to my Mom and her friend.

“Bend your knees!  Look at the water!” Mom shouts back, her voice just barely reaching me over the rushing river.

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Ever ready to oblige, I bend down as if poised to jump. As I stare intently into the churning current, I feel my left foot start to slip on the wet, algae-coated rock. “No! Don’t slip. You can get your balance back,” I tell myself, but my foot slides down the back of the rock into the water and my body inevitably follows. In my desperate attempt to stay grounded, I have fallen in a pike position, butt nestled in a me-sized cradle of rock, hands and feet poking out of the water.

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Hauling myself out, I truly feel the discomfort of sopping wet Victorian garb, including many feet of knitted shawl.

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Seeing my genuinely forlorn expression, my mom tells her friend to keep taking pictures.

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And that is the story of how I fell in the river in Victorian clothing.

Ruth, the eponymous anti-heroine, also survived her aquatic misadventure. Her benefactor, Thurston, finds her and takes her away from the river before she can fulfill her plan. He and his sister continue to care for Ruth. They help her to see her baby as her chance for redemption and grace. They even convince her to join them in their provincial home, disguised as a widow.

Gaskell chose to write Thurston as a dissenting minister with a physical disability. She characterizes him a man of strong religious and moral conviction, an outsider whose perspective enables him to recognize the folly of conventional thinking. He convinces his sister that while lying is sinful, shutting an erring human out from all human sympathy and (Christian?) kindness is the greater evil.

Writing at a time when women lost “respectability” by even mentioning the name of a “fallen woman,” when unwed mothers were turned out of their family homes to languish and die in poorhouses, Gaskell skewers prejudiced behavior towards unwed mothers. She shows poor Ruth as an orphaned young woman working in harsh conditions as a seamstress, with no one to guide her into adulthood. No one to explain what female behavior was acceptable and what lead to ruin. As Gaskell states “she was too young when her mother died to have received any cautions or words of advice concerning the subject of a woman’s life.”

Lonely, she accepts the friendship of a handsome young gentleman, Mr. Bellingham. Desperate for a glimpse of the familiar spot where she was once so happy, she agrees to accompany him to her old family home. Ruth’s employer happens to see her and Mr. Bellingham together and casts Ruth out with absolutely no one to turn to but…Mr. Bellingham.

(Sometimes I have a glass of wine while I write posts. This post is long, so right about here I had two.)

Innocent little Ruth ends up living with Bellingham as a fallen woman, because what the hell else was she supposed to do at that point? They go on vacation in Wales, where they won’t be recognized. Eventually, B’s mother shows up and does what any good mother would do: convinces her son to abandon his now pregnant lover. Now, Bellingham has a life of luxury and hedonism ahead of him and is free to marry any damn Miss Darcy he happens to run across (but he stays in love with Ruth forever, because she’s perfect). Meanwhile, Ruth is doomed to live as an impoverished pariah with no hope of providing a life worth living to her unborn child. Because, misogyny. This is when she starts to think that the bottom of the river might be the best place for her.

Fortunately for Ruth, kindhearted, farsighted, wonderful Thurston prevents her suicide and slowly persuades her that God will forgive her and she can still lead a meaningful life full of whatever kind of approval it is that Christians seek.

Ruth lives for her child, and loves him with the same love as married women. Cuz love doesn’t know what documents are down at the courthouse, y’all.

Later in the novel, a friend of Ruth’s finds out Ruth’s secret. She is tempted to tell, because she is jealous of the attention her suitor pays to beautiful Ruth. But, she realizes that she had advantages in life that Ruth didn’t have and the same thing could have easily happened to her if their positions were reversed. That’s right, a Victorian character checked her privilege. Compassion triumphed over jealousy, because Elizabeth Gaskell is a queen.

Ruth becomes celebrated in her tiny town for bravely tending to very sick patients, with no concern for her own safety from infection. Wait, I was just going to tell you the ending, but no! You should read it! The ending is fucked up, though. You will cry.

