Our book today is Bracebridge Hall by that perennially underestimated giant of American literature, Washington Irving. He published this slim, utterly delightful book in 1820 to follow up (and capitalize upon) the success of his Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. published the year before – Bracebridge Hall finds our genial narrator again ensconced in the genial, rurally mythologized precincts of Bracebridge, and while he’s quickly filling us in on the framework of his visit, he effortlessly sits us down right next to him – Irving’s pitch-perfect, mellifluous prose already working perfectly, even on Page 2:
I am again quartered in the panelled chamber, in the antique wing of the house. The prospect from my window, however, has quite a different aspect from that which it wore on my winter visit. Though early in the month of April, yet a few warm, sunshiny days have drawn forth the beauties of the spring, which, I think, are always most captivating on their first opening. The parterres of the old-fashioned garden are gay with flowers; and the gardener has brought out his exotics, and placed them along the stone balustrades. The trees are clothed with green buds and tender leaves; when I throw open my jingling casement I smell the odor of mignonette, and hear the hum of bees from the flowers against the sunny wall, with the varied song of the throstle, and the cheerful notes of the tuneful little wren.
Irving idles through Bracebridge Hall with no strict itinerary in mind. His narrator has informed us that he intends to give us various sketches and short dramatizations of life around the rural seat, and that’s just what we get, all in such smooth, endlessly friendly prose that only the coldest hearts (that would be literary critics) could fail to be warmed. Irving is always so marvelously present in his descriptions – you can practically hear that husky Yankee drawl of his, at once so casual and so studied, as when he’s describing the turning of young men’s thoughts when spring arrives:
It was a beautiful morning, of that soft vernal temperature, that seems to thaw all the frost out of one’s blood, and to set all nature in a ferment. The very fishes felt its influence: the cautious trout ventured out of his dark hole to seek his mate, the roach and the dace rose up to the surface of the brook to bask in the sunshine, and the amorous frog piped from among the rushes. If ever an oyster can really fall in love, as has been said or sung, it must be on such a morning.
One of the things I like best about Irving is something James Fenimore Cooper liked too (well enough to imitate, anyway): his sumptuous identification with the natural world around him. Half of the stories and sketches in Bainbridge Hall are entirely about animals and the impact they have on the humans around them, and in this kind of sub-genre, Irving is even better than his friend Sir Walter Scott- better, but invariably smaller, with personal precision of detail always taking the place of nationalistic sweep. When Irving’s narrator describes how a group of rooks drive a “respectable old bachelor owl” from their territory to the nearby wood, he stops in his story long enough to tell us that this owl was aggravated by the move and could often be heard at twilight complaining about it:
The hootings of this unhappy gentleman may generally be heard in the still evenings, when the rooks are all at rest; and I have often listed to them of a moonlight night, with a kind of mysterious gratification. This gray-bearded misanthrope of course is highly respected by the squire, but the servants have superstitious notions about him; and it would be difficult to get the dairymaid to venture after dark near to the wood which he inhabits.
They have cushions for their express use, on which they lie before the fire, and yet are apt to shiver and moan if there is the least draught of air. When any one enters the room, they make a most tyrannical barking, that is absolutely deafening. They are insolent to all other dogs of the establishment. There is a noble staghound, a great favorite of the squire’s, who is a privileged visitor to the parlor; but the moment he makes his appearance, these intruders fly at him with furious rage …
There’s a soft autumnal glow around these tales, a gentle nostalgia that Irving manipulated masterfully to appeal almost equally to his English and his American readers. In Bracebridge Hall he’s very cannily summoning up an England quickly fading into an unreachable past – as lost to the English by the progress of industrialization as it was to the Americans by the Revolution (and the War of 1812). Critics who should have known better pounced on the book for being shallow and lightweight, for engaging in blatantly commercial twanging of readers’ heartstrings, just as they would do a century later with Brideshead Revisited, and in both cases the essential artistry is missed. There’s a sweetness to twilight, after all, and Irving knows how to bring it alive, as in his book’s wistful ending:
The company have now almost all taken their departure. I have determined to do the same to-morrow morning; and I hope my reader may not think that I have lingered too long at the Hall. I have been tempted to do so, however, because I thought I had lit upon one of the retired places where there are yet some traces to be met with of old English character. A little while hence, and all these will probably have passed away … the old Hall will be modernized into a fashionable country-seat, or, peradventure, a manufactory. The park will be cut up into pretty farms and kitchen gardens. A daily coach will run through the village; it will become, like all other commonplace villages, thronged with coachmen, post-boys, tipplers, and politicians; and Christmas, May-day, and all the other hearty merry-makings of the “good old times” will be forgotten.
There is no handy, popular edition currently in print of Bracebridge Hall (my adorable little hardcover was printed a very long time ago by H. M. Caldwell out of New York), but if you find one moldering away in the back room of some local used bookstore, by all means grab it (the shop owner will almost certainly be happy to finally see it go) and give it a read with unprejudiced eyes. Ideally, read it while sitting comfortably blanketed in a wing-back chair before a dancing fire one chilly winter evening – even if such a position arouses the ire of those furry little tyrants who guard the room. Irving was the first American literary figure of any world renown, but typically that’s all critics these days allow to him – but he’s better, smarter, funnier, and more worthwhile than that. Make his wider acquaintance; you’ll be glad you did.