Washington Irving: An American Original by Brian Jay Jones
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During a decade of service to the U.S. senate Brian Jay Jones wrote speeches, analyzed policy, and dissected 900-page bills, "which," he says, "he dutifully tabbed, underlined, highlighted, outlined and scribbled cartoons on—all skills which prepared him for the formidable seven-year task of digging through Washington Irving's letters and papers."
Friend o' the blog Josephine Damian wrote a stellar review of Brian's biography, which she called "by far the best I've ever read."
"Of the accomplishment that Mr. Jones has achieved with this book," Josephine wrote, "I think it best to repeat the quote made by another much feared reviewer—Edinburgh’s Francis Jeffrey—whose sentiments towards Irving’s work mirror my own on this most excellent and readable of biographies: We have received so much pleasure from this book that we think ourselves bound in gratitude to make a public acknowledgement of it."
Here's an excerpt from Chapter 9:
Set up: it's 1825, and Washington Irving is sulking in Paris after the critics have rather lambasted his latest book, Tales of a Traveller. He's carrying on a correspondence with his friend, the rascally playwright John Howard Payne, who was living in London, where he was trying to put the moves on a young literarily-inclined widow named Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Things went rather downhill for Payne from there:
In late June Payne had been invited to dinner at the Godwin home in Gower Place. As Payne walked Mary back to Kentish Town after dinner, they had a frank conversation in which Payne learned that Mrs. Shelley had developed something of a crush on Irving. "She said you had interested her more than any one she had seen since she left Italy," Payne told Irving, his eyes emerald with jealousy, "that you were gentle and cordial, and that she longed for friendship with you. I rallied her a little upon the declaration, and at first she fired at my mentioning that she talked as if she were in love. Upon her reply, I answered, 'What! Would you make a plaything of Mr. I[rving]?'"
Mary shyly asked for copies of any of Irving's letters—"Irvine" she called him—that Payne might have on hand, and Payne grudgingly obliged, handing over a dog-eared pile, along with a cover note declaring he would end his one-sided pursuit of her. "I have given way to an absurdity," he huffed, "and have only myself to blame."
Mrs. Shelley made reassuring noises. "Your letter gives me pain," she told the rejected suitor. However, she admitted: "W.I.'s letter pleases me greatly. I shall be glad to see Irvine's letters, and the handwriting . . . will become as clear to me as Lord Byron's letterless scrawl. As to friendship with him—it cannot be—though everything I hear and know renders it more desirable. How can Irvine—surrounded by fashion, rank, and splendid friendships—pilot his pleasure bark from the gay press into this sober, sad, enshadowed nook?"
Dutifully, Payne continued sending Irving's letters to her even as he prepared to leave for Paris for his meeting with Stephen Price. Mrs. Shelley maintained a friendly correspondence with Payne, and joked that her relationship with—indeed, she teased, her plans to marry—her "favorite I[rving]" was not proceeding as quickly as she had hoped:
[M]ethinks our acquaintance proceeds at the rate of the Antediluvians, who, I have somewhere read, thought nothing of an interval of a year or two between a visit. Alack! I fear that at this rate, if ever the Church should make us one, it would be announced in the consolatory phrase that the Bride and Bridegroom's joint ages amounted to the discreet number of 145 and 3 months.
The following day, a blushing Mrs. Shelley sent a follow-up note to Payne, asking him to speak well of her to Irving. "Tho' I am a little fool," she wrote, "do not make me appear so in Rue Richelieu by repeating tales out of school—nor mention the Antediluvians."
Payne gave Irving a parcel containing his correspondence with Mrs. Shelley, along with a note stating his intention to step aside and allow Irving to pursue what the playwright clearly thought was a golden opportunity. "I do not ask you to fall in love," Payne said, "but I should feel a little proud of myself if you thought the lady worthy of that distinction, and very possibly you would have fallen in love with her, had you met her casually but she is too much out of society to enable you to do so."
One can only speculate what might have happened had Irving and Mary Shelley created literature's first trans-Atlantic power couple. Irving, however, while likely amused, wasn't interested. "Read Mrs. Shelley's correspondence before going to bed," he noted in his journal that evening—the only words he ever wrote regarding the entire affair. Irving handed the correspondence back to Payne without comment.
Pop into the comments section to say hello to Brian. Be sure to mention Antediluvians. Stick around long enough to answer the following three questions and you might win a personalized copy of Washington Irving: An American Original straight from Brian's shelf:
1. Who would Brian pick to play Washington Irving and Mary Shelley in the movie version of his book?
2. How many love letters did Brian write to his wife before she married him?
3. Translate into modern English: "How can Irving pilot his pleasure bark from the gay press into this sober, sad, enshadowed nook?"