You might like Ruth if:

  • a human heart beats inside your chest.
  • you love a tale of redemption.
  • you like Tyrion Lannister, but wish he didn’t have to exist in a miserable, sadistic world. Seriously, Thurston reminds me of Tyrion, if Tyrion wasn’t subjected to a world of shit.
  • you love social criticism.

You might not like Ruth if:

  • you hate unwed mothers.

Final thoughts:

Ultimately, this book is a vindication of individual morality and forgiveness over hive-mind prejudice and hate. Yes! The kind of book that makes my heart contract with sympathy, empathy and envy. Sympathy for women, because it takes two to make an unwed mother, but only one pays the price. Sympathy because the price was so disproportionately harsh. Empathy with the author who saw a deep, searing flaw in society cause unnecessary suffering and sought to express the iniquity in the form of a novel. Envy because she did it so well and I will never write such a book as Ruth. This book makes me want to SWF Elizabeth Gaskell. I want to go back in time and become her. This book. Sometimes I just rub the pages on my cheek; that’s how much affection I have for this book. Totally worth falling in a river for. I love you, Ruth.

Everything You’ve Heard About Canada Is a Lie, the Susanna Moodie Story

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Roughing It in the Bush, Susanna Moodie, 1852

Just in case you forgot most of what you learned in your history classes: England had an overpopulation problem in the 1830s. Speculators tried to sell Brits on the idea of leaving England to try their fortunes in the New World. Canada, being part of the Commonwealth, was a popular destination for plucky, ambitious adventurers.

Sadly, there was no internet in the 1830s. Hopeful emigrants couldn’t pull up a “My Canadian Farm” blog to ascertain whether the get-rich-quick-in-Canada stories were true. Susanna Moodie and her family heard that in Canada the soil is fertile, the climate is congenial and the natives are welcoming. Best of all, there was some kind of homesteading deal going on where you could get land for free, kind of, if you farmed it. There was no farmland left in England, so they packed their bags and set sail for Quebec.

Things started to go wrong as soon as they sighted Canadian shores. Quebec was hit with a cholera epidemic. Instead of resting from her long voyage in the city, Moodie had to strike out into the wilderness with her husband and baby immediately.

Roughing It in the Bush is a narrative of the trials Moodie and her family faced while attempting to settle the backwoods of Canada. Those trials included:

  • soil not as advertised. Only somewhat fertile.
  • fucking cold winters.
  • fire burns down part of house and almost kills children.
  • rude, impoverished neighbors constantly borrowing tools and not returning them. (Moodie really did not like anyone born in Canada. Occasionally, she encountered another Brit and thoroughly enjoyed their company.)
  • husband had to leave a few times to participate in skirmishes between England and settlers seeking independence. He participated on the Loyalist/Royalist side.
  • constant fear of natives.
  • cold, cold winters.
  • constantly pregnant.
  • wild animals.
  • cold winters.

I found Moodie’s narrative incredibly compelling. Her sense of humor livens up what could easily have been a long list of complaints. Even though, I rarely read non-fiction, I was drawn to her story of hardship. Imagining her out in the woods, pregnant, struggling through dismal winters to keep her family safe and fed…touches your heartstrings.

Eventually, her husband got a job in a town and they moved out of the bush. Moodie describes this moment with an extremely elated sense of relief. Once she was safely established in civilization, she started writing to earn a bit of extra money for her 7,000 kids. She wrote Roughing It in the Bush to dissuade others from buying into the “Free Awesome Farms in Canada!” narrative.

You might like Roughing It in the Bush if:

  • you love Little House of the Prairie, but you just don’t think life as a settler could possibly have been as quaint and idyllic a Laura Ingalls Wilder portrays it.

Final Thoughts:

Margaret Atwood wrote a book of poetry inspired by the life and writings of Susanna Moodie. She’s kind of a big deal in Canadian literature. I liked the book. You might too, if you’re into this kind of thing.

Percy Shelley’s Gender-bending Pagan Fantasy

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The Witch of Atlas, Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1820

Shelley dedicated this poem to his wife and the ungrateful sow told him it was no good, because it “contains no human interest.” More evidence that Mary Shelley knew nothing about literature. She didn’t like that the poem has no plot. Shelley simply describes his character, her home, and gives a few examples of how she spends her time.

The unnamed witch lives in a cave illuminated by magic baubles. She is beautiful and compassionate. All the creatures in the forest, including the dryads, naiads, satyrs and so on want to live with her and dedicated their lives to following her. She refuses, because she knows she’ll grow affectionate towards them and mourn them when they die.

What does she like to do with the endless days of her immortality? Well, her mystical ancient forefathers left her a supply of magical trinkets and tools; she uses their power to amuse herself. She starts off by making herself a non-gendered flying creature to ride around on:

Then by strange art she kneaded fire and snow
Together, tempering the repugnant mass
With liquid love—all things together grow
Through which the harmony of love can pass;
And a fair Shape out of her hands did flow—
A living Image, which did far surpass
In beauty that bright shape of vital stone
Which drew the heart out of Pygmalion.

A sexless ting it was, and in its growth
It seemed to have developed no defect
Of either sex, yet all the grace of both,—
In gentleness and strength its limbs were decked;
The bosom swelled lightly with its full youth,
The countenance was such as might select
Some artist that his skill should never die,
Imaging forth such perfect purity.

From its smooth shoulders hung two rapid wings,
Fit to have borne it to the seventh sphere,
Tipped with the speed of liquid lightenings,
Dyed in the ardours of the atmosphere

 

Soon, she decides she doesn’t want to live in a cave anymore. She summons a troop of minions to build her a dome carved of ivory and hung with silks. But, her favorite pastime is messing with sleeping humans. She has the ability to mingle her souls with the souls of sleeping mortals and she uses this power to play pranks on them, such as making a king abdicate in favor of his pet monkey. Pretty neat.

Mary was right; the poem doesn’t have a plot. It’s not a story, but a detailed fantasy. It’ll go straight to the pleasure centers of those who like the sorcery part of the sword and sorcery genre.

You might like The Witch of Atlas if:

  • you love fantasy.
  • you love witches.
  • you love hermaphrodites.

You might not like The Witch of Atlas if:

  • you, like Mary Shelley, need everything you need to have a plot.

Final thoughts:

I enjoyed this poem. I picked it out of Shelley’s oeuvre, because I like witches, fantasy and magic. It certainly delivered the witch. Best of all, she’s a powerful woman with mystical powers who, for once, is not portrayed as an evil, corrupting influence on the hearts of men. Shelley was a loud, proud atheist. So, he could just write about a magic woman without stipulating that she was under the influence of Satan. Shelley wasn’t exactly a model human, but I appreciate the chance to read a 200 year-old piece of literature with no trace of Christian patriarchy.

Byron’s Don Juan: Origin of the Rap Battle?

Haidee finding Don Juan

Don Juan, Lord Byron, 1820

In his long poem “Don Juan” Byron reimagines the legendary Latin Lover as a luckless young man, tossed about by circumstance in 1820s Europe. Highly susceptible to feminine charms, he falls in love over and over again. We tend to think of Don Juan as a scheming seducer. Byron turns him into a well-intentioned, affectionate chap who inspires consuming passions in the opposite sex. Those passionate females create a lot of trouble for Juan.

As you might imagine, Don Juan has a number of lovers. Byron describes intimate scenes with more detail than previous poets dared to use. The poem was declared immoral by many critics. Byron’s publisher often hesitated to publish new installments and some of Byron’s friends begged him to stop writing it. However, many of his fellow poets declared it a work of genius and it was popular with the public.

I agree that it has elements of genius. When Byron manages to stay focused on his plot, the poem is amazing. His passages about falling in love are breathtaking. I read from one of them during my brother’s wedding ceremony:

     They look'd up to the sky, whose floating glow
       Spread like a rosy ocean, vast and bright;
     They gazed upon the glittering sea below,
       Whence the broad moon rose circling into sight;
     They heard the wave's splash, and the wind so low,
       And saw each other's dark eyes darting light
     Into each other—and, beholding this,
     Their lips drew near, and clung into a kiss;

     A long, long kiss, a kiss of youth, and love,
       And beauty, all concentrating like rays
     Into one focus, kindled from above;
       Such kisses as belong to early days,
     Where heart, and soul, and sense, in concert move,
       And the blood 's lava, and the pulse a blaze,
     Each kiss a heart-quake,—for a kiss's strength,
     I think, it must be reckon'd by its length.

He really captures the gigantic, encompassing feelings born of little, intimate moments between two people. No?

Byron very successfully describes these things too:

  • The bittersweet feeling of leaving your home behind to go on an adventure.
  • The charms of Middle Eastern women.
  • Don Juan’s courage in battle or when sparring with a lover’s huband/father.
  • Petty jealousies.
  • Scenery.
  • Unhappy marriages.

Haidee finding Don Juan

 

Unfortunately, he grants an enormous number of lines to insulting other poets, insulting social institutions and rambling on about his personal philosophy. I think satire is most effective, not to mention entertaining, when contained within the plot. When Byron directly attacks society, the quality of his poetry diminishes. Fact: philosophy is boring. Don Juan is over 16,000 lines long, but to me it only drags when Byron goes off on philosophical tangents.

Bryon dedicated Don Juan to Robert Southey. Sounds nice, right? I like Southey. Byron didn’t. The caustic, ironic dedication sets the tone for Byron’s other acerbic digressions. Byron’s good friend Shelley escapes his harsh pen, but the Lake Poets take a beating, in verse of course. He tears into Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats. As far as I’m concerned, he can have at Wordsworth, but Coleridge? Keats? Back off Byron; those guys are paragons. At first, the idea of viciously attacking other artists in your genre seemed really odd to me. Also, it’s a precarious perch for Byron, who was far from perfect. Then I thought of rap battles. We certainly have a contemporary equivalent of abusing your artistic competition in rhyme. Let’s pretend that Byron originated the rap battle, shall we?

You might like Don Juan if:

  • you want to read beautiful verse about the misadventures of a dashing young man as he’s tossed across Europe by Lady Fortune.

You might not like Don Juan if:

  • you don’t want to dig through Byron’s philosophy, social commentary and bile to get to the adventure story.

Final thoughts: I loved/hated Don Juan, but mostly I loved it. When it is good, it is very, very good. When it is bad, it is boring. The story is gripping and told so incredibly well, that I got really annoyed with Byron for all his digressions. I am very glad I read it. To me it was worth the long slog. However, I hesitate to recommend it. Realistically, most readers will not have the requisite patience

The First Vampire Story

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Vampyre, John William Polidori, 1819

Notable for being:

  • the first vampire story in English.

As personal physician to Lord Byron, John William Polidori ran in a literary circle.  He attended Byron during the wet, gloomy summer when Percy Bysshe Shelley dared his companions to write ghost stories.  Mary Shelley produced the beginning of Frankenstein and Byron wrote a fragment that became the basis of Polidori’s short story Vampyre. No one reads Vampyre anymore, but it was quite popular in its day.  Polidori drew elements from Gothic literature, which was all the rage in the early 1800s.

Like a good horror writer, Polidori takes a monster from folklore and recasts it to typify destructive forces in contemporary society.  Unfortunately for this horror story, Regency society was pretty tame.  The scariest part of the story is Polidori’s introduction to the myth of the vampire.  This description beats any horrors contained the actual tale: “these human blood-suckers fattened—and their veins became distended to such a state of repletion, as to cause the blood to flow from all the passages of their bodies, and even the very pores of the skin.” Sick.

The villain of Vampyre is the mysterious Lord Ruthven, a sullen, dark-tempered aristocrat who gains popularity in London society as something of an oddity. All the most fashionable Regency dinner parties had a vampire on the guest list. Our hero, Lord Aubrey, is a bad judge of character, so he decides to travel through Europe with Lord Ruthven. He soon becomes suspicious of Ruthven who delights in corrupting others. Aubrey courageously foils Ruthven’s attempt to ruin the reputation of a young noblewoman. At which point I was thinking “You need to go home and get your sister! Dude, you just got between a vampire and his prey. Didn’t you say earlier that you have a plump, delicious, naïve little sister at home? Go back to London, dummy.” Does he go back to London? No. He stops by Greece so he can form an attachment with a different young girl, who Lord R can then antagonize.

Lord Ruthven, Vampyre, Polidori

The idolizing of naïve, childlike females in early English literature continues to nauseate me. Aubrey falls in love with a child. Polidori never states her exact age, but he describes her as a girl, not a woman. A light, young sylph who flits about the Grecian hills chasing butterflies. She could out-Lolita Lolita. Aubrey becomes obsessed with her, but “Ianthe was unconscious of his love, and was ever the same frank infantile being he had first known.” Infantile. He is in love with someone who resembles an infant. How infantile is she, exactly? Like, is she potty trained?

Aubrey reminds me of Victor Frankenstein. When faced with danger, both men tend to swoon or stand speechless and motionless. They would make terrible firemen. Lord Ruthven does go after Aubrey’s sister. He even becomes engaged to her. Aubrey, of course, falls into a fit. He pretty much goes catatonic. All he needs to do to save his sister is say some words. For example, “Don’t marry him. He is evil. I forbid it.” She would have obeyed him. Aubrey fails to prevent the marriage and dies of. . .melancholy?

You might like Vampyre if you are writing a thesis on :

  • gender roles in early 19th century literature.
  • the origin of the horror genre in English.
  • literary heroes who suck at heroism.

You might not like Vampyre if:

  • you aren’t writing a thesis and you just want to read something good.

Final thoughts: This is a silly story. Not humorous. Trifling.

Washington Irving

 

photoDid you know that Washington Irving was one of the first American prose writers to gain any respect abroad?  British readers condescended to read his book of short stories The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon.  I will review his two most popular and enduring stories Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow for you today.  Both stories are set in Dutch communities in the Catskill mountains of New York.  If you haven’t tried to read English literature in chronological order, you may not be able to appreciate how happy a story set in the Americas makes me.  Familiar landscapes!  I am from the Appalachian region in Virginia and Irving’s mention of that mountain chain in his introduction to Rip Van Winkle made my heart sing:

Whoever has made a voyage up the Hudson must remember the Catskill Mountains. They are a dismembered branch of the great Appalachian family, and are seen away to the west of the river, swelling up to a noble height, and lording it over the surrounding country. Every change of season, every change of weather, indeed, every hour of the day, produces some change in the magical hues and shapes of these mountains, and they are regarded by all the good wives, far and near, as perfect barometers. When the weather is fair and settled, they are clothed in blue and purple, and print their bold outlines on the clear evening sky; but sometimes, when the rest of the landscape is cloudless, they will gather a hood of gray vapors about their summits, which, in the last rays of the setting sun, will glow and light up like a crown of glory.

Ah, isn’t that lovely?  Irving’s description establishes the Catskills as a place of mysterious beauty.  Later, our main character will have a magical misadventure in these mountains. Rip is something of a loveable layabout.  Everyone in the town loves him, except his shrew of a wife.  Rip Van Winkle is one of the classic henpecked husbands in literature.  Can you feel a feminist rant coming?  Let’s start with a quote:

The great error in Rip’s composition was an insuperable aversion to all kinds of profitable labor. It could not be from the want of assiduity or perseverance […] The women of the village, too, used to employ him to run their errands, and to do such little odd jobs as their less obliging husbands would not do for them; in a word, Rip was ready to attend to anybody’s business but his own; but as to doing family duty, and keeping his farm in order, it was impossible.

Imagine with me for a minute that you are a small town wife in the mid-1700s.  You rely on your husband to keep yourself and your children sheltered and fed.  If your husband fails to feed you, you will starve.  There is no divorce.  Now, every day you see your partner in life shuffle off into town with his dog to sit on the bank of the river with his pole all day, but he never brings home a single fish to eat.  He puts up other wives’ barns while your fence falls into disrepair.  Your children run about in rags, because you have no money to clothe them properly and the neighbors laugh at your pathetic, ramshackle farm.  In these circumstances, would you be an affectionate, tender wife?  Would you sing your husband’s praises?  Not even for a second.  You would be a stressed out, angry, exhausted wreck of a person.  You would curse your husband out every day, because every single day that he lolled about not providing for his family, your rage would be renewed in full.  My sympathy lies entirely with the “termagant wife” not with the henpecked husband.  She is stuck in a terrible situation and it’s surprising that she doesn’t just murder him.  Rant over. Well, rant paused.

One day Rip goes off into the Catskills to escape his wife and has a strange encounter with some men wearing old-timey Dutch clothing.  As you probably know, he falls asleep against a tree and wakes up in a strange world.  His beard has famously grown very long.  Unbeknownst to Rip, the American Revolution has come and gone and that lucky dog slept through the whole thing.  Not a bad deal at all for someone of his indolent disposition. Ultimately, Rip Van Winkle is the story of a man who cannot handle the duties and responsibilities in his life. He fails to support his family and he sleeps through the turmoil of war. Loser. However, Rip’s awakening is quite surreal and has captivated the imaginations of readers for hundreds of years.

The Headless Horseman that terrorizes Ichabod Crane in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a similarly enduring character in American literature.  Briefly, large-nosed, lanky schoolmaster Ichabod Crane lives in the town of Sleepy Hollow.  He is self-interested, and superstitious enough to fear the local legend of the Headless Horseman, the ghost of a decapitated Hessian—German soldier hired by the English army.  Ichabod finds himself competing for the hand of rich and voluptuous Katrina.  His rival is a large, handsome local bully.  Tension and terror ensue.

I thoroughly enjoyed both of these stories.  Irving has a mellow, richly descriptive style and a sly, but good natured humor that made me feel like I was hearing a story told by someone’s funny, clever grandpa.  His characters are unique and so well-defined that they have become legends in their own right in American culture.  Here’s an example of how excellent Irving is with characterization and imagery:

The revenue arising from his school was small, and would have been scarcely sufficient to furnish him with daily bread, for he was a huge feeder, and, though lank, had the dilating powers of an anaconda.

Why do we read, if not to encounter phrases like “dilating powers of an anaconda?”  Ichabod Crane is an Epicurean and an opportunist.  Through his eyes we see the town of Sleepy Hollow as an American Elysium, a land of milk and honey bursting with pastoral delights.  The images Irving conjures up when Ichabod goes to dinner at Katrina’s house are out of control.

You might like these two short stories if:

  • you love America.  Not the nation, but the geographical region.
  • you are like me and excellent descriptions of pastoral scenery really rev your engine.
  • you are interested in American folklore.
  • you like some surrealism, mysticism, humor or horror mixed in with your classic literature.

You might not like these two short stories if:

  • you’re foolish.

Final thoughts: Both of these stories are delightful.  If you haven’t read them or haven’t read them in a while, they are definitely worth your time.  Also, you can read them free online.  Rip Van WinkleThe Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is more fun, so if you’re only going to read one, pick that one